Sexual and other forms of abuse of women and girls have been rampant across the globe, especially when there is a disaster setting. Society needs to do more
Everyday, millions of cases related to domestic violence goes unheard, unnoticed and unreported. Most of them take place behind closed doors. Domestic violence is a social evil in both developed and developing countries. It is the breeding ground for a patriarchal mindset. Below are several domestic violence stories, in India and abroad.
There is ample evidence that domestic and sexual violence increases in disaster settings. After Hurricane Andrew in Miami, complaints to community helplines regarding abuse by spouse increased by 50 per cent. In South Sudan, 21 per cent of displaced women reported having been raped (CARE International). As per a report by the United Nations, more than 1,300 reports of rape were recorded during April-September 2015, in Unity State of South Sudan. In Syria, where honour crimes were prevalent even prior to conflict, the use of rape as a weapon of war resulted in killing of many women and girls who were raped or even suspected of being raped (HRGJ 2016).
In 1980s, international laws and treaties were not openly speaking on domestic violence. A shift was observed during the 1990s, when there was an explicit focus on domestic violence against women. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) covers physical, sexual and psychological violence at home as well as outside. In 1999, optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, was brought into force by the Government of India from October 26, 2006, to protect women from domestic violence. Chapter II of the Act provides definitions of domestic violence as well as various forms of abuse. In view of the increasing cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, was brought into force from December 2013. It was an attempt to ensure a safe environment for women workers. As in most cases, the challenge is not with the laws and policies; it is the issue with compliance. A study conducted by FICCI-EY in 2015 reported non-compliance being higher than average in Indian companies. Thirty-six per cent of companies surveyed had not even constituted the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). There is a lack of awareness about penal consequences of non-compliance.
Instances of sexual assault and domestic violence had increased significantly post Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Women who resisted sale of their jewellery were beaten up by their husbands. The dependence of many single women-headed households on aid workers for relief assistance also puts them at risk of succumbing to the demands, including transactional sex. Following the flood in Uttarakhand in 2013, there were reports of loot and rape of victims in Kedarghati area.
Poor and displaced communities with increased economic pressure, often resort to negative coping strategies like child marriage and prostitution. Rape victims who become pregnant adopt unsafe methods of abortion as access to health facilities is also affected post disasters. This can lead to health issues that can be fatal.
One of the silent risks during the recent floods in Bihar (August 2016), was trafficking of women and children left homeless by the disaster, for slavery, begging and prostitution. Eighty-seven per cent of housemaid/servants in India are women and 13 per cent are men (NIC 2004), making women and girls a preferred choice for trafficking. Women trapped into the flesh trade because of sex trafficking, prefer to remain silent as the law in India punishes the women and the pimps involved rather than the customers.
There are multiple layers of vulnerability of women that put them at risk to violence in disaster settings. They include poverty, social construct, shelter, caste, exclusive governance, gender roles and disability. Ranging from domestic violence faced at the household level in a highly patriarchal society, to sexual abuse by others in the absence of privacy when displaced due to disasters or trafficking, the violence against women has many faces. Risks increase manifold if the women and girls are persons with disability, or if they belong to a Dalit or Adivasi community, as the perpetrators of violence treat them as powerless and voiceless objects.
Education and support from civil society are the most important tools that can be used by women to fight such gender inequality and domestic violence issues and the possible risk factors.
(The writer is head, Disaster Management Unit, CARE India)