The Covid-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to many vulnerabilities. With home quarantine proving to be a successful strategy, we are finally catching up and practicing it. Bangladeshi narratives about home quarantine now discuss how home is the safest place to ensure sanitisation, hygiene and disinfection.
But what if home is where you are most unsafe? While we feel safer with home quarantine, there is one group of people who may suffer very differently and much severely from this social distancing—the victims/survivors of domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one out of three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, making domestic violence "the most widespread but least reported human rights abuse". With covid-19, the risk of abuse has increased. Newsweek reported that America is seeing a rise in child-abuse related injuries, often resulting from children spending more time at home with abusive parents. According to the Deputy Executive Director of United Nations Women, "the very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence."
The situation is no different in Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), February 2020 saw a sharp rise in rape. It is not hard to guess that unreported cases of domestic violence will be no exception. Because domestic violence happens at the hands of people living under the same roof or sharing the same bed as the victim, it is hard to identify and hardest to prove, and these victims are the least visible in society. In the case of domestic abuse, much of it happens at the hand of family members who can abuse, assault, humiliate and torture women and children. Domestic violence can also be verbal, financial, psychological and sexual.
We now need to think carefully about how covid-19 home quarantine can accelerate these risks. Due to the countrywide lockdown and zero mobility, vulnerable women and children are trapped within the confines of their homes with their abusers 24/7. Earlier, they might have been safe for a limited time while the abusers were away for work. But now they are constantly present, with abusers having a stronger ability to control and terrify their victims.
Added to this is the fact that few Bangladeshi men share the domestic workload. With home quarantine, women are facing increased work pressure. If an exhausted wife dares to refuse husband's advances at night, she might risk receiving forced intercourse. And thanks to our colonial laws, such forced sex can't legally be considered marital rape.
Another dangerous effect of long isolation is a mental health crisis. Office going people may face reactive depression from sitting at home, which can lead to stress, frustration and anger. Stressed people often release their frustration on the weaker members of their family—children, wives and elderly parents. Instead of seeking mental health assistance, you create a suffocating environment at home by blaming everyone around you. Victim blaming is a strong weapon of domestic abuse. The abusers may threaten family members by denying necessary amenities or making them feel guilty for falling sick. In the US, cases have been reported where perpetrators have threatened to throw "disobedient wives" out on the streets so they can catch coronavirus and suffer.
And one can't emphasise enough the risks of child abuse. Home quarantine means children are more available and closer to family members and in Bangladesh, this can include distant relatives living with them. Stressed parents may physically punish their child unduly. Children may be forced to play with these relatives or live-in domestic helpers who might be potential abusers. These children have nowhere to hide or escape, and their abuse won't be immediately identified. The psychological trauma these children would face in that situation is irreversible.
But what makes the risk greatest for children and (many) women is that they have little or zero access to information. Firstly, they may not understand that what's happening to them is domestic violence. Secondly, they may have no money. They may never have taken a rickshaw on their own before. How can they move to safety? An abused victim needing medical support won't know how to find a hospital.
Our social mindset doesn't help either. Many Bangladeshis believe domestic violence is a private affair. Even during normal times, police rarely entertain complaints of domestic violence unless it involves fatal physical injury, dowry claims etc. With the covid-19 crisis, people may even think that talking about domestic violence is a luxury. This severely affects the victims. For male victims, there is the additional stigma of kapurushotto (cowardice), preventing adolescent boys and adult men from speaking up. And as hospitals, medical professionals and law enforcement agencies are busy with corona detection and isolation, they may be unable/unwilling to help victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
This can make home quarantine a double-edged sword—home quarantine increases the violence, but it is also the only way to contain the spread of virus. In that case, what can we do to protect the potential victims? USA and Canada have actively acknowledged the increased risks of domestic violence during isolation, and are making continuous announcements about helplines and shelter homes. Bangladesh needs to follow suit.
Print and electronic media can play a big role here. BTV and Bangladesh Betar can give announcements to raise awareness and sensitise people about the harmful effects of family abuse, as well as share information on how to contact the police and one-stop crisis centres via hotlines. The police force should be more responsive at the district and sub-district levels, as well as in the metropolitan areas. Government agencies must be careful not to dismiss complaints of abuse. Television channels can put information on scrolls. Rights based organisations and mosques can raise awareness using loudspeakers. These announcements should be in a language understandable to the general people. Telecommunication companies can send informative bulk SMS to its users. Religious leaders and even social media influencers can use digital platforms to talk about domestic violence. Social media posts mocking women or patronising angry men in isolation should be reported immediately.
During these hard times, we are slowly reviving a part of our psyche that has been asleep for quite some time—thinking about the greater good. Let us not leave anyone behind; whether they are the victims of coronavirus or survivors of domestic or child abuse, or anyone else who may become more vulnerable during this self-quarantine period.
Arpeeta Shams Mizan is Assistant Professor of Law at University of Dhaka, and legal analyst (Bangladesh) at iProbono.