By Rasika Sundaram
Image: The Economic Times
In July 2020, a man was booked for sexual assault on a woman at a COVID-19 quarantine centre near Mumbai. After being admitted to a quarantine facility at Panvel, near Mumbai, the 25-year-old woman who had tested positive was raped by a known staff member who entered her room under the pretext of giving her a massage.
A week later, there was another incident at Delhi’s largest COVID-19 quarantine centre that tested and isolated asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 patients. This time, a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a man at the centre’s lavatory, while another man filmed the incident. The girl informed a family member, who filed a complaint of the incident with the police. The two men were arrested and taken into judicial custody
Four months later, in November 2020, protests were underway in Kerala, calling for the arrest of a 33-year-old doctor who had sexually assaulted a COVID-19 patient. The man had reportedly misbehaved with a lady during the time of her admission into the facility. Later, he took her to an isolated area at the hospital in the guise of a consulting doctor and assaulted her. Upon filing a complaint with the respective authorities, the man was suspended from the hospital. However, no further action was taken to arrest him.
Its important to note that the sexual assaults that occurred at the Panvel and Kerala quarantine facilities were committed by acquaintances, particularly doctors and staff members. According to the 2019 ‘Crime in India’ report released by the National Crime Records Bureau, 94.2% of sexual violence cases in India were perpetrated by someone known to the victim. 15.4% of survivors were reportedly minors (Crime in India 2019 , 2020). However, only 1 out of 4 acquaintance rape cases are reported to relevant authorities in India (Upadhyay, 2019). A few reasons for this include difficulty faced by survivors in registering a complaint with the police due to fear of being humiliated, the judicial systems inability to implement laws and policies aimed at providing justice for survivors, and a lack of support services for survivors (Everyone Blames Me, 2017).
Bearing in mind these facts, corona quarantine facilities may become enabling environments for acquaintance rape to occur. As per the World Health Organization report, many regions around the world have reported sexual violence at health care settings perpetrated by medical staff members on female patients. Holding attitudes and beliefs that support the idea of sexual violence coupled with the absence of institutional support from police and the judicial system could be potential factors that aid men to commit acts of sexual violence at quarantine centres (Sexual Violence, n.d.). Unfortunately, fear of the pandemic and the possibility of developing the virus does not seem to keep such behaviour in check.
India is predominantly a patriarchal society wherein the power to make decisions lies with men and women are viewed as mere objects. This structure causes a power distance in society between males and females, wherein women have lesser control. Males often take advantage of this power gap by sexually exploiting women. India continues to adhere to sexual violence laws that pose serious disparities. This, paired with poor investigation procedures, low convictions rates, and stigmatization of the victim creates a benefit for males to commit sexual violence (Sharma, Pardasani, & Nandram, 2014).
These social, cultural and institutional factors could be enabling reasons for sexual violence to occur at quarantine centres and women become easy targets for men at these sites as well. Quarantine facilities for COVID-19 were established in India with the objective of separating COVID-19-positive patients from the rest of the community to prevent the spread of the virus. Women who decide to or are advised to remain quarantined at facilities do so with the hope that they will be treated with care and respect from other inmates and governmental authorities. Horrifically, these women have not only faced the difficulty of dealing with the harmful effects of the virus, but also had their bodies violated by opportunistic men.
The fault may also lie in the fact that stringent measures to prevent such behaviour at quarantine facilities have not been taken by relevant authorities. Some of these measures can include thorough background checks of health care staff, educating health care workers and patients about the consequences of engaging in sexually violent acts, strict security checks of visitors including collecting personal information, and stringent policing of the premises by government authorities, staff and other inmates. The National Cooperative Development Corporation of India released an exhaustive set of guidelines for administrating quarantine facilities in India (Guidelines for Quarantine Facilities COVID-19, n.d.). However, there isn’t a single recommendation that states precautionary measures for sexual violence at these accommodations. It is possible that issues surrounding sexual and gender-based violence in India are disregarded or dealt with carelessly because of the disproportionate ratio of men to women in the country.
As per the United Nations world population data report, India has one of the highest gender disproportionate populations in the world (World Population Prospects, 2019). Its population demographics record 54.20 million more men than women. In a country where male dominance and gender inequality are entrenched in people’s attitudes and beliefs, men have a lot more to gain by ignoring issues surrounding sexual and gender-based violence as it gives them more opportunities to exploit women. On a macro-level, it is essential for both men and women to receive more education on sex and gender studies. By addressing gender inequality and the patriarchal structure in India’s society, men may become more empathetic towards other genders; hence, reducing the frequency of sexual and gender based violent acts.
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