“Imaginatively she is of the highest importance;Practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband…...” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
In her extended, fictional-essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 – March 28, 1941) invents a fictional, Elizabethan-woman (Shakespeare’s sister), Judith, who struggles against gender-based oppression in the sixteenth century. Like Shakespeare she’s also creative, but unlike him she finds it hard to create literary career in a patriarchal society. Although, she’s a woman born with creative gift of poetry, seeing no space for herself in finite Elizabethan-society, she chooses to end her life discreetly.
Like Shakespeare she could also have achieved highest feat in the literary world, but her feminine nature didn’t allow her to have a growth in literature. And ultimately, Woolf ends her essay with the sad but profound conclusion: a woman who wants to write must have a room of her own.
Through this beautiful essay, Woolf tries to elucidate many things – a sad state of women in early societies, their state of vulnerability, predicament and also tries to answer why there have been only a handful of great female writers in the past.
Now that we have moved into the twenty-first century, a technology-driven, liberalised-century, to what extent has it succeeded to liberate women in their own homes and spaces is a question?
While Corona fear continues to loom over the globe, almost a month back, I got a newsletter from one of the legal blogs to write a blog article about ‘Law in the times of Corona’. I started thinking what the letters actually meant but words failed to show up and I gave up the idea of writing on this theme. But this idea continued to disturb me until things became clear and thoughts started coming, and all I could do was to grab the opportunity and put those thoughts into words.
Covid-19 has been successful to teach the world real meaning of the ‘Rule of Law’. By treating rich and poor, men and women, aged and young, land lords and tenants, sheltered and homeless and global north and global south equally, it’s taught us the concept of ‘equality before law’ in the truest sense. But thenit has also unfolded many unknown bare realities before us.
I always wanted to be a human-rights lawyer and wanted to work for vulnerable sections of the society, particularly women and children, laborers, refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
Being a woman, I could feel our state of vulnerability, but never did I literally comprehend it until the current pandemic opened my eyes to the truth of being a woman. The truth is that in this free twenty-first century women are still struggling to get free rooms of their own. Current global crisis created by the pandemic has increased violence against women and there has been twofold increase in domestic-violence cases.
Gendered impact of Corona pandemic
“Limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades are in danger of being rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “Peace isn’t just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for COVID19 face violence where they should be the safest: in their own homes…...” Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General.
The expression ‘limited gains’ scares one to death, how can women be still vulnerable in the age of technology-driven globalisation? But unfortunately, it’s an undeniable fact, truer than true.
As the COVID-19 started to unfold, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, began to urge all governments to put women’s safety first during this pandemic, which was nothing but a shocker. Tragic as it is, despite rising awareness of gender-equality, feminist movements, pro-women conventions and declarations, violence against women, particularly domestic-violence, like never-ending pandemic, continues to loom over the world.
Social distancing and forced lock downs, which seemed the only solutions to the current global crisis, haven’t worked efficiently for all. They have added to the vulnerability of already vulnerable people, particularly women facing domestic-violence.
According to the World Bank and World Health Organisation (WHO) reports, violence against women is prevalent throughout the world and it’s not a small problem restricted to small parts of the world only, but rather is a pandemic affecting one-third of women, requiring immediate action.
According to the latest data published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and its partners Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University in the US and Victoria University in Australia, there may be 20% increase in gendered-violence during an average three-month lockdown in all 193 UN member states. The researchers have also expected that for every three months extension in lockdown there may be 15 million additional cases of domestic violence.
The UNFPA executive director, Natalia Kanem, called the data ‘calamitous’. “It is so clear that Covid-19 is compounding the no longer subterranean disparities that affect millions of women and girls.” The pandemic, “threatened the gains carefully eked out over recent years”. “We are very worried indeed….,” said Kanem.
The Indian National Commission for Women (NCW) has given a dire warning about the rapid increase of gendered-violence cases during the national lockdown. Rekha Sharma, the NCW chairperson, said, “Domestic violence cases have doubled than what it was before the lockdown”.“The abrupt increase in domestic-violence cases can be attributed to the national lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak which has locked the abuser and the victim together” said Sharma.
As per reports provided by the Sakhi One Stop Centres (OSCs), 89% of the total number of gendered-violence cases registered in these centres in the month of April were domestic-violence cases. Sakhi One Stop Centres are the centres specifically established by the central government to eradicate all forms of violence against women and facilitate them access to an ample range of services including police, medical, legal and psychological-support under one roof.
Violence against women, like pandemic, also seeks growth, transcends all boundaries, geography, cultures, religions, classes, affecting dignity, health, freedom, and liberty – basic and inalienable rights – of its victims, which makes women one of the most vulnerable class under current global crisis and thus makes them prone to discrimination under already existing inequalities. So, laws are not the only solutions to this never-ending menace.
Corona: An Eye opener
“By the position which women hold in a land, you can see whether the air of a state is thick with dirty fog or free and clear…...” Charles Fourier.
If hard-core, pro-women international and domestic laws were the only solutions to the gendered-violence against women, would there be any trace of this menace still left over the globe?
Ensuring a proper, violence-free environment to women requires not just legislative interventions, but also other basic improvements, which include improvements in service delivery, gender-equality, change in social norms, outlook, attitudes and much more.
As COVID-19 tested all the world leaders in different ways, only few countries, which include Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, managed to deal with this pandemic in a positive and balanced manner and common thing which all these countries share is a strong female leadership.
One of the main reasons behind the success of these countries to tackle the COVID-19 crisis of course may be gender-equality, and gender- equality is not only the outcome of pro-women laws these countries have in place but also of several other factors.
And of all those factors, ‘equal participation’ of women in making necessary decisions and policies is of the prime importance. This sends a crystal-clear message out to the world that women, like men, if given equal opportunities in every field – education, decision-making, policy-making peace-making, work, and politics – may outrightly outshine men.
Certainly, a broken base can’t bear the weight of a sturdy building. So, this ongoing pandemic taught us manifold lessons: while the most powerful nations of the world can spend billions and trillions on the armed forces, nuclear weapons, fighter-jets, wars, they can barely provide basic medical-amenities to their citizens, which is their basic human right.
Undoubtedly, twenty-first century has succeeded to bring the world community under the banner of uniform international trade law, but unfortunately, it’s failed to give teeth to the human rights law. It’s failed to cater to the basic needs of human beings and women, being one of the most vulnerable sections of the society, are still far away from the actual freedom.
To put it aptly, though the world cries hoarse about civil and political rights of the human beings, it’s failed to provide them the basic, minimal rights, and the basic, minimal rights, which form the basis for all other rights, have ironically become the goal itself.
The fact is that had women been provided with the minimum rights, primarily education, in the first place, they would have been liberated decades ago. Only a dedicated social movement can liberate the world from all natural and man-made catastrophes of the twenty-first century, else it will be hard for vulnerable beings to fight their battles in this complacent world and women like Virginia’s fictional character, Judith, will never ever get free rooms of their own.