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The Rampant Sexual Harassment of COVID Aid Workers

For women in India, the COVID-19 crisis has meant facing increased violence — whether at home, work, or while providing aid. Today, with the unrelenting second wave that has seen acute shortage of access to healthcare has meant that citizens are increasingly relying on aid and relief, with many being involved in providing relief as volunteers. Social media has become a primary tool for coordinating this coming together of ordinary people to overcome this mammoth of a pandemic , but for many women volunteers and relief workers, sexual harassment while undertaking their duty is a reality they’re increasingly having to deal with.

In September, a report by the UN highlighted how the COVID 19 crisis had led to the increase of violence against women around the world. Calling this the “shadow pandemic,” the report highlighted how COVID-19 had only intensified violence against women across the world with domestic violence on an alarming rise as lockdowns became the norm. This report came after months of studies across the globe, but in India, which ranked 140th out if 156 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index this year, the scale of gender based violence was visibly on the rise since early last year, captured by reports such as by National Commission of Women in early April 2020.

“My number is available everywhere, and because I have to pick up calls from random numbers, the harassment feels endless,” said Arjama Bakshi, a model and artist pursuing her undergraduate studies in Sociology who has also been heading the COVID Relief Belt Kolkata said. “I’ve received numerous calls late at night, with attempts to strike so-called friendships.”

Arjama says the harassment is tinged with homophobia in her case.

“As a publicly/openly queer woman, I’ve even been called a hijra, who is begging for aid.”

For her, the most alarming fact is that she’s witnessed several instances where both the perpetrators as well as victims were minors. “As my organisation has a lot of volunteers from schools and colleges, there is immense trauma amongst victims,” she said. “I myself am shocked when I see young boys committing such behaviours.”

For Bhavita Modi, a lawyer on a sabbatical, who has been involved in relief work in l New Delhi since the migrant crisis in June 2020 , the alarming rise in instances of sexual harassment has been something she’s only faced this time around. “Last year, I did not face any such incidents of fraud people or harassment [but] since April 2021, the nature of the relief work itself is different, a very specific issue has emerged- the misuse of phone numbers of help providers.”

Vandita Morarka, founder and CEO of One Future Collective, and Director of Board at CIVICUS notes that social sector workers aren’t afforded the same recognitions and protections as more traditional workplaces.

“Right now, because of the morality associated with the work in crisis support, at least there is more conversation, ” she noted, sharing her experience as a queer activist, facilitator and organiser.

To tackle this lack of protection frameworks, some volunteer groups are proactively involved in formal mechanisms of reporting abuse.

“If there has been harassment over the phone, we try to find out who the number belongs to and trace if we can contact their family or employers," Arjama said.

Unfortunately though, it’s a known fact that sexual violence of any kind remains grossly underreported, with at least 60 percent of women who’ve experienced it, as per a UN Women estimate not reporting it. Oxfam, in its analysis on the challenges of reporting domestic violence in India during a pandemic notes “unavailability of the formal support system” as one of the primary challenges, along with factors such as handicapped mediums of communication for pursuing complaints.

Women volunteers who have been using social media extensively to provide their relief work have also taken to it as a platform to share accounts of abuse and to innovate on “precautions. ”

“First, I have not put up my picture as my Whatsapp DP as it is the most used platform for connecting with patients as well as to confirm availability of resources, ”she said. “A lot of us are also sharing male volunteers’ numbers or not posting names while sharing appeals for help.”

Even as volunteers and relief workers have found both formal and informal networks for solutions, Swarna Rajgopalan, scholar and founder of Prajnya, an organisation aimed at gender violence awareness, noted in an article that the current increase in sexual and gender-based violence is both an early warning of a crisis as well as one of its most brutal consequences. She noted that there is a need for systematic support infrastructure, such as easy access helplines, secure shelter services along with bystander intervention awareness.

Organisations like One Future Collective have been working on initiatives addressing deeper issues with FemJustice, a crisis helpline providing legal aid and mental health support, as well as intervention rooted in evidence based research as a framework to address sexual violence at its roots. Vandita, however, notes that because of the exceptional situation that volunteers find themselves in, state cognisance in the first step.

“Even as there is a lot to work on, awareness on individual’s digital rights as well as timely consequences for perpetrators could be a good place to start.”