The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated several problems for women, one of them is mental health. The loss of income and mobility have compounded this.
Social and physical distancing are not an option for many women in India. They are not in positions of power within the household, they have no access to finances and, therefore, they are at greater risk of falling into poverty. They are increasingly trapped at home and have had to take on more unpaid responsibilities with schools being closed and family members requiring care. This has meant that women are more burdened than ever before. In rural areas, women are often heading single households as the men are in cities. They are unable to take care of themselves properly, and the idea of taking a day off is alien.
The loss of income and mobility, where these existed in the first place, have also resulted in women having to face situations of domestic violence, which has added to mental health challenges. In every way, the pandemic has reduced their ability to make decisions, and decreased their social power within the family structure. This has left them vulnerable to neglect, abuse and harm, all of which have contributed to lack of mental well being.
The loss of mobility has also led to women not being able to report instances of abuse or to seek medical help. They suffer from lack of community support at the best of times, the pandemic has made things worse for them. The networks which could have helped in the form of small non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are few and far between and, therefore, largely unavailable to women during this time. This increases the distress they suffer.
In such a situation of tension, women are bound to suffer a variety of mental challenges, ranging from depression to anxiety to a feeling of worthlessness. This, once internalised, worsens the situation. This increase in their trauma decreases their ability to take care of both themselves and their families.
For many women, the trauma can take the form of increased feelings of negativity, mood swings, attention deficit problems and physical conditions such as loss of appetite, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts.
The pandemic has diverted health care which should be routinely available for women. This has led to a decrease in reproductive health services which means that women have less access to contraception, abortion and pre- and post-natal care.
Fortunately, we have robust grassroots organisations in the form of panchayati raj, which has a fair representation of women. These should be activated to look into the mental health needs of women, apart from, of course, their physical well being.
The government must think of including the services of mental health experts in the panchayati raj system in a much greater way to ensure women’s safety. For a start, the government can work to use panchayati raj institutions to set up shelters for women suffering from domestic abuse. There must be more online services for women to report mental health problems, on condition of anonymity. The government can work with NGOs to increase awareness and look to deploy specialised care workers in mental health. There are several ways to reach out to women at risk in this time, and this is a time when they need the most support.
The views expressed are personal