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Shadow Pandemic – Meaning, Challenges, Way Ahead

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From Current Affairs Notes for UPSC » Editorials & In-depths » This topic

With the coronavirus pandemic roiling across the world, most of the government measures focus on containing the spread of the infection. In this situation, social issues, many of which are gender-related, are given lesser priority. This, along with the lockdown orders, has led to increased instances of violence against women, creating a new “shadow pandemic” amid the COVID-19 crisis.

shadow pandemic

This topic of “Shadow Pandemic – Meaning, Challenges, Way Ahead” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is “Shadow Pandemic”?

  • According to data and reports from those on front lines, all types of violence against women and girls, especially the domestic violence, has spiked after the COVID-19 lockdowns across the world.
  • This rise in gender-based violence is termed as “shadow pandemic” by the UN Women.
  • The UN Women, the UN entity dedicated to gender equality and women empowerment, has urged the member states to include prevention of violence against women in their strategy to counter the pandemic.
  • It has launched the Shadow Pandemic public awareness campaign, focusing on the global increase in domestic violence amid the coronavirus crisis.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic escalated violence against women?


  • On April this year, the UN Women stated that 243 million women and girls between the age of 15 and 49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in last 12 months.
  • This number is likely to have increased further as the security, health and money worries heighten tensions caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • As per the data compiled by the UN body, there has been a significant increase in domestic violence cases and demand for emergency shelters across the world.


Before pandemic:

  • According to the National Family Health Survey (NHFS-4, 2018), every third woman in India suffers sexual or physical violence at home.
  • 27% of women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15.
  • Most of the times, perpetrators of this violence are husbands, who unleash either physical (27%) or emotional violence (13%).
  • For unmarried women, the experience of physical violence stems from mothers or stepmothers (56%), fathers or stepfathers (33%), sisters or brothers (27%) and teachers (15%).

During pandemic:

  • In India, since the country entered into lockdown in March, there has been a surge in complaints related to violence against women and girls.
  • A new trend is also witnessed, involving married women asking to be rescued from parental homes – mothers, fathers, stepmothers and siblings are also being accused of domestic violence.
  • The National Commission for Women received 2,914 complaints of crimes against women in July this year. This is the highest since November 2018, when the MeToo movement was at its peak in the country.
  1. Of these, 660 complaints were related to domestic violence alone.
  2. Of the 2,914 cases, the highest number of complaints were received under the right to live with dignity, which takes into account the emotional abuse of women.
  3. Other complaints involved harassment of married women, cybercrimes, police’s apathy towards women, sexual harassment etc.
  • The situation is much worse at the ground reality as many remain unreported due to the constant presence of the abuser at home.
  • According to the official data of the NCW, domestic violence complaints have increased by 2.5 times since the nationwide lockdown began in India.
  • In 2019, the commission received 607 cases between March and May. During the same period this year, there were 1,477 cases.
  • As per the data provided by an NGO, there were 22 complaints on average each month before the lockdown.
  • The lockdown has increased the number of complaints to 57 on average per month through emails and helplines.

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What are the causes of shadow pandemic?

  • According to the UN Women, the “shadow pandemic” is due to economic, health and security strains brought on or worsened by movement restrictions, crowded homes and reduced access to peer groups and social networks.
  • Some of the reasons behind physical and verbal abuse reported are the inability to efficiently manage resources, not serving food on time and the inability to procure ration/relief material.
  • Also, physical force and abuse were common by male members of the family either because they felt stressed at being incapable of providing for their families due to the loss of livelihood or because of their habitual consumption of alcohol or cannabis.
  • According to the NFHS-4 data, 71% of women whose husbands got drunken often encountered spousal violence – either physical or sexual. This situation has been worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
  • Other reasons include limited education, mobility, access to work opportunity, ownership and negligible control over resources like land and finance.

What are the legal solutions for crimes against women?

Indian Constitution:        

  • Article 14 provides for equality before the law. The difference in treatment between men and women by the state is prohibited on grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth.
  • Article 21 provides for the right to live with dignity.

Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA):

  • It is a civil law that ensures:
  1. Protection of married women against men
  2. Protection of unmarried women who are in live-in relationships.
  3. Protection of women from family members, including mothers, grandmothers etc.
  • Under this law, women can pursue security against domestic violence, abuse and battery.
  • The law expands the definition of domestic violence to include any act (omission or commission) which harms, injures or endangers the physical or mental well-being of a woman.
  • This includes physical, verbal, emotional (including not having a child or a male child, marrying without consent), economic abuse (including violence related to stridhan, dowry and property) and sexual abuse.
  • They can also claim financial compensation and the right to live in their shared household.
  • Furthermore, the victim can even ask for maintenance from the abuser in case they are living apart.
  • This Act guarantees that women don’t get kicked out of their own homes and can maintain themselves in case they have faced violence.
  • Under this law, a Magistrate can pass a protection order to ensure that the abuser does not contact or is in close proximity to the survivor.
  • As per this Act, state governments must appoint protection officers in each district. The protection officers must be preferably women, members of NGOs or governmental organisations. They must have 3 years of experience in the social sector. They must act as a liaison between the aggrieved women and the system and are empowered to provide first-hand assistance to an aggrieved woman by informing her of her rights, making a domestic incident report, submitting an application and ensuring that facilities like legal aid, shelter homes and medical facilities are provided.

Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961:

  • It is criminal law, under which the givers and receivers of dowry may be prosecuted.
  • Dowry demands constitute a reason for domestic violence in many households in India.
  • This is the main reason for the existence of this law.
  • Under this law, if an individual takes, gives or even demands dowry, they can be punished with imprisoned for 6 months or a fine of Rs.5,000 may be levied on the offender.
  • Several states like Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh etc. have amended this Act to give it more teeth.
  • Dowry under this Act includes property, goods or money given by either party to the marriage, by the parents of either party or by anyone else in connection with the marriage.
  • The Act applies to persons of all religions in India.

Other laws related to dowry:

  • If a woman dies due to physical injuries or if her death occurs under normal circumstances within 7 years of marriage and if shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relative for or in connection with any demand of dowry, such death will be called dowry death and that husband/relative will be deemed to have caused her death under IPC 304B.
  • Section 113B in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 was inserted for the presumption as to dowry death.

Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code:

  • It is a criminal law that keeps check of domestic violence.
  • Section 498A of the IPC states that if a husband or relative of the husband subjects wife to cruelty, he/she shall be punished with imprisonment for up to 3 years and shall be liable to fine.
  • Cruelty under this law has been given broad scope. It may refer to any conduct that may lead to a woman committing suicide or which causes grave injury to her life or health, including mental health.
  • It also includes harassment in the name of dowry.

Abetment of Suicide:

  • If any individual commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide shall be punished under IPC 306 with imprisonment of up to 10 years and shall be liable to fine.
  • Section 113A of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 relates to the presumption as to the abetment of suicide.
  • Offences related to dowry and abetment of suicide are cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable.

Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code:

  • Under section 375 of IPC, any conduct is called rape if sexual intercourse:
  1. Occurs against the woman’s will or consent
  2. With her consent, which was obtained through coercion
  3. With her consent when the man knows that he is not her husband or when she thinks that he is her lawful husband or when she is of unsound mind or is intoxicated by herself or the man.
  4. With/without consent when she is under 16 years of age.
  • Under this section, sexual intercourse between the married couple, with the wife being not under 15 years, is not a rape
  • This means that it does not include marital rape in its ambit.

Other laws to address rape cases:

  • Rape of women and minor children is an offence under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.
  • The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018 amended these two laws along with the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
  • The Act provides for more stringent punishment for perpetrators of rape, especially of girls below 16 and 12.
  • Punishment for the rape of a girl less than 12 years has been provided with the minimum jail term of 20 years, which may go up to life in prison or death sentence.
  • The punishment for gang rape of a girl below 16 years will invariably be life imprisonment.
  • The minimum punishment in case of rape of woman has been increased from imprisonment up to 7 years to 10 years, which is extendable to life imprisonment.
  • The prescribed time limit for the completion of the investigation of all cases of rape is 2 months.
  • The deadline for the completion of trial in all rape cases will be two months.
  • The time limit for disposal of appeals in rape cases is prescribed to be within 6 months.

Family Courts Act, 1984:

  • The Act was enacted to promote conciliation in and secure speedy settlement of disputes pertaining to marriage and family affairs.

The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986:

  • The Act prohibits the indecent representation of women through advertisement, publications, writings, paintings, figures or in any other manner.

Causing miscarriages:

  • Section 312 IPC: Whoever voluntarily causes miscarriage will be punishable with imprisonment for up to 3 years or with fine or with both. This does not apply to miscarriages caused to save the woman’s life. However, it does apply to a woman, who intentionally causes herself to miscarry.
  • Section 313 of IPC: Whoever causes miscarriage without the consent of the woman will be punished with imprisonment for up to 10 years or with a fine.
  • Section 314 of IPC: Anyone who causes the death of a woman with the intention to cause miscarriage will be punished with imprisonment of up to 10 years and will be liable to fine.
  • Section 315 of IPC: Whoever, before the birth of any child, does any act with the intension to prevent the child from being born alive or causes it to die after birth shall be punished with imprisonment that may extend for 10 years or with fine or both.
  • Section 316 of IPC: If anyone causes the death of a quick unborn child, he/she would be guilty of culpable homicide. He/she shall be punished with imprisonment up to 10 years and shall be liable to fine.

What are the measures taken by the government to address domestic violence?


  • Several government agencies like National Commission for Women have launched helplines for domestic violence victims.
  • Non-Governmental Organisations are also operating 24 hours helplines to help victims of domestic violence by transferring them into a secure place and providing them with counselling.
  • The Health Ministry has collaborated with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences to provide psychological support for women facing domestic violence through a helpline.

Other measures:

  • The Delhi High Court has directed the concerned authorities to consider appointing temporary protection officers until regular appointments are made to address the shadow pandemic.
  • States like Odisha and Tamil Nadu have started a “phone-up programme” and directed the concerned departments and social welfare workers to check up on or contact women who had earlier complained about domestic violence.
  • The Ministry of Women and Child Development has conducted special sensitisation webinar for helpline personnel on how to provide psychological and legal counselling. It has directed district collectors/district magistrates to provide logistical support for helpline personnel and to make duty rosters for concerned officers to enable them to help the victims.
  • The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has directed all courts in Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir to treat domestic violence cases as ‘urgent’ and has called on the government to designate certain pharmacies or grocery stores as safe places for women, increase the availability of tele/online legal and counselling services and conduct awareness campaigns on domestic violence.

What are the challenges?

More focus on reactionary measures:

  • The increase in cases of violence against women and girls confirms that all measures to prevent or stall violence have failed.
  • The reaction in the form of increased stringency of punishment for such crimes is largely an expression of helplessness and frustration.
  • Measures related to prevention and rehabilitation have largely failed.
  • Addressing the deep-rooted social problems in India’s patriarchal society is a need of the hour as laws alone are insufficient.

Issues with reporting:

  • It has been reported that women in India are often afraid to report violence due to the fear of being stigmatised and their inability to overcome institutional barriers in the criminal justice system that offers no protection to victims or witnesses.
  • Even if they report abuse, there are other challenges like uncooperative officials who refuse to file even a First Information Report (FIR), the first step to initiating a police investigation. This is especially true for the economically and socially marginalised like sex workers, people with disabilities etc.
  • During the COVID-19 lockdown, the situation has been worsened due to the ability of the abuser to exercise constant surveillance, reduced working of courts, inability and fear to travel to counselling centres etc.

Inaccessibly to information:

  • Many remote solutions to gender-based violence depend on technology.
  • However, girls and women do not always have the same access to and control of technology as that of men.
  • A recent report indicates that only 38% of women in India own a mobile phone.
  • This limits their ability to receive information and remote support
  • Thus, there is an absence of effective targeting of women and girls with accurate and trustworthy information on how to protect themselves from gender-based violence.

Issues with capital punishment:

  • There is no evidence supporting capital punishment for rapists being more effective than life imprisonment.
  • In fact, it may become counterproductive, as it would push the rapists to kill the victims to avoid exposure and capital punishment.
  • Thus, it does not in any way deter the instances of rape cases in the country.

Lack of specialised training:

  • Government officials and social workers require specialised training for delivering services in an emergency setting.
  • There is a need for training for using international best practices and survivor-centred approaches, which addresses the increased cases of violence against women and girls amid the pandemic-led crisis.

Challenges caused by COVID-19 related measures:

  • The stay-at-home orders have increased risks of some gender-based violence survivors in their own homes as they are confined with their abusers.
  • Restriction on movement adds further strains to households by exacerbating gender-based violence. This is because such measures hinder complaints due to the fear of repercussions and the lack of traditional sources of help.
  • Some services and spaces that normally address instances of gender-based violence have been repurposed to deal with COVID-19 infections. This has led to a decline in the self-reporting.
  • Groups that were marginalised before the outbreak like refugees, sex workers etc., are further stigmatised as they are blamed for spreading the coronavirus. This further increases the vulnerability to gender-based violence in these groups.
  • Interventions to counter gender-based violence during the pandemic have been more focused on addressing intimate partner violence.
  • Lesser focus is given to other gender-based violence issues like child marriage, survival sex and sexual exploitation.
  • Additionally, there had been an increase in home drinking or forced abstinence from alcohol due to the closure of local wine shops. This has aggravated the complicated relationship between alcohol and domestic violence.
  • In-person consultations are vital for effectively countering gender-based violence. The challenges regarding the in-person consultation include the need for social distancing, privacy concerns, suspension of transportation facilities etc.

What can be the way forward?

Inclusive support:

  • Crimes related to violence against women and girls must be given higher priority by the government, with the strengthening of technology-based solutions like helplines, online counselling etc.
  • Those victims with no access to phones and internet must be provided with expanded social support and pro-active police and justice services.
  • Women police officers must be authorised to take measures to address the complaints related to gender-based violence. This ensures a gender-sensitive approach to these social problems.

Making gender-based violence a mainstream issue:

  • This can be done through sensitisation campaigns and platforms that help women share, exchange and collaborate with each other to deal with various issues related to gender-based violence both at home and at work.
  • Awareness campaigns on how to recognise and address gender-based violence must be provided at the grass-root levels.
  • This is vital as many women and girls in India accept gender-based violence as a part and parcel of their lives due to the patriarchal setup of society.
  • It should be noted that these awareness campaigns must be carefully designed in such a way that they avoid inadvertently creating additional harm, ensuring respect and support for the survivors.

Role of ASHA workers:

  • Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA workers) are involved in COVID-19 prevention measures.
  • These women workers play a crucial role in the health system of rural India.
  • Sometimes, they are the first to contact the victims of domestic violence while accessing health services.
  • From this, it is evident that they are playing a critical role in making a life or death difference for those vulnerable women who are unable to seek help due to the lack of access to mobile phones.
  • Thus, ASHA workers can be sensitised to play a role in helping the victims by responding quickly.
  • They can help women to come forward to report violence and reduce the stigmatisation of such victims.

Empowering civil societies:

  • Governments should increase funding for civil society organisations, which play a critical role in educating masses about essential services, legal safeguards and social welfare measures that are currently available.
  • They play an important role in regularly checking of suspicious houses and providing in-person assistance and shelters for the victims.

Addressing alcoholism:

  • Alcohol must be prohibited in mass gatherings and public places like trains, buses etc.
  • The number of alcohol outlets should be decreased.
  • The age for alcohol consumption and purchase must be increased to 30 years.
  • Special checks on festive occasions with the help of breath analysers.
  • Involuntary treatment of persons with alcohol dependence should be undertaken.

Addressing the issue of marital rape:

  • The Supreme Court has refused to criminalised marital rape several times now, noting that it is for the Parliament to take a call on the matter.
  • According to the National Family Health Survey Report, 2015, 5.4% of married women between the age of 15 and 49 have reported that their husbands have physically forced them to have sexual intercourse against their will.
  • At least 2.5% of women reported that their husbands physically forced them to perform any other sexual act without their consent.
  • The government has refused to criminalise marital rape because of its stand that it would adversely affect the family system.
  • Even if one agrees with this stand, the fact remains that married women are subjected to sexual violence within their matrimonial homes.
  • Social and legal measures must be put in place for the safety of these victims.

Laws for rehabilitation

  • New legislation must be enacted for granting “Interim Relief” (a large sum of money paid by the perpetrator) to the victim of severe sexual assault.
  • This money must be utilised for the rehabilitation of the victim.
  • The state government should take full responsibility for the rehabilitation of the victim.

Addressing systemic gender discrimination:

  • Women workforce often comes second to that of men.
  • For instance, women account for 70% of the global health workforce and are like to be frontline health workers with caretaking responsibilities during the COVID-19.
  • Yet, their health and safety are given lesser priority when compared to their male counterparts as seen in the distribution of PPE that is more fitting for men.
  • These instances further the patriarchal mindset within society.
  • Promotion of gender equality in workplaces is a need of the hour.

Other measures:

  • Gender-sensitive criminal justice system, laws, government schemes etc must be ensured.
  • Government schemes must be gender-sensitive so that women are given equal importance during social and economic assistance by the government.
  • The education system must incorporate the norms of equality of all regardless of their sex, race and other differences.
  • This ensures the reduction of the patriarchal mindset of the society.
  • Measures must be taken to infuse good moral and religious values in children.
  • Informal complaint centres in medical stores, grocery shops etc., can be initiated to receive complaints from even those victims who do not have access to technology.
  • All protective measures related to gender-based violence must be declared essential service.


Strengthening and reforming existing laws and criminal justice system and enabling a ground-level approach to address the gender-based violence is crucial for assisting every last victim of gender-based violence even during the crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Practice question for mains:

What are the existing laws and government measures that tackle gender-based violence? Why do they fail in addressing shadow pandemic? (250 words)

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