The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Bhutan hard where it hurts the most. The two lockdowns have crippled the private sector, disrupting planned development activities and the education system.

It unleashed unfathomable suffering on many across the country.

Then there is another suffering – a shadow pandemic. Much worse. Inflicted by the same hands that held them in embrace with fondness and promise. Many women are silently suffering trapped with the abusers in their homes owing to the lockdown.

Globally, it’s thought such cases have increased by 20 percent during the lockdown.

Five women in Thimphu alone fell victim in the past eight days of the lockdown. Two of them had to flee home and seek refuge in the temporary shelter established on the command of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen.

The health ministry formed a multi-sectoral task force (MSTF) and community-based support system (CBSS) with RENEW, counsellors cater to their immediate needs.

There were no such facilities in the first lockdown when 345 victims sought help. This number is close to the total cases that RENEW recorded in the entire year 2019.

The few permanent shelters for such vulnerable women and girls are struggling to cater to the demand. A few more are in the pipeline but we need more and urgently.

Despite efforts made by agencies, violence against women still remains a hidden problem where several cases continue to go unreported.

In 2005, when documentation initially started, there were just about 100 cases of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and around three cases of sexual violence. But the number spiked in the recent times, with JDWNR hospital recording about 400 cases of IPV and about 80 cases of sexual violence every year.

Habitual consumers could have become perpetrators due to the unavailability of items such as doma pani, tobacco, and alcohol during the lockdown.

However, it is indicative of something really amiss deeper in our society. Often most of these victims depend on their husbands for security, health, and money. So they are at their mercy.

Bhutan’s tussle with domestic violence is as old as the institution of marriage itself. The shelters and counselling services treat the disease not the cause.

Thus, we need long-term programmes from NGOs, agencies and the government to address teenage pregnancies, gender-sensitive workplaces and policies.

Empowering women must be among the top priorities for the government after the lockdown.