Anoushka Tiwari, an advertising professional based in the Indian city of Mumbai, turned on a feature allowing anyone to message her on Twitter to help as many people as she could as she tried to amplify requests for help during the Covid-19 pandemic that has consumed the country.
But among the gennuine plees for assistance, were a number of lewd messages and repeated calls from men who found her number on social media.
“While I’d say 50-60 per cent of the messages were for help, several times men approached and said things like: ‘I could help but what would I get in return?’” she told The Independent.
Ms Tiwari is just one of several women who have faced harassment while trying to either seek help for their loved ones or others during the crisis.
India reported a new record high of 386,452 news cases in the past 24 hours, while deaths from Covid-19 jumped by 3,498. The total caseload has already crossed 18 million and the total number of deaths has increased to 208,330.
The virus is racing through the population and the health system has largely proved inept. A shortage of hospital beds, a lack of medical oxygen and an unreliable system to find plasma donors have forced people to desperately pursue any lead circulating on Twitter.
Volunteers like Ms Tiwari try to verify numbers that are shared online for oxygen cylinders or medicines. She said volunteering looks like an “invitation to men to just slide into our DMs and it just becomes difficult for us to distinguish” those who genuinely need help from the clutter of such unwanted messages.
Several women have called out men for sending them lewd messages and harassing them why they try to help.
One woman who requested not to be named told The Independent she got a message about a resource, but instead the link took her to a photo of a penis.
She said she has received at least five d*** pics since she opened her DMs on Twitter so that even people who do not follow her can message her about any emergency or need.
Dr Keerty Nakray, associate professor at Jindal Global Law School, said the pandemic is an unprecedented disaster that has aggravated existing social problems.
“In more normal times, women are subjected to deep-rooted misogyny in digital spaces, including eminent women in journalism or politics or bureaucracy. During the pandemic, even the basic helplines and support services are non-functional because of the overwhelming nature of the pandemic,” she said.
Ms Tiwari is planning to report all the accounts that have sent her obscene messages. She said her friends regularly share SOS messages and Covid-19 resources in a group, and they all have now started sharing stories of harassment to report all the accounts together and have them taken down.
“If a woman shares any information related to Covid-19 resources on social media, she is approached by several men who continuously ask her for her contact details,” said Dr Debarati Halder, law professor at Karnavati University and (honorary) managing director of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling.
She said even contact details of women who have been infected with Covid-19 are being shared on online groups. “These women are receiving messages, asking them if they want any gynaecological information while recovering,” she said.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah also vented his frustration at these incidents reported by women.
He tweeted: “Unfortunately even in this crisis some men can’t stop themselves from behaving like bastards. They find phone numbers of ladies included with the requests for help and make lewd calls. I’ll try my best not to circulate numbers of ladies but it may impact how people can help.”
Narrating her harrowing experience, Rinkita Gurav-Nair told The Independent that a man she knew messaged her on Twitter and asked for help for his wife’s medical treatment. She said she shared her phone number with him after he sought help about a hospital bed.
“I kept asking him to send me the patient details, but he never did. He instead kept telling me that he had always been interested in me,” she said.
“He would usually message late at night and then accuse me of not helping him out. He also kept asking me to meet him, but I turned down the request. Then he started asking me for my home address,” Ms Gurav-Nair said.
She said this kind of behaviour has not discouraged her from helping people out during the pandemic. “I knew I had to ignore this and just keep working.”
A 29-year-old woman based in New Delhi, who also requested not to be named, told The Independent that she messaged a man in her Facebook friend list who had posted about medical aid for Covid-19 patients. She was trying to arrange help an acquaintance.
“Sadly, he took advantage of the situation. When I confronted him and tried to make him understand, he shamelessly started messaging and calling me on Facebook messenger late at night,” she said.
She said the man told her he had wanted to know her for a long time and that he likes her. “He started asking for my phone number and called on messenger when I stopped replying,” she said. However, he later apologised to her, she said.
The pandemic has exposed the deep-rooted misogyny with men targeting women and volunteers, forcing many to even take a step back from their efforts to help people.
Dr Nakray said some women who are helping out of goodwill have been forced to withdraw from public spaces because of such unsolicited messages. “The perpetrators are taking advantage of the overworked and understaffed law enforcement agencies such as the police,” she said.
Ananya Rian Chakraborty was trying to arrange help for people when she received unwelcome messages. She said the men would try to engage her in a conversation, but she ignored them. “Responding to such messages would have possibly encouraged the men,” she said.
Dr Halder also agrees that these incidents are likely to discourage women who are helping out. She said women are being added to multiple WhatsApp groups that are not necessarily for Covid-related resources or help.
Even if a woman blocks the number that is sending her lewd messages, her number is permanently saved in the other person’s phone and she may be harassed further, she said.