COVID-19 – XI: Domestic Violence: An Essential Byproduct of COVID-19?

By Pallavi Diwakar and Stuti Bhargava

Shatter the Silence_0

Introduction- Situation around the Globe

While there is no doubt as to the fact that our homes provide safety against the onslaught of this growing pandemic, what protects us from the abuse that we face at the hands of our near and dear ones?” While a lot of facilities and services are on a virtual standstill, the rate of domestic violence cases has been on the rise. The NCW data reflects the rapid increase in the number of such cases. “Between February 27 and March 22, a sum total of 396 offences related to women were reported to the NCW. Similarly, from March 23 to April 16, as many as 587 such complaints were received, according to the data.

The cause of such escalating numbers may be attributed to the increasing economic strain or mounting anxiety and frustration, which in no way whatsoever justifies the abuse. It goes without saying that the victims in such cases should be, in such critical times, made aware of their rights. Some semblance of confidence, empathy and support is the least that these victims deserve.

Often, the meaning of an abusive relationship is understood to only mean and include the use of force. Knowingly or unknowingly, one ends up understanding abuse in a narrow sense of the word. An abusive relationship is not merely one where the victim is a subject of physical violence. It is also one where the victim is isolated from friends and family and is subjected to verbal abuse. Restrictions on basic necessities like food, clothing and other sanitary facilities also constitute an abusive relationship.

While it is understood that all resources available are being diverted to essential services, it should be understood that domestic violence is an issue that needs urgent address as well. Since the onset of the lockdown imposed by governments all around the world, the number of cases of domestic violence has been on the rise. Several countries have acknowledged this hike in the number of domestic abuse incidents. France’s interior minister reported that the number of domestic violence cases in the country has raised by more than 30% since the country went into lockdown on March 17.  France has also come up with prospective measures where a woman would be able to make calls for help when she goes to a pharmacy without her husband. Spain, in the list of countries that have upped their domestic violence combating regime, already has a code system for reporting domestic violence. In Countries like China where landmark anti-domestic law came into effect in 2016, activists believe that the epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence. According to some of their statistics, 90% of the cases of violence are related to COVID-19 epidemic.

In Malaysia, the TalianKasih hotline was introduced to provide victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence, proper assistance and counselling to recuperate from such mental health problems and abuse. The Women and Family Development Ministry (KPWKM) in the ASEAN state recently suspended this service during the partial lockdown which resulted into this decision being criticized immensely by a plethora of organizations that work for promoting the welfare of women and children.

Lockdown: Saviour or Torturer- The Indian Scenario

While a large part of the population would believe, and rightly so, that the nationwide lockdown is the best preventive step to combat the epidemic since, civil activists assert with utmost belief that this lockdown which has been extended to May 3, is bound to place women at a higher risk of domestic violence. Only within the first three weeks of this nationwide lockdown, the National Commission of Women registered 476 cases of such abuse.

As far as Indian’s reputation with respect to being a “safe haven for women”, is concerned, it overtakes war-torn areas like Afghanistan and Syria, and has been named “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.” Quite unsurprisingly, this is the condition when according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) carried out in India in 2015-16, more than 99 per cent of the cases of sexual assaults are not even reported.

Undeniably, the victims of such abuse could at least reach out to their friends and family before this lockdown. Amidst such severe conditions, women who often bear the brunt of their husbands’ frustrations are left to fend for themselves. They are, in fact, locked up with their abusers, which does not help the cause and consequently makes it worse.           There are reported instances where the police kept their eyes averted and refused to register a woman’s complaint, under the pretext of the Courts being shut down for 21 days. Instances like these and the present circumstances leave these women vulnerable and prone to abuse.

The increased cases of violence are not just a result of the frustration that stems from physical confinement. This global pandemic has brought in its wake, a mammoth slowdown, impenetrable unemployment issues and looming recessionary conditions. Undoubtedly, unemployment levels have escalated. While there is no doubt as to the fact that both men and women have been affected by this lockdown, “there is evidence from the past that violence against women increases during episodes of unemployment.”

As far as the issue with respect to acknowledgement of the severity of such in India is concerned, the judiciary has, as a matter of fact, taken note of such escalating levels of domestic violence cases and has issued directives to both the governments at the centre and in Delhi to come up with measures to curb domestic violence and thus ensure protection and safety of the abused. A bench of Justice J.R. Midha and Jyoti Singh directed that the governments take an immediate decision and come with effective steps to combat such abuse. What remains to be seen is how efficacious these directives and the measures adopted thereafter prove to be, considering the future seems bleak and there is no potential solution in sight.

Conclusion- Is There a Way Around?

In a country with deep-seated patriarchal values, where the women are supposed to bear with anything and everything that is carelessly thrown their way, there absolutely needs to be a way forward. What needs to be understood is that fighting these abusers and predators who prey upon the vulnerability of women, is as important as dealing with the pandemic.

Firstly and most importantly, the gravity of the situation needs to be understood. As the order of the Delhi High court suggests, the situation warrants immediate action.  Reaching such victims of abuse needs to be classified as an essential service. These women need to feel safe. The authorities must extend assurance to the abused that if the need arises, the State will not turn their backs on such subjects of abuse.

Secondly, an assurance of a safe place should be proposed to these women who may feel threatened and vulnerable under the same roof as their abuser. Temporarily, the authorities could look into converting empty hotels into shelter homes to provide these women with a safe place until at least the lockdown is over and proper steps can be taken against the husband. This is similar to the model that the French government has adopted.

Thirdly, Emergency helpline numbers must be prepared and circulated. It goes without saying that this measure would only be of help if the call centres are well connected and the calls are immediately responded to.  Awareness with regard to Online First Information reports must be raised and the police must take note of such complaints with as much care, vigilance and sensitivity, as is possible.

A large part of the country is housed in rural areas. Frontline health workers must be appointed as the first point of contact for the abused. Thus, lastly, the panchayats must take out time to create self-help groups and raise awareness and voice against such acts of abuse.

While the aforementioned are measures that the administrative authorities should and rather must take, the first step to fight such abuse is to tackle such cases with sensitivity and vigilance.

[The co-authors are third-year students at National Law University, Jodhpur.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s