By Sneha Singh
The lockdowns following the COVID-19 pandemic have surged up the number of domestic violence cases among many countries worldwide. The populations were directed to stay indoors at their respective homes as it had been proved to be an effective measure for fighting against the coronavirus. While stopping the spread of the virus, they have also exposed the persisting gender equalities and dangerous threats to women across the world apart from the deadly repercussions of the pandemic.
In abusive households, women fear the aggressor inside and the virus outside. The confinement with abusive partners mostly results in physical and emotional violence. It is difficult for the victims to escape from the abusers and seek help due to the imposed restrictions. Women are terrified to take help from the police and report cases due to their torturing in-laws and violent husbands at home. Some are dependent on them for their living due to lack of financial support. In low-income houses, the husbands tend to be more abusive to their partners after losing jobs during the lockdown and vent their frustration on them. The lack of alcohol also adds to their resentment. The increased privacy of the home gives the abusers a feeling of immunity. The fear of being recognized by the abuser, worry about the possible infection of coronavirus outside their homes and the uncertainty about the operating local services are some of the barriers that terrify women. The economic instability accompanied by the threat of hunger tends to reflect and manifest into verbal and physical abuse on many households. Many women are unable to report a case or make a contact as they are trapped with their abusers and the infection of coronavirus prevails outside.
Global Response and Measures
The United Nations recognizes domestic violence against women as a ‘shadow pandemic’ at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, had instructed the governments to put the safety of women foremost while responding to the pandemic. He also gave them recommendations regarding it. He suggested that there should be increased investment in civil society organizations and online services and the shelters should be declared as vital services for safety. He told them to carry on with the prosecution of abusers and hold the individuals in prisons who were convicted of brutality against women. Various national and local governments, as well as non-governmental organizations, are already performing on the given guidelines. Social and economic infrastructure and services should be offered to women and children to prevent them from the violent environment of their household structures.
In different parts of the world, the mechanisms to protect women from being locked in with their perpetrators have evolved while considering lockdown and social distancing. Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Argentina have adopted a campaign called Mask-19. When a woman faces abuse at home, she can go to the nearest pharmacy and ask for a mask which is Mask-19. Pharmacy staff take her name, number and address. They alert the emergency services. The woman can go back home or wait for the arrival of police and support workers. The increasing number of cases during the first week of lockdown led the French government to announce that it would pay for hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence and open pop-up counselling centres. It will also fund anti-domestic abuse organizations with an extra one million Euros to help them respond to increased demand for services. Canada is keeping domestic violence shelters open for victims of domestic and gender-based violence. It is providing $50 million to support them. UK and Australia have also funded the helping organizations. The Italian government has launched an app that enables the victims of domestic violence to seek help without making a phone call. It is a great attempt taken by them against the prevalent issue.
India is not an exception to the global trend of increased pandemic induced domestic violence. The National Commission for Women in Delhi has received a large number of distress calls during the lockdown. It has launched an emergency WhatsApp number for the period of lockdown to report cases and provide assistance to the victims of domestic violence. Helplines and NGOs are working to find solutions for the victims by moving them into safer places and by providing counselling over phone or online. An organization has a 24-hour hotline named ‘Dhwani’, a WhatsApp number, and email ID and a chat feature on its website to help the survivors of domestic abuse.
A Public Interest Litigation has been filed in the Delhi High Court due to the heightened number of domestic violence cases in the country during a nationwide lockdown. The petitioner has asked if the provisions of the Disaster Management Act can be used to extend protection to the harmed victims. It was informed that the Delhi Commission for Women had appointed only 17 protection officers in Delhi and their contact numbers are not publicly known. The Delhi High Court has asked the National Commission for Women (NCW), the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), the Delhi government and the Union Women and Child development ministry to submit written notes on the measures that are being taken to protect the victims of domestic violence during the lockdown. It also questioned if the coronavirus pandemic has been declared a “disaster” within the definition provided under the act. The officers were told to manage essential supplies as well as look into the matters of domestic abuse.
The NGO named All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Social Justice filed a petition to seek the intervention of the court to ensure adoption and implementation of immediate and effective measures to help the victims of domestic violence and child abuse. The court has directed the Central Government, Delhi government, Delhi Commission of women and other authorities to summon a meeting at high level to consider the issue of victims of domestic abuse during this period.
Within a few hours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a nationwide lockdown to fight the pandemic, it became obvious that the government had failed to plan for its consequences on vulnerable sections of society such as migrant workers and homeless. The victims of domestic violence don’t go to their parental homes due to fear of infecting their elderly parents They can neither go to shelter homes as they are crowded and vulnerable to greater infection. The police force is already overburdened with ensuring that people comply with the lockdown. Hospitals do not have time or space to look at domestic violence cases. They are forced to remain in abusive and violent environments with little access to redress. The ones who are able to escape the torture, find themselves isolated without necessary support and facilities.
Several NGOs have been operating 24 hours of functional helplines since the lockdown began to assist the women in the absence of a comprehensive plan from the Indian government. They are facing difficulty in providing assistance as they cannot move beyond telephonic or web counselling. There is a need for well-funded and important support services for survivors of the abuse. The requirement of psychological care and economic resources cannot be misjudged.
With the extension of lockdown, the sentence prison for the abused women only gets longer. As we take all the necessary steps to flatten the pandemic curve, we need to be equally attentive to make sure that the curve of intimate terrorism does not rise aggressively. The administration and law enforcement agencies need to recognize the intensity of the problem. It is important for the policymakers to cater to the needs of these abused women who are playing an essential role in the battle against coronavirus as caregivers, health and sanitation workers, scientists and suffering housewives. The security of women cannot be put on hold until we emerge out of the pandemic. Priority measures should be initiated by the government without deviating from the overall COVID-19 action plan to help and protect the victims of domestic violence.
[The author is a first-year student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab.]