Akshita Nagpal April 6, 2020

New Delhi: As the United Nations (UN) chief called for a “ceasefire” in domestic violence against women and girls during the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, Indian rights workers and activists have urged for inventive responses to the spike in domestic violence complaints. 

The National Commission for Women (NCW) reported that the number of cases of domestic violence complaints it had received more than doubled from 30 in the week starting March 2, 2020, to 69 for the period between March 23 and April 1, 2020. The complaints in the latter period were received largely via email, according to NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma.  

India’s lockdown came into force hours after being announced on March 24, 2020, leaving the vulnerable with no time or options to seek refuge. Advisories for restricted outdoor movement had already been in place since a day-long stay-in on March 22, 2020. At 30.8%, homes are the most prevalent place of violence against women, as per a four-state study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2017. Ever since the lockdown started, women’s helplines have reported extremes of sharp rises and declines in distress calls. 

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“The real figure is likely to be more [than what has been reported via emails] since the bulk of complaints come from women in the lower strata of society who send us their complaints by post,” NCW’s Sharma said.

Domestic violence is one of the most common forms of gender-based violence that might be inflicted by member(s) of any form of family or household and/or by intimate partners who might be former or current romantic or sexual partners. The former situation is called family violence and the latter is called intimate partner violence (IPV). 

These complaints have surged globally in the last few months as countries from Australia to France have scrambled to shut down cities in an attempt to thwart the spread of COVID-19. The sheer rise in domestic violence instances prompted UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appeal for peace in homes, on April 5, 2020. He urged “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond” to the pandemic, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives the world over. 

The combination of economic and social stresses caused by the pandemic, as well as restrictions on movement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing abuse in almost all countries, the UN said, adding, “However, even before the global spread of the new coronavirusstatistics showed that a third of women around the world experienced some form of violence in their lives.”

All’s not well at home 

In India, 30% or nearly one in every three women of reproductive age (between 15 and 49 years) have experienced physical domestic violence, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2015-16. Among women who have been married at any time in their lives, 33% have experienced physical, sexual or emotional domestic violence by their spouse. 

Seeking support necessarily involves venturing out in person to register a police complaint or having access to a phone and the privacy to be able to call a helpline for assistance. With 57% women not owning mobile phones in India, neither option works during the lockdown. 

“If a woman has to complain or seek help from a helpline about her family being abusive, she needs to have a landline or mobile phone while being 100% sure that she is not being overheard–whether it is her marital home or natal home,” Jaya Velankar of Jagori told IndiaSpend; the New Delhi-based women’s organisation provides psycho-social counselling to women survivors of violence. “In the present lockdown situation, both these are not possible.”

Velankar estimates that there’s been a 50% drop in fresh case calls at Jagori in the first seven-eight days of the lockdown. 

The lockdown is proving to be detrimental not only for women’s well-being, but is also adversely impacting the lives of all those who are vulnerable. Five days into the lockdown, a Twitter user sought refuge for her trans friend in Mumbai because the latter’s relatives were mistreating her, and her parents had refused asylum. 

“Transgender people who’d otherwise be out of home all day are forced to stay at home during the lockdown and are being harassed by their families,” Ranjita Sinha, founding member and secretary of the Association of Transgender/ Hijra in Bengal, told IndiaSpend

“Parents force them to fit into gender binaries, and now, in isolation, they’re getting the chance to use physical violence to pressure them,” Sinha added. They’re vulnerable because “even though the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was passed in December, implementation and social acceptance takes time.”

“My trans women clients have not been able to access it [online counselling] at all,” queer affirmative counselling practitioner Neeraj Kumar told IndiaSpend. Kumar works with New Delhi-based queer feminist group, Nazariya, which had to shift its counselling services online due to the COVID-19 lockdown. “We do not know what’s happening [at their end],” they said, hoping to eventually find out the exact reasons. “Another of my queer clients could not speak on the phone because she couldn’t find private space as houses are small.”

Tinderbox effect

“Globally, violence increases in times of calamity, whether it is floods, earthquakes, or war, and this [COVID-19 outbreak] is a calamity,” Velankar said. “In this situation, all your anxieties become profound. There is huge job loss, and there’s every likelihood that you take out your frustration on someone weaker than you,” Velankar said, adding that men in a patriarchal society vent their frustrations on women.

The lockdown is leading to increased unemployment. India’s workforce is male-dominant, with the percentage of women employed in paid work falling from 36% to 24% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Increased male unemployment is linked to increased incidence of physical violence against women, according to a study cited in the 2019 World Bank Economic Review, which analysed data from 31 developing countries for 11 years to 2016.

In India, women who are employed in paid work are more likely to experience domestic violence over women in unpaid domestic work, as per the National Family Health Survey 2015-16. 

“The load of work [during the lockdown] has increased in houses because everybody is at home. With housekeeping staff being unavailable, the expectation is for women to bear the load, and chances of violence increase if she fails to do so,” Urvashi Gandhi, director, global advocacy at Breakthrough, another New Delhi-based organisation working to check violence against women and girls, told IndiaSpend.  

Need for novel solutions

The UN noted that responding to rising domestic violence incidents–search engines such as Google have seen the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help in the past five years–during lockdowns will be a challenge. It has proposed measures such as declaring shelters as essential services and setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries and other ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers. 

Governments in high-income countries are stepping up vigil visits to vulnerable homes, checking-in women who face violence into hotels, pumping funds into women’s welfare organisations and advising violated women to say code-words to alert for help. 

Activists in India have appealed for the government to act fast to address this challenge and be creative. Gandhi from Breakthrough said their Mumbai-based partner organisation CORO India shared help-seeking information stickers on food-aid packets for daily-wage earners. Jagori’s Velankar said the government’s public awareness campaigns for coronavirus should include awareness on domestic violence and ways to seek help.

“I strongly recommend that government helplines, including state commission helplines, should continue to function while being recognised as essential services, and assistance to NGOs must be given to help keep these helplines functional,” Velankar said.

Both women emphasised that bystanders and neighbours should intervene against domestic violence; they must report it to authorities or simply “bang the door if the violence is occurring in a neighbour’s home in an attempt to quell it”.

Women’s organisations that have invented ways to function in the lockdown want governments to broaden the scope of ‘essential services’ to include helplines and even medicines and contraceptives.  

North East Network (NEN), a women’s rights organisation that operates in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam, recently roped in accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers and a village headman in Assam’s Golaghat district when their counsellors could not step out to help a woman in distress. 

A woman crossed two paddy fields with her five-month-old child to seek refuge in her mother’s home from an abusive husband on one of the days during the lockdown, NEN’s Assam state director Anurita Pathak told IndiaSpend. The husband turned up at her natal home, snatched the child and left. It took a joint effort by NEN, ASHA workers and the village headman to reunite the mother with her baby. 

“We got on the phone and it took 4-5 days to address the situation,” Pathak said. “We could have resolved this faster if, as service providers, we had passes and if our work was recognised as an essential service.” 

Given that ASHA workers are at the frontline of India’s COVID-19 prevention work, Pathak advocates that they be alert and “respond rapidly” to any domestic violence instance. “The time lost in settling a case can turn out to be very critical for a woman.”

Sexual violence within domestic violence through forced unprotected sex could have “huge reproductive and health consequences for women”, Velankar pointed out. “Sexual and reproductive health services should also be considered essential. What if a woman needs an abortion and time is of essence… how will she step out?”

Sinha, the trans activist, said that an emergency fund could be instituted for trans people. “Other relaxations such as rent support and ration should also be provided as is being given to other vulnerable people,” they said. 

(Nagpal is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Sadhika Tiwari, principal correspondent with IndiaSpend, contributed to this story. Copy edited by Marisha Karwa.)Courtesy-indiaspend

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