Shadow pandemic: Tackling domestic violence amid Covid-19 outbreak

Domestic violence on the rise during lockdowns
Domestic violence has been on the rise after the lockdown was imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19 in India and elsewhere.

By Vansiree Ramanathan

The unprecedented health emergency triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has changed life on the planet in unimaginable ways. ‘Stay at home and Stay safe’ has been the strategy during the lockdowns worldwide to escape the deadly coronavirus. But this has  made homes an unsafe and miserable space for many women and children, especially for those belonging to socially and economically vulnerable sections of the society. The lockdown, social distancing and other norms have badly affected these people financially as well. Lockdown has affected women in different ways — the biggest impact is on their privacy and freedom.

Domestic violence has been on the rise after the lockdown was imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19 in India and elsewhere. Women and children in India and other parts of the developing world has been experiencing an alarming rise in the incidents of violence against them at home. Global monitoring agencies point out that even the developed world has seen a spike in violence during the period. There are a host of reasons that contribute to the vulnerability of women and children at home.

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Rampant household stress and domestic conflicts caused by the destructive effects of unemployment, income loss and other hardships affect the family welfare, parenting quality, old age support and the well-being of children. Disconnection from social support systems resulted in severing of the networks and the collapse of social cohesion and harmony.

The condition of women at home has further worsened since the outbreak. It resulted in increased work at home. Women in rural areas have to walk longer for collecting fuel and water, especially in Rajasthan and Jharkhand. Paroles granted to undertrials to ease the pressure on overcrowded jails during Covid-19 meant perpetrators of violence have returned home. There are multiple vulnerabilities for women at home, whether it is due to alcoholism or lack of its availability. Apart from sexual abuse of women and girls, adult women are increasingly subjected to unprotected sex, increasing their risk of getting pregnant.

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According to the United Nations, the cases of domestic violence have increased 20% during the lockdown as many people, especially women, are trapped at home with the abusers. The UN has described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse as “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19. The WHO stated that countries are reporting up to 60% increase in emergency calls by women subjected to violence by their partners in April this year compared with the last year. In Australia, 40% of frontline workers reported more requests for help. In France, cases of domestic violence have increased 30% since the lockdown was announced on March 17. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence have increased 25 % since the lockdown on March 20.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has expressed alarm and appealed to world leaders to prioritise women’s safety as they continue to fight the pandemic. From the seminal studies of Mirra Komarovsky, a sociologist and an innovative authority on gender, there is clear evidence that emergencies exacerbate domestic violence, i.e., in the situation of crisis, economic uncertainty or disaster, there has been a rise in domestic violence that has long-lasting impact on women. Alarmingly, many reports suggest that the Covid-19 crisis is no exception.

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In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW) has received 1,477 complaints of domestic violence between March 25 and May 31 which is 2.5% more than the cases reported last year. The data released by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) reflect that nationwide lockdown has led to a rapid increase in cases of domestic violence, especially in Uttarakhand, Haryana and Delhi. NALSA has collaborated with state and district legal services authorities to establish ‘one stop centres’ (OSCs). On 20 April 2020, the Delhi High Court, through a two-judge bench, directed the Union and Delhi governments to deliberate on measures to protect women facing domestic violence and to effectively implement the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005.

The reported cases in India are only the tip of an iceberg as most women in India do not report domestic violence or seek help. Even among those who seek help, only a small percentage reach out to the relevant authority such as police, doctors, lawyers or service organisations. More than 70% of the victims seeks help from immediate family due to the social stigma. And it is challenging to evaluate the real incidence based on the reported cases as increased reporting may be due to increased awareness and access to technology.

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In the context of Covid-19, there are chances of underreporting due to immobility, lack of support from police and service providers as well as lack of personal space to communicate. Reporting of domestic violence during the lockdown depends on the ability of victims to make complaints. Women cannot travel to police stations and social workers cannot reach them.

Women victims are rendered helpless as there are no shelter homes and no access to reproductive health services as medical staff are diverted to manage Covid-19. They don’t get an emergency hearing even if they file a case against violence or sexual abuse in the court. The term ‘domestic violence’ is used in many countries to refer to intimate partner violence, but it also encompasses child or elder abuse, or abuse by any member of a household.

In a diverse country like India, domestic violence is understood differently. Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA) is a progressive legislation to deal with domestic violence. The Act makes a comprehensive definition of domestic violence and attempts to put the onus on the state and central governments to increase women’s access to the justice delivery system. It defines the expression “domestic violence” to include actual abuse or threat or abuse that is physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic.

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In addition to violation of human rights, victims of domestic violence face several physical and mental health problems such as risk of chronic diseases such as STD/ HIV, sexual disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and substance abuse. Victims of domestic violence are not to blame themselves for what is happening to them. Violence is unacceptable and victims must not make excuses for the actions of the perpetrators.

In France, Germany, Italy and Spain pharmacies and supermarkets have become safe “go to” spaces where utterances of a code word (Mask 19) signals an urgent request for protection from domestic abusers. In Spain, the government had exempted women from fine if they left home to report abuse when restrictions on movement are in place. France has opened pop-up counselling centres. In Britain, domestic abuse services received an extra £2 million to bolster helpline and online support.

In Kerala, initiatives taken by the state government include tele-counselling facility started by the State Commission for Women in Kerala. This was an early attempt to give relief to women suffering from stress and anxiety while staying safe at home. Kudumbashree, a network of about 45 million rural and urban women in Kerala, has a team of community counsellors. The ward-level representatives of Kudumbashree interact with every family, enabling victims of abuse to seek support of the counsellors. Decentralisation government serves as the key to understand problems and provide solutions at the grassroots level. Reaching out to women in distress needs to be classified as an “essential service” by the government.

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Domestic violence must be understood against the background of social complexity and cultural specificities of education, age at marriage, family hierarchies, rural-urban/ caste-class variance, poverty level, economic dependence and personal laws. Law has been one of the significant social determinants and power must be used to harness the structures to help the most vulnerable. The legal system is inaccessible to most women and complicated legal language and lack of awareness leave women high and dry. Women are forced to continue in violent relationships due to the lack of support systems and they accept violence as an inevitable consequence of marriage.

The sustainable development goals (SDG-5) set by the United Nations seek to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women in the public and private spheres, and to undertake reforms to give them the same rights to economic resources and access to property by 2030. The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for constitutional transformation to give voice and strength to the invisible and feeble sections. There is a need to ensure that the families are violence free as women’s safety and development are prerequisite to the global developmental goals. It is true that domestic violence laws in India is not gender neutral, as the complainants can only be women and enacted to protect women. It does not mean violence against men is rare. In the case of women’s protection, laws are software and policies are hardware, but the source code is engrossed in values of gender justice and non-violence for a violence-free society.

(Vanisree Ramanathan teaches at Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, Kochi. The views expressed in this article are personal.)