As governments across the globe enforce lock downs of varying degrees to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus, horrifying fallout has been a surge in reports of domestic violence in several countries, including India. The current Covid-19 crisis might worsen the situation of existing domestic abuse victims as well as create new victims, and discusses possible steps that government and civil society can take immediately to address the issue.
On the night of 24 March 2020, while announcing complete lockdown of the country for three weeks (now extended until 4 May), Prime Minister Modi drew the boundary between of the house the Laxman Rekha . For a lot of us, immediate thoughts revolved around disruptions that would be caused to normal life and work due to the restriction. For those living with their abusers, danger now lurked on both sides of the line.
With no vaccine and no proven cure yet for the highly contagious Coronavirus, ‘social distancing’ has emerged as the key strategy to mitigate the spread of the disease and lock downs of anecdotal degrees are being enforced by governments across the globe. Horrifying fallout of stay-at-home orders has been a gush in reports of domestic violence from the country like India.
In India, according to latest data of the National Crime Records Bureau (2018), 103,272 women have reported “cruelty by husband or his relatives”, constituting about one-third (single largest category) of all reported crimes against women. The National Commission for Women has observed a recent spike in complaints of domestic violence in the country,
Crime against women has an under-reporting problem even in normal times. Besides social disgrace, a key reason for this is fear of retaliation by the executor. With constraints on mobility taking away the option of escaping to a safer place such as parents’ home, under-reporting of domestic abuse is expected to be far greater during the lockdown.
Confined with the abuser, it can be harder to make a phone call and talk about her situation – whether with the system or friends and relatives. While some women might be able to use the internet to seek help, the prospects are now bleaker for the uneducated and poor, which normally used post to register complaints.
Lockdown conditions may not only intensify the abuse suffered by existing victims but can also create new victims. The sudden, unnatural situation of staying home all day, every day with no visitors and more free time than usual, may in itself cause some emotional issues. Add to this, the fear of the deadly virus, and uncertainty about work and financial refuge.
As we go down the rungs of the social ladder, there is stress even around meeting basic needs in the absence of daily wage and access to regular supplies. In these times of fright, one can also imagine situations where the virus infection is used as an excuse to isolate someone within the household or turning someone out – deepening emotional abuse and mental harassment.
In fact, given predictions of economic slump, abuse driven by mental stress will likely continue well beyond the lockdown as jobs are lost and failure in businesses. Women will also be among those who go down work. This loss of financial independence will cost some of them their sense of empowerment and bargaining power at home. The weakened position of women might embolden their abusers.
Covid-19 has presented a situation of increased incidence of domestic abuse, and greater complication in both reporting by victims and getting help to them. There is a pressing need to strengthen existing mechanisms to address domestic abuse, as well as to deliberate on new solutions that are tailored to these extraordinary circumstances.
The issues that need to be addressed and the feasibility of measures that can be taken will differ between the lockdown and post-lockdown periods. It is also important to ensure that the measures cater to women across levels of education, access to technology and the capability to use it.
Tackling domestic abuse should be a key part of the national response plans that are currently being developed to address the Covid-19 crisis. Acceptance and prioritization of the issue at the highest levels of policy can send a strong message to abusers and serve as a deterrent. Many believe that PM Modi’s leadership has played an effective role in the current crisis; his national addresses and symbolic initiatives have been well-received by millions of Indians.
The pharmacies in turn inform the police. A similar system can be set up during lockdown in India as a few pharmacies and grocery stores are meant to remain open in each area, and walking a short distance to buy essentials is permissible in most places. Local authorities should assure informers that their identity will not be disclosed.
In addition, applications for ‘curfew passes’ (issued for a defined period for availing essential services, emergency movement, etc.) made by women can be considered more liberally so that it is possible for them to step out of homes and seek help, if required.
Local NGOs can track cases that were known to them pr-lockdown with frequent phone calls, and encourage friends and relatives to keep in touch with victims. Remote counseling of the victim and perpetrator may help in some cases.
Micro-finance institutions – particularly those with an SHG (self-help group) focus – can now play a much more important role in this regard. Leveraging their pre-existing networks, they can dually serve as complaint points as well as providers of livelihood support in these times of financial hardship.
All such measures require funds and one might argue that State resources are already stretched at the moment. Year after year, it is seen that budgetary allocations for issues related to the safety of women remain under-utilised.
To help those locked in with their abusers right now, there is no time to lose. The immediate focus should be on putting together a quick plan of action, and organising a coordinated effort by local governments, grassroots organizations, and communities for its effective implementation.