By Anoushka Sharma
Restrictions on mobility and loss of economic opportunities made violence in homes more frequent and dangerous for women.
With the massive increase in Covid-19 cases around the world last year and the consequent lockdown, many international organisations have reported a global spike in domestic violence cases. Several countries registered a 15 to 30 per cent increase in the number of distress calls received from women trapped in cramped spaces with little or no access to the outside world.
Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code protects married women against violence via their spouse and their families. Domestic abuse, while accounting for most crimes against women, is considered to be an under-reported crime. A significant reason for women to be considered the weaker sex can be traced to age-old patriarchal norms that have been dictating our society for centuries. Embarrassment, financial dependence, fear of retribution, victim-blaming, and cumbersome red-tapism are among the other important reasons behind the gulf in the societal status of men and women today.
On 24th March 2020, the Prime Minister of India announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Within a fortnight, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported a 100 per cent rise in complaints of cases pertaining to domestic violence. The Commission then launched a nationwide WhatsApp number (7217735372) to provide an alternate method for women to report domestic abuse. This was a supplement to an online portal for registering complaints of women who had suffered accounts of domestic violence.
According to the official data provided by the NCW, domestic violence complaints increased by 2.5 times since the nationwide lockdown began in India. In 2019, the commission received 607 cases from March to May, while in 2020, they registered 1,477 cases. A total of 13,000 complaints were recorded from March to September 2020. Of these, 53 per cent of the cases were registered from Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Women from Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number of complaints (5,470) followed by Delhi (1,697). Interestingly, not even one per cent of cases were registered by women in the North-Eastern states.
Rani* (name changed), a woman based in Neemgaon, a small village in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, said, “I have three kids, how do I leave them? It is not our culture to argue with our husbands or complain against them. Sometimes, they get frustrated because of unemployment and go on to hit us. But we have to do our job- feed the family and move on with our life.”
Another woman of the same village, fearing consequences, expressed her desire of remaining anonymous while being keenly interested in filing a complaint against her husband and his family. However, she cited lack of resources and the fear of her natal family’s reputation being at stake, as the reasons for not lodging the complaint.
“I will be treated like other divorced or widowed women, who are not considered ‘right’ in my village. My family would think that I am at fault. Nobody would ask him why he hits women. I don’t want my children to be like their father,” she added.
While there were several helplines and shelter homes available for women to call or seek shelter — both state-run and those maintained by non-governmental organisations — the help that they could provide was curtailed due to the nationwide lockdown. Women were not able to travel to police stations, and social workers were not able to reach them or arrange for their travel. Moreover, during the initial months of the pandemic, the police were overburdened with Covid-19 duties, and visiting homes to investigate domestic disputes was not considered a priority.
According to United Nations Women, data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic.
Addressing nation-states, UN Women in a press release, said, “This is the shadow pandemic growing amidst the Covid-19 crisis and we need a global collective effort to stop it. As Covid-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines, have reached capacity. More needs to be done to prioritise addressing violence against women in Covid-19 response and recovery efforts.”
India was not the only country where domestic abuse cases were on the rise. It was noted across the globe, from Brazil in Latin America to the United Kingdom, Cyprus, and Italy in Europe, as well as China in Southeast Asia.
Many of these countries took proactive measures to stem the tide. In Italy, an app named ‘YouPol’ was initiated by the government that allowed victims of domestic violence to seek help without talking on the phone. The application enabled victims to send images and messages in real-time to the state police operators. Since pharmacies were allowed to stay open throughout the lockdown in France, victims sought help through pharmacists who would further inform the police. Women used the code word ‘Mask 19’ if they felt insecure to ask for help openly. Gender-based violence services were also declared essential in countries such as Spain, Portugal, and the United States.
Such instances are not merely a domestic transgression, it is an ongoing international struggle. Women across sections of society are still struggling behind closed doors, and it is imperative that help is reached in places it needs to go. A major factor that could instigate the process would be bringing the issue of domestic violence into our everyday mainstream conversations. An enabling environment that respects civil behaviour is what will go a long way in shifting these social norms and is what will lead to behavioural changes.