Just before the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in India on March 25, a young woman rushed to her mother’s place in Delhi to save herself from the verbal and physical torture of her spouse. She felt she could remain safe and at peace for some days, but her hopes were short-lived.
With the lockdown preventing her from returning to her husband’s house and slide in income with no job, tension was rising in the lower-middle-class family. As income was squeezed, her brother was apparently feeling that she was an additional burden. One day, the brother severely beat her up.
Somehow, the woman managed to call a helpline to narrate her ordeal but was unwilling to call police, fearing they may also beat her up.
Far away in Hyderabad, another woman and her teenage son from an earlier marriage, were facing the brunt of her second husband’s frustration over not getting alcohol during the lockdown. She reached out to the police, who provided her with an official helpline number. But the intensity of the abuse increased when the husband came to know about her complaint.
Incidents of domestic violence appear to be rising in the country during the COVID-19 lockdown, in line with reports suggesting that such cases have increased exponentially across the globe, in countries like China, the United Kingdom and the United States among others.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the risk of intimate partner violence is likely to increase, as distancing measures are put in place and people are encouraged to stay at home. The number of domestic violence cases reported at a police station in Jingzhou, a city in the Hubei province of China, the region where COVID-19 was first detected, tripled in February 2020, compared with the same period the previous year.
In India, the first signs of the problem were appeared in data provided by the National Commission of Women (NCW) in mid-April, which suggested an almost 100% increase in domestic violence during the lockdown.
In 25 days between March 23 and April 16, the NCW received 239 complaints, mainly through email and a dedicated WhatsApp number. This is almost double the number of complaints (123) received during the previous 25 days, from February 27 to March 22.
The country initially went into a complete lockdown from March 25 to April 14, which was later extended till May 3.
Curiously, several police, official and NGO helplines have witnessed a decrease in the number of calls they received during the lockdown period. For example, the Delhi Commission of Women (DCW) witnessed a decrease in calls related to domestic violence – from 808 during March 12-25 to 337 during April 7-20.
However, no one is willing to read too much into the decrease in calls. “We have got limited data. We have got reports from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi that the number of calls have dropped. Why is police not getting these calls? Maybe because women are not able to reach these helplines. We need more data to analyse and I have asked Directors General of Police in states to submit data on crime against women, especially domestic violence,” NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma told DH. DCW Chairperson Swati Maliwal also says it could be assumed that victims might be hesitant in reporting the crimes due to fear or inability to move away from the perpetrator.
Activists believe that the statistics may not reveal the real extent of the problem, as women need space and time to reach out to helplines or authorities. They also point to the fact that the complaints received by NCW are through emails and WhatsApp, to which a majority of Indian women who face trouble do not have easy access. Also, the NCW has not received any complaint through post during the lockdown.
The complaints the commission has got are from a certain section of society, who are “literate and upper class” and have access to technology, say activists. They highlight that it could be just a tip of the iceberg, as women from the underprivileged communities have no means to reach out.
It’s not just about the numbers but also the psychological and social impact that the lockdown would have on women. “There is every reason to believe, as earlier studies suggested, that during these kind of crises, there is an increase in gender-based violence,” Jayashree Velankar of Jagori, a women's organisation, told DH. In its note on April 7, the WHO also highlighted that violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics.
Velankar points out that people tend to restrict the spectrum of acts under domestic violence to just beating and verbal abuse and tend to put under the carpet gender inequality and unequal distribution of resources within the family. And, it is not limited to spouses. “The existing inequalities are getting sharper. There is an obvious link of rising violence to economic distress, food insecurity and health crisis,” she said.
She points to the experience of some people who provided masks to their domestic helps. The next day, when they returned to work, none of them were wearing masks. When asked, they told them that their husbands had taken them away as they wanted to go out to meet their friends or acquaintances. Many instances show that a woman’s health does not come into the consideration of the spouse and in this case, the woman's choice for a healthy conduct during a pandemic took a backseat when compared to the comfort of her spouse.
Activists also highlight that the moment there is a shortage of food, as in a crisis situation like this when there is not much commercial activity, the immediate victims are the daughters and mothers in the houses. Same is the case with healthcare as spending on women in families will further shrink in a period of economic stress. “The likelihood that women in an abusive relationship and their children will be exposed to violence dramatically increases, as family members spend more time in close contact and families cope with additional stress and potential economic or job losses,” the WHO said in its note.
“The health impacts of violence, particularly intimate partner/domestic violence, on women and their children, are significant. Violence against women can result in injuries and serious physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies,” the WHO added.
With women also losing jobs during the lockdown, their vulnerability has further increased. In many circumstances, whatever little women earn is given to their husband and now, they are not able to as and when he demands. That is another reason for violence, activists observe.
Annie Raja of National Federation of Indian Women said, "The problem is that the government has not considered the impact on families when it decided to impose lockdown. Our families are run in a feudal and patriarchal way. The work done by women inside houses are never discussed in monetary terms. That leads to her subjugation and this further increases in a situation like lockdown."
Raja also highlighted that men who were out working the whole day are now spending more time at home and they are not used to the experiences women undergo. "She will be handling her children's needs. Now, the men in the family, who are not used to these things are increasingly feeling irritated as they also have to either share or at least be part of this. Another is the issue of increasing marital rape," she added.
Anuradha Kapoor of Swayam said, “For countless women and children living in situations of domestic violence, the lockdown fails to ensure their safety, instead it exacerbates the violence they face.”
For women, the lockdown has also resulted in the increase in what is called as “unpaid work” at home. The cooking time has increased as all family members are at house. The women in rural areas have to walk longer for collecting fuel and water, as reported by activists in Jharkhand.
Young girls are more vulnerable during the time of COVID-19 as families are attempting to marry off many minors. Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Chairperson Antony Sebastian has recently highlighted the recent spike in such cases in the state. With the police and authorities concentrated on implementing the lockdown, families are using it as an opportunity. Activists feel that the situation is grim as many girls who try to prevent marriages are facing physical violence in their houses and are unable to reach the police or helplines due to the lockdown.
Urvashi Gandhi of Breakthrough, a women's rights organisation, summed up, “With a lockdown in place, no one to turn to and the usual services not reaching them, women living in abusive relationships and their children are forced into or exposed to uncomfortable and dangerous circumstances.”