For domestic violence victims, getting help is tough

Coronavirus Lockdown: For domestic violence victims, getting help is tough

In Karnataka

A counselling session before the lockdown, at the Parihar office in Bengaluru.

During the lockdown, several civil society organisations, women’s groups and activists have raised concerns about a possible concurrent rise in the cases of domestic violence. 

In Karnataka, the women’s helpline 181, jointly operated by the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD), along with the Police and the Department of Health, has seen a marginal increase in the daily number of calls from women reporting abuse and physical violence from spouses or close relatives.  

Read: Coronavirus Lockdown: Coming out of the shadow pandemic

Women facing violence or abuse seek help in multiple ways: they register a complaint directly at the local police station, they try to get the grievance addressed at the state women’s commission, seek help from women’s NGOs, or call 181 or ‘Namma 100’ (the police helpline) to register a case.

Restricted to their homes, the only option left for women facing abuse and harassment is to place a call to these helplines, hoping for a sympathetic ear at the other end.

To address this need, the DWCD has bolstered the helpline, which covers all of Karnataka, by adding a few more numbers, in addition to requisitioning more staff.

Suvarna, the coordinator of 181, says that of late, the number of calls has  increased compared to the initial days of the lockdown.

From March 21 to April 21, 165 calls pertaining to domestic violence were placed to the helpline, while 315 such cases were reported at the Santhwana centres all across Karnataka.

“When a domestic violence case is reported, we look for police intervention. In the case of an intervention, the women are sent to one of the Santhwana centres, 24x7 centres for women in distress, where they receive counselling,” says K A Dayananda, Director of the Department Women and Child Development.

Accessibility an issue

However, many activists say that being physically barred from safe spaces or support networks could be making the situation worse.

“During normal time, the women can find opportunities to make a call but they can’t do that right now. Which is why we think the number of cases being reported then is much more than what is being reported now,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, the co-founder of Shakthi.

Before the lockdown, Parihar, which functions out of the commissioner’s office in Bengaluru and manages calls placed by women to the ‘Namma 100’ police helpline, dealt with 100 - 150 domestic violence cases every month.

Since the lockdown, all of Parihar’s counsellors have worked on the telephone, attending to some 354 calls so far, with 53 calls regarding domestic violence. Rani Shetty, the person in-charge of Parihar, says most other cases have to do with problems faced due to Covid-19 such as a pregnant woman unable to go for her check-up, or single women facing eviction from their landlords because they can’t muster up the rent. 

‘Reluctant to complain’

For cases of domestic violence or harassment from the husband, most women don’t want to register a complaint.

There are various reasons why women are reluctant to lodge a police complaint in domestic violence cases, including the ‘learned helplessness’ of victims in abusive relationships. The lack of economic independence is also a major factor. 

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Sushma*, who has a 14-month-old baby, worked as a janitor in an office. Stuck with her husband at home during the lockdown, minor issues — the baby crying, a delay in cooking food — have become triggers for physical abuse. Sushma went to the local police station, where the cops declined to register a complaint, but sent around a vehicle to warn the husband.

When she returned home, the fact that she complained to the police just became one more reason for the beatings. Later, with the help of an NGO, Sushma and her child managed to get out of home and into a shelter.

Tara believes that with most NGOs engaged in relief work like distributing relief materials and food, the women in need, who need to be placed in shelters, might not receive the help they need.

Due to the fear of infection, there is a clampdown on the movement of women and many crisis centres or shelter homes that are functioning are reluctant to admit new inmates. This could potentially force a lot of victims of abuse, like Sushma, to go back to the very homes they want to get away from.

Activists also point out that the police and authorities are often looking to get the woman to reconcile and resolve the conflict. “Many don’t have the attitude of treating it as a crime but as a marital discord. Violence against anybody is a crime. The redressal mechanism itself is patriarchal,” says Tara.