While the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected the lives of many, the brunt of its adversity has been faced by victims of domestic violence; primarily women and children. Domestic violence cases have skyrocketed across the globe – and India has been no exception. The lockdown was announced in India with very little notice on March 24, with the chief aim of decelerating the spread of the virus. What resulted, however, was a surge in domestic violence cases as the vulnerable were found imprisoned in their homes with their abuser(s) – with no discernible escape route.
Leading Causes of Domestic Violence
This rapid increase in domestic violence can be attributed to factors such as financial pressure, job loss, a paucity of alcohol, and stress levels that have been amplified by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures that accompanied it. However, these pressures are just the tip of the iceberg of deeply entrenched socio-cultural causes that may be the root source of domestic violence, especially in India. In a paper by Michael Koenig et.al., a study conducted in Uttar Pradesh found economic tensions and an intergenerational history and transmission of violence to be associated with domestic violence. Results also highlighted that while a higher socio-economic status seemed to lessen the likelihood of physical violence, the same could not be said for sexual violence. Economic pressure, such as having to repay a loan or borrow money to pay for medical bills, emerged as a significant factor leading to physical violence.
Spike in Domestic Violence Cases Across the Globe
Domestic violence is neither a novel problem nor an isolated one. While it predated COVID-19, it shot up at an unprecedented rate with the initiation of lockdowns and curfews. According to the UN Women Headquarters, domestic violence cases increased by 30% in France post the initiation of the lockdown on March 17, and Argentina reported a 25% increase in emergency calls related to domestic violence. Cyprus and Singapore also registered a 30% and 33% increase in calls, respectively. Many countries saw an exponential surge in web searches for domestic violence helplines with the UK recording a 581% increase in website visits to its national domestic violence charity, Respect.
This spike is directly correlated with the issuing of lockdown orders which confine families to their homes – trapping many with their abusers. The most frightening aspect, perhaps, is that these alarmingly high figures represent a mere fraction of the reality as the majority of domestic violence cases go unreported.
Post Lockdown Domestic Violence in India
India went through four phases of lockdown between March 24 and May 31, and in that period, there were more domestic violence cases filed than those recorded between March and May in the past 10 years. The National Commission for Women (NCW) registered more than a twofold increase in domestic violence complaints since the implementation of the nationwide lockdown. Rights activist Kavita Krishnan said that if the government had given some warning of the lockdown, many of the aggrieved persons could have made arrangements to go to a family member’s home where they would be safe from their abusers’ wrath.
Around 87% of domestic violence cases go unreported in India and this can be accredited to many factors – the inherent patriarchal structure of society, the stigma attached with reporting, lack of faith in the police, fear that no proper action will be taken, or simply the dearth of means to file a complaint. While data reflects internet searches for domestic violence helplines abroad, in India, females account for only one-third of the total population using the internet and the majority of mobile phone users are also men. Lacking access to the internet, many women resort to couriering handwritten letters to the NCW but this is almost impossible during a lockdown and in a country where women constitute 59% of the 313 million illiterate people, it leaves numerous cases unaccounted for. While there are nationwide and state-specific hotlines set up to deal exclusively with domestic violence complaints, the lockdown has made it difficult to file a complaint over the phone without being overheard by one’s abuser.
With the police force remaining apathetic towards women and focusing its energy on enforcing lockdown rules, and domestic violence shelters exceeding their capacity, there seems to be little relief for the abused. As COVID-19 cases increase rapidly in India and states begin to reimplement temporary lockdowns, the threat of a nationwide lockdown looms again, signalling an urgent need for viable solutions. The NCW had set up a WhatsApp hotline for the lockdown period which received around 727 complaints between March and May but, as a solution, this still falls short.
- A Phrase or Gesture to Indicate Domestic Violence
Since people are permitted to leave their homes for necessary items such as groceries and medicines during a lockdown, shopkeepers of essential stores can be employed to register complaints. An inconspicuous, yet alerting, phrase or simple hand gesture can be used by women to indicate that they are facing domestic violence and filing the complaint on their behalf can be left to their local shopkeeper. This will be beneficial for women who are constantly under surveillance by their abusers and cannot make it to a dedicated centre or police station. For this system to be truly effective, however, information about the chosen phrase/hand gesture needs to be disseminated widely and the notion of simply being an innocent bystander has to be eradicated.
- Amending the Law
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 has proven ineffective multiple times in the past and is overdue for an amendment. For starters, the law is purely civil in nature – it is only when the offense is repeated that criminal sanctions such as imprisonment are taken into consideration. This is ludicrous as it essentially lets abusers off with a slap on the wrist the first time, leaving the abused vulnerable again. In certain cases, the magistrate may pass a protection order which prohibits the accused from interacting with the aggrieved, but its execution is severely lacking and, in most cases, grossly insufficient. A large number of cases go unreported due to a lack of faith in the police and judicial system and this needs to be remedied. While Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code criminalises cruelty towards women, its scope is narrower than that of the Domestic Violence Act, 2005. This calls for a far more comprehensive law that incorporates criminal sanctions as well as a more proactive police force.
- Amending the Mindset
In a paper titled ‘Domestic Violence in India: Insights from the 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey’, authors identified that violence against women in India is deeply embedded in patriarchal cultural norms and using violence to restrict women’s behaviour is analogous to a notion of power – accepted by both men and women. Results from the study indicated that implicit cultural norms and gender role conditioning contributed towards domestic violence and many Indian women perceived that they had brought it on themselves or that it was an in-house issue that should not be talked about. In a male-dominated society, such social norms burden women to remain in an abusive relationship – either to preserve traditional integrity or due to a lack of viable alternatives.
Domestic violence needs to be tackled at the grassroot level, using an approach that eliminates the toxic patriarchal mindset and destigmatises speaking out to put a stop to the intergenerational cycle of abuse. While this is undeniably a much more challenging undertaking than passing a policy amendment, it is vital in a country where deeply ingrained cultural norms play a massive role in perpetuating domestic violence. Along with institutional and policy interventions, a myriad of NGOs or human rights groups can be deployed to diffuse information and empower women, since the greater part of women in India are unaware of their rights and continue to live in fear of the consequences of reporting.
The proposed solutions are not immune to limitations or infrastructural issues but have the potential to succeed if implemented well. While the spread of COVID-19 has clearly been financially debilitating, it has also greatly exacerbated gender inequalities across the world. With funds being requisitioned for a multitude of factors during the pandemic, the government cannot afford to turn a blind eye towards victims of domestic violence. The multifaceted nature of this equally terrifying pandemic permeates through all sections of society across the globe and cannot be allowed to escalate unchecked.
Sanjana Hira is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Economics and Psychology from Ashoka University.