Data and case workers tell us of a surge in domestic violence cases during the lockdown. But as India slowly emerges, you and I have a role to play as bystanders
New Delhi: What makes a noted actor like Nandita Das pick up her camera to shoot a seven-minute film that highlights domestic violence during the lockdown and what can you as a bystander do about it? It validates the truth that when you feel the need to respond, you will find ways in which to do it.
The outpouring of concern, thought and action is a consolation for organisations like Breakthrough India, which have been working on issues of violence against women for two decades. For the first time in my life, corporate social responsibility (CSR) networks have reached out to us, asking whether we can create a short webinar on the issue of domestic violence.
Corporates have penciled in virtual sessions wanting to talk about the issue with their workforce. Celebrity digital influencers on fashion and Bollywood have put together online discussions on how their “girl tribe” can deal with the issue during the lockdown. Yes, many of them could be riding a passing wave, but for people who often find themselves facing shifting gazes, snickers and rude comments when talking about violence against women, it is a hopeful wave.
Domestic violence in India, as all over the world, has surged (here and here), even doubled during the lockdown period. Anecdotal data are aplenty, as described by non governmental organisations (NGOs). Quantitative data, though still sketchy and scattered, are also available and being collated by some NGOs.
Around the beginning of April 2020, when we realized we might be facing a long lockdown, some 300 NGOs, civil society organisations and women’s rights organisations came together in a virtual town hall to discuss how to deal with domestic violence during this time.
Organisations told us how several police, official and NGO helplines had witnessed a sudden drop in calls. For example, the Delhi Commission of Women (DCW) witnessed a decrease in calls related to domestic violence – from 808 during 12-25 March to 337 during 1-7 April. Perhaps this was because survivors in abusive relationships could not access phones.
Domestic Violence Complaints Jump
Then, suddenly, there was a surge in those calls with the National Commission of Women (NCW) reporting 239 complaints of domestic violence between 23 March and 16 April, compared to 123 in the preceding 25-day period. All the messages received on NCW helpline number were first scrutinised, and those related to domestic violence given priority, said the NCW.
On 10 April, the NCW launched an emergency number, 7217735372, on WhatsApp, in addition to the online complaints link and emails for women to register complaints. Within a week, the commission received 40 messages alleging different forms of domestic violence. A special team was constituted by the commission to handle the complaints on a fast-track basis.
If you look at the NCW archives, calls related to domestic violence now average 300+ every month. There has also been a rise in the number of calls related to cyber harassment of women; against an average of 30 calls a month, the numbers have been 56 in April and 72 in May.
It’s pretty much the same story with one stop centres (OSCs). Between 1 January and 23 April, domestic violence cases accounted for 40% of total cases registered, according to Vindhya Undarti, professor, project leader of Sakhi OSC and deputy director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad campus. In February, domestic violence accounted for 68% of all registered cases and by April, this had shot up to 89%.
There have been references to domestic violence in a letter Niti Aayog shared with a few women’s rights organisations on May 21-- it mentions the doubling of calls that NCW has received. It also talks about a report compiled by the National Legal Services Authority about people who needed legal aid during the lockdown period from 28 different State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs). The report shows a total of 727 domestic violence-related cases reported, till 15 May, to legal services authorities across the country during the lockdown. It promises to take up the issue with the Ministry of Women and Children.
Finding A Post-Lockdown Solution
What happens when the lockdown is lifted? Violence against women has to be prioritised across policies and government departments if India is to get any closer to covering the global gender gap index. That is a priority.
In many tweetathons and social media convenings we have organised and taken part in the last few weeks, it has been reiterated that while domestic violence affects everyone, women and girls from disenfranchised and marginalised communities—sex workers, women with disabilities, members of sexual minorities, and migrant workers—are at greater risk of violence.
We must include them when we talk about redressal systems and infrastructure.
The responses to domestic violence in rural areas too needs to factor in qualitative differences, compared to the situation in the urban areas. A structural response is called for as rural women survivors of domestic violence suffer from aggravated “isolation”. In other words, they lack social and familial support, experience limited mobility, have little access to information and are dictated by cultural norms that emphasise their position as one of the most suppressed members within the marital household with limited to no decision-making agency.
Reporting must be made easier for low-income women, especially those who don’t have internet access or phones. There is also a need for a policy from the government to prioritise domestic violence against women as a health issue, and work towards the development of protocols for screening, recording and referrals.
Women’s rights organisations have demanded that the safety and security of women must be included in the essential services under the Disaster Management Act and protection officers reinstated in their defined roles.
One Stop Centres are supposed to provide integrated support and assistance to women affected by violence, both in private and public spaces, and provide access to medical, legal and psychosocial counselling as well as shelter services. The Sakhi OSCs are a central government initiative for women’s safety in the aftermath of the horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in December 2012 and the subsequent recommendations by the Justice Verma Commission and Usha Mehra Commission in 2013. Out of the 728 sanctioned OSCs, about 595 are currently operational.
Shelter homes and regulations around them need to be revamped totally if they are to become safe for women and operate with a modicum of professionalism.
The film I referred to in the beginning has been shot by actor and director Nandita Das at her home and touches upon the issue in many ways. It shows the other burden that women have faced during the lockdown, that of unpaid care work. We see how, during the lockdown, women who still have jobs are trying to work from home, juggle homework of children being home-schooled with presentations and meetings, take care of household chores and look after the sick and the elderly with very little contribution from other household members.
Most importantly, it shows how as bystanders we can, and should, intervene wherever possible.
These last few weeks, many of us have received calls and messages from across the country. People have wanted to know what they can do to extricate their friends, relatives or colleagues out of abusive relationships. Calls have been made on their behalf to helplines, police and others. Women’s organisations have swung into action, but so has the common citizen—by being watchful, picking up the phone to call people they know, paying attention to the issue.
This needs to continue, not just as bystanders watching domestic violence unfold at the homes of our neighbours, but also in public spaces as the country slowly starts opening up.
It’s when a group of people stand up and say no to gender-based violence, including all forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, that we can develop a sense of responsibility among community members. We all have a key role to play in the prevention of assault and harassment. That is how change happens.
(Sohini Bhattacharya is social change enthusiast with Breakthrough, an organisation that aims to prevent violence against women and girls.)
Previously on Article14: India Hit By Domestic Violence Pandemic
If You’re Facing Violence At Home:
All India Women’s Helpline: 1091
Emergency Response Support System: 112
Women’s Helpline: 181
Women Powerline (Uttar Pradesh): 1090
iCALL-Initiating Concern for All (pan India Monday-Saturday 10 am-8 pm ): 9372048501, 9920241248, 8369799513; Email: email@example.com
Jagori (Delhi): 011-26692700, 8800996640
Shakti Shalini (Delhi): 24373737
Sneha (Mumbai): 9833052684, 9167535765
Swayam (Kolkata): 9830772814, Monday-Friday 10 am to 2 pm
Gramya (Hyderabad): 9440860271
Gauravi Sakhi (Madhya Pradesh): 18002332244
Red Dot: firstname.lastname@example.org