New Delhi: The woman calling on the phone from Ghaziabad was distraught. Her husband, she told the counsellor of the Delhi-based NGO Shakti Shalini, used to beat her occasionally. Since the lockdown to control the Coronavirus came into effect on 24 March 2020, she said, he has been home and beats her “very badly”, every day.
The woman’s parents live only 10 km away and the woman wanted them to come and take her away. But under the lockdown the parents could not make the journey. Finally, Shakti Shalini was able to convince the local police station to at least pay the woman’s husband a visit and provide her with security.
There are no unified national data, but several women’s groups told Article14 spoke of a surge in domestic violence, even though, in some cases, reporting is down. The National Commission for Women is at present only receiving online complaints since its offices are closed. Yet, in the first nine days of the lockdown from 23 March to 1 April 2020, it received 257 complaints. Pre-lockdown, the NCW received 116 online complaints over the seven days from 2 March to 8 March.
“Not only have the number of cases gone up, the severity and brutality of the violence has increased too,” said Tiwari. There are other cases, she said, where women are being subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse. “How do we reach out and rescue them?” she asked. “Our hands are tied.”
The spike in domestic violence following the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24 has left many NGOs in a bind: They do not have people or resources to deal with the surge in cases.
Other helplines are ‘simply not working right now’, said Sohini Bhattacharya of Breakthrough India, a women’s rights organisations that works to ending violence against women and children. “We are asking neighbours and bystanders to be alert and intervene if necessary.” (For a list of helplines currently operational, scroll to the end of the story.)
Helplines have either shut down altogether because staff cannot come to work during the lockdown or, those still in service, are coping as best as they can without protective gear and with the realization that there is little they can actually do under the lockdown. Perhaps, most serious of all is a lack of government support.
“NGOs do not have the capacity to take on what is the government’s responsibility,” said Bhattacharya. “Even if you have people on the frontline, nobody is thinking about the safety of these workers.”
With Husbands At Home, Complaints Difficult
After confirming a spike in the number of crimes against women following the lockdown, the NCW phone lines to women who might wish to lodge a complaint are “out-of-reach”, said an NCW employee, since the offices are shut.
“Women who wish to register complaints do it through one of several ways,” she explained. These include, physical visits to the NCW office, postal communication and phone calls as well as emails, social media and online complaints.
With the offices shut for the lockdown, the NCW is at present only able to access online complaints, emails and social media, the employee said.
The spurt holds even when you factor in the two additional days for which data are available post lockdown. The complaints include harassment for dowry, police apathy and right to live with dignity.
Complaints relating to sexual crime are up, which ties in with National Crime Records Bureau findings in January 2020 that 94% of rapes are committed by perpetrators, including relatives and neighbours, known to their victims.
The seven days pre-lockdown saw two complaints of rape or attempts to rape. In the nine days post-lockdown this number rose to 13.
Other sexual crimes that have registered a rise are sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism. Women also complained in increasing numbers about instances where they were being denied their right to exercise choice in marriage by their families.
The biggest jump has been in domestic violence complaints that have more than doubled, from 30 received between March 2-8 to 69 in the first nine days following the lock-down.
But the complaints could be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. “Not all women can access the online facility. Most do not have access to online services, or don’t know how to use them,” the NCW employee said.
Moreover, she added, with husbands at home 24x7, making a call for help just became that much more difficult.
A Global Domestic-Violence Pandemic
With one-fourth of the world’s population under lockdown due to measures to counter the spread of coronavirus, domestic abuse calls are up all over the world.
In Britain, reported BBC, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help.
In France, the government said it would put victims of domestic violence in hotel rooms and finance pop-up counseling centres at grocery stores following a surge of domestic violence cases ever since the country went into lockdown on March 19. France has witnessed a 36% increase in domestic violence reporting in recent weeks.
Following a spike in coronavirus-related family abuse in Australia, the government has announced a boost of A$150 million for telephone support services.
In Singapore, The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) women’s helpline saw a 33% increase in calls relating to family violence in February compared to the same period last year.
Reports of domestic violence across the globe led World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to call on countries to take measures to curb the menace of domestic violence. “We call on countries to include services for addressing domestic violence as an essential service that must continue during the COVOD-19 response,” he said.
The rise in domestic violence reporting also prompted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to make an emotional appeal for ‘peace at home – and in homes – around the world’. In a statement dated April 5, Guterres said the lockdown, essential to suppressing Covid-19, ‘can trap women with abusive partners’.
“In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled,” he stated. “Meanwhile, healthcare providers and police are overwhelmed and understaffed. Local support groups are paralysed or short of funds. Some domestic violence shelters are closed; others are full. I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for Covid-19.”
Finding A Way Forward
In India, one in three women suffers physical and sexual violence at home, according to National Family Health Survey-4 2018 data.
Now, with women stuck at home with their abusers, there has been a surge in violence.
“There is a shortage of food and money,” said Kalpana Viswanath of Safetipin, an NGO that supports safer cities. “The household work burden is being unfairly shared. Add to this the unbelievable stress and insecurity and it seems self-evident that cases of domestic violence would be going up.”
Reduced mobility, confinement within the household and lack of social connectivity during the outbreak could, “compound the situation for women who experience or are at the risk of violence, within relationships,” reads a resource kit prepared by UN Women, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the WHO. “Women from marginalized groups including migrant communities may be at heightened risk of violence, as they face economic uncertainties, and food and health insecurity, as the full impact of this crisis unfolds over time.”
The first weeks of the government’s response to Covid-19 has been to spread awareness, provide health services and stop the spread of the virus. None of the 11 empowered committees set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as quick response teams so far – medical emergency management, isolation and quarantine, public grievances and so on – include gender and inclusion.
“Unsurprisingly, gender and violence against women is not this government’s priority,” said an activist.
“We need to highlight some of the issues which might be faced by specially women and girls that need immediate attention,” stated a letter written on April 3 by Breakthrough India to Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank.
The suggestions include an urgent need to increase resources available to those NGOs that provide support and assistance to domestic violence survivors for shelter, counseling and legal aid. “We would also recommend that the government considers these as part of the essential services that remain open and are available to provide support to survivors of domestic violence,” the letter recommends.
UN Women’s suggestions to women who face violence include asking them to reach out to family, friends or frontline workers like ASHAs. “Remember this is a period for physical distancing with social solidarity, so do not disengage. Consider remaining connected with your well-wishers through phone or other means.”
In Telangana, said Rukmini Rao of the Gramya Resource Centre for Women, the helpline is open even though the calls have dwindled from an average of two a day to just two since the lockdown began.
“The state government has allowed one stop crisis centres to remain functional. We have emergency passes and can go anywhere. Our rescue vehicle too is functional. But women are not able to reach us,” Rao said.
“Women have phones but in a one-two room house, they are not in a position to call us,” she explained. “The crisis has brought up all the fissures of our society. When there is such poverty, how are women to reach us?”
(Namita Bhandare is a member of the Article14 editorial board.)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com
(compiled by UN Women, UNFPA and WHO; Breakthrough India)