“Governments never learn, only people learn” – Milton Friedman
Globally, 1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by any perpetrator. (WHO, 2020) As per a report by UN Women, 243 billion women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by the previous 12 months. (Women, 2020) Presently, the COVID-19 catastrophe has bought the world to a standstill, due to the worldwide lockdown. In India, even after a period of more than one and a half month since the enforcement of the lockdown, the number of COVID-19 cases are compounding. Each time the lockdown gets extended, there is a state of coma and confusion, as there is no set time stamp as to when the lockdown measures shall be relaxed. Till then the government has implored the citizens to follow the social distancing norms and stay at home as much as possible for safety concerns. But, is home really a safe place for every third woman who is victim of domestic abuse? The data released by National Commission for Women (NCW) shows a two-fold increase in gender-based violence from 116 (March 2 -8) to 257 (March 23- April 1); domestic violence cases are up to from 30 to 69. (Shivkumar, 2020) France recorded 30% increase since lockdown, increased cases of domestic violence and demand for emergency shelter has also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States. History is omnipresent, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to drive similar trends as demonstrated in the Ebola pandemic against gender-based violence. (Women, 2020) Needless to say, gender-based violence against women is an all-pervasive pandemic in our society, which finds its roots enmeshed in parochial patriarchy and male sexual entitlement since time unknown.
Having interacted with several victims during the course of my internship, in almost all the stories that I have encountered, the common narrative is that, most women are trapped in a vicious circle of abuse. Each time a woman condones an act of abuse at the hands of her husband and other family members or normalises any kind of abuse, she encourages the very belligerent attitude leading to graver repercussions. The widespread socioeconomic dependency of women subordinates them to their husbands and other family members. The fear of social exclusion and marginalisation, and lack of effective responses to violence, keeps them in a context of continuous violence and intimidation. (Manjoo, 2014) Further, there is a societal stigma that follows for a woman who asserts her rights but ironically the male is never asked to even justify his acts. Before the lockdown, my house help frantically came up to me for legal advice. She told me that her husband had lost his job and that she has to be the sole bread earner. She has been religiously taking looking after the needs of her husband and three minor children by taking up extra hours of work but when she used to return home her husband starts violently beating her in a drunken state and her mother-in-law becomes the silent offender. I told her to approach the nearest police station and file an NC to get a record of any incidents of abuse but she was reluctant as she was fearful that taking an appropriate legal recourse would further deteriorate her relationship with her husband and that her minor children would have to bear the consequences. She made terms with her plight. Statistics suggest that 31 percent of the women have experienced physical, emotional and sexual violence by their spouses. Yet only 14 percent of the victims seek help. (Saaliq, 2018) Due to the lockdown the chances of under-reporting aggravate further as there is a lack of social support and disruption of social networks. Now, not only the victim will live in fear of reporting and/or informing about abuse in presence of the perpetrator but also the underlying fear of being under their constant surveillance all day long in the house.
During the lockdown many women who are informal wage earners and unpaid caretakers of the family are most vulnerable to abuse, excessive stress and post traumatic disorders. One of the contemporary challenges in urban societies is non-adherence to gender stereotyping. Due to the lockdown, women are working from home thus widely accepted gender role for females to be a caretaker gets compromised. This often triggers the male ego wherein they feel the urge to exert control and dictate terms which exacerbates violence. In this lockdown, there are high risks of increased instances of sexual abuse against women where the husband compels the wife to enter into obnoxious sexual acts which cause numerous reproductive health disorders. If a woman denies, then she might be subjected to brutal assaults. The perpetrators may deprive the victim from having access to basic necessities including soaps and sanitisers due to scare resources causing economic abuse as well. The hindsight is a worsened psyche of the victim which leaves her powerless. For medical emergencies, first aid and counselling it is almost impossible to have access to hospitals and/or counseling centres to prevent contact from the virus. The victimised women usually seek refuge at their parental home unfortunately even their family members consider them and their children a burden still, it gave them temporary shelter to evade from the clutches of the perpetrators. Considering the present situation to stop the spread of the virus there is restriction of movement hence this interim option is also ruled out. Broadly speaking, all means of escape in favour of women and girls who are subjected to domestic violence are in danger as stepping out of the home is an equivalent threat as staying at home.
I interviewed one of the Mumbai-based legal aid advocate and it came to my knowledge that Ministry of Women and Child Development has kept One Stop Centres (OSC’s) fully operational and has requested the National Legal Services Authority to appoint female advocates to provide necessary legal aid assistance through 181 helpline or other electronic mediums. But there are multiple legal hurdles as courts are taking time to adapt to virtual court hearings conducted via video conferencing. It is difficult to file complaints/petitions/applications for all cases reported at OSC’s as several courts have issued notifications for suspension of work therein, barring hearings in matters of extreme urgency through video conferencing. (Sahu, 2020) The protection orders or the residence orders would also be futile due to more time spent in close contact. Any kind of punitive punishment for the perpetrator may intensify degree of violence for the victim. There is a need for reformative punishments which are usually counselling centric. (Sunil Mehta, 2020) The Delhi High Court has asked the state to take into consideration the appointment of temporary protection officers under the section of Protection of Women Domestic Violence Act, 2005. (All India Council for human rights, liberties and social justice, 2020) Along with this, assistance of welfare experts as mandated by Section 15 of the Act can also be taken by the Magistrates for effective legal mechanism. The National Commission for Women and various state governments are ensuring wide publicity of the helpline numbers, Whats App numbers and email for the victims but it shall not be overlooked that illiteracy rate among women is high in India thus the women especially of lower strata struggle with the technical know-how. Many of them either do not possess phones or their phones would be seized by the perpetrators forcefully. While the NCW and State Women Commissions are urging the victims to do so, it must be noted that there might be chances where police are delayed in such rescues as there have several other duties and to discharge considering the challenges of enforcing the lockdown. (Sunil Mehta, 2020) We can conclude that the situation for victims of domestic violence is helpless. It all boils down to one realisation that someday we develop an elixir for the deadly virus but we are still vying to fight against our social pandemics and the most long-drawn battle is with the virus of gender inequality.
Tough times call for tougher actions and as citizens it becomes our responsibility to keep a watch of any wrongful activities happening in our neighbourhood and bring it to the notice of the nearest OSC. If a victim contacts you, listen to them with empathy and non-judgment as we are fighting a community virus and we shall overcome all the challenges as a community by taking a step towards personal responsibility. Make use of your social media handles and spread necessary information, it could be useful for all victims silently suffering in their homes. We as a community are the first and foremost perpetrators when we encourage the idea that men are supposed to wield control whereas losing control over the other gender is a sign of weakness. Right from the childhood young boys have to hear irrational sentences like “you lost from a girl”, “do not cry like a girl”, we indirectly give them a message that they are supposed to be superior and stronger than the other genders. As a community, it is a time to reflect and fortify our social mechanism and create safe spaces for all genders. Despite umpteen measures or policies implemented in the time of an epidemic or otherwise, the cause of this parallel pandemic is embedded in our social conditioning. A woman is subjected to domestic abuse every 4.4 minutes. (Kamdar, 2020) As you complete reading this a woman has been beaten mercilessly in her own abode that she builds with all her might. Time to unlearn the old patterns and rid ourselves from dogmatic pedagogies of one gender being superior or inferior than the other. Are we teaching the youth how to respect other genders and be more tolerant towards them? Are we teaching them what consent and healthy sex is? Are we teaching them that show of power is not equivalent to show of love? We need a paradigm shift, a ceasefire. The virus is tantalising our deep rooted societal insecurities. This is not only a war from a health pandemic but also from a shadow pandemic of a dysfunctional society where viruses in the form of domestic violence still prevail as our community is seldom mobilised or sensitised to deal with the same.
All India Council for human rights, liberties and social justice , W.P. (C) 2973/2020 (Delhi High Court April 24, 2020).
Kamdar, B. (2020, April 27). The DipIomat. India’s COVID-19 Gender BIind Spot.
Manjoo, R. (2014). Report of the Special Rappoteur on violence Against women it’s causes and consequences. UN General Assembly, (p. 22).
Saaliq, S. (2018, February 8). Every Third Woman In India suffers Sexual, Physical Violence at Home.
Sahu, S. (2020, April 19). Bar and Bench. Tapping into “extremely urgent” hearings during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Shivkumar, G. (2020, April 16). The Wire. Why Battling COVID- 19, We can’t Iet the pandemic of domestic violence continue.
Sunil Mehta, B. S. (2020, ApriI 8). Observer Research Foundation. Addressing domestic vioIence: a forgotten agenda while locking India down.
WHO. (2020). COVID-19 and violence against women. What health sector/system can do. Human Reproduction Programme.
Women, U. (2020). COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women and Girls. UN Women.
This article is authored by Sneha Golecha, a second-year B.L.S L.L.B (Sem 4) student from KES’s Shri Jayantilal H. Patel Law College affiliated to Mumbai University. She can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sneha-golecha-a4412a198
Also Read – How to file Domestic Violence Cases?
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