“My first thought was for my daughter and myself when I heard Modiji’s speech,” recalls Ranjana Kurlekar, a 35-year-old former domestic worker. Almost inured to regular physical violence from her husband, she said she tolerated it for the sake of the family. The problem arose when he stayed home, as in the monsoons when he did not go out fishing with his co-workers. She says when he is away the house is at peace and the children study better. But during the monsoon, his drink-fuelled rage leaves even neighbours shaken in their slum colony of Ganesh Murthy Nagar in south Mumbai. “I knew this lockdown would be like that,” she says.
Her neighbours urged her to ask her “ma’am” (employer) if she could live in for the lockdown. They thought the offer would be taken up gladly because the employer would have someone to do the housework. What they did not know, but Ranjana did, was that the upper middle-class home she worked for in a wealthy south Mumbai housing society was also one where the “ saab beat the memsahib ”.
Ranjana is safe now at her mother’s home. But during the first few days of the lockdown she saw a rage build up in her husband as he and his friends spent entire nights sitting by the sea, drinking whatever liquor they could get. When the police finally clamped down on the wine shops, Ranjana knew the violence would start. This time it extended to their 12-year-old daughter and spilled over into sexual threats. “My girl is almost a woman. I didn’t know what he would do to her,” she says, recalling the time before she took her children and left for her mother’s home in Alibag.
The spike in domestic violence during the lockdown the world over has been so steep that it has been given a name as sinister as the act: UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, has called it the “shadow pandemic”. Domestic violence has indeed shadowed the path of the novel coronavirus starting in China and then moving on to the rest of the world. The National Commission for Women (NCW) recorded more than a 100 per cent increase in violence against women after March 23. Between February 27 and March 22 there were 123 recorded cases of domestic violence. From March 23 to April 16, there were 199 calls specifically related to domestic violence.
When victims of domestic violence reach out for help, if at all they do, they call the police. Under the lockdown, however, domestic violence does not get the same quick response that it used to. The NCW tried to respond to this by launching a WhatsApp number—72177135372—on April 10 to report domestic violence on an emergency basis, with the assurance that women would be provided immediate security by the police. But only 40 calls were received, an indication that the facility was not publicised enough. Realising that women could not speak freely over the phone with the abuser around at home, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) created email addresses where victims could write in. But only literate women with access to the Internet are able to use this option, while the majority are forced to suffer in silence.
In Pune district, when women complain about domestic violence their abusers are put into institutional quarantine, leaving homes safer.
Unfortunately, the strict guidelines of the lockdown are working against women’s safety. Civil society organisations and women’s groups are unable to respond adequately because of lockdown stringencies. This has led them to ask for emergency support services under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.
Worldwide, the situation is the same. France recorded a 30 per cent increase in domestic violence after it went into lockdown on March 17. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent post lockdown. Cyprus saw a 30 per cent increase in calls for help, while Singapore registered a 33 per cent increase. In South Africa during the first week of lockdown there were 90,000 reports of violence against women. In Malaysia and China, the distress calls doubled. North America, Spain, Germany and the U.K. also registered an increase in domestic violence and a need for emergency shelters.
In a press release Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, said: “Helplines, psychosocial support and online counselling should be boosted, using technology-based solutions such as SMS, online tools and networks to expand social support, and to reach women with no access to phones or Internet. Police and justice services must mobilise to ensure that incidents of violence against women and girls are given high priority with no impunity for perpetrators.”
Lockdown-related domestic violence is spurred not just by the fact of being closeted together but also the accompanying frustrations, which vary according to the economic situations of families. Frustrations of staying indoors and of suffering job/income losses are triggers that an abuser responds easily to. The much-repeated exhortation to “stay home, stay safe” by governments has little meaning for victims of domestic violence.