Domestic violence during COVID lockdown

Print edition : January 14, 2022

A demonstration by women’s organisations calling for an end to gender violence in Hyderabad on November 28. Photo: RAMAKRISHNA G.

Victims of domestic violence had a particularly tough time during the pandemic when lockdown restrictions made it difficult to access help.

The lockdown slogan “Stay Home. Stay Safe” was a reassuring one for most people. But for many others, especially women, it was a time of enforced brutal confinement with their tormentors. Akshara, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation working for women’s empowerment, has brought out a report on domestic violence during the nationwide lockdown in 2020. The 56-page report, called “Grappling with the Shadow Pandemic: Women’s Groups and Domestic Violence in India”, collates experiences of victims and is aimed at providing a template of solutions for the government in the event of a similar situation arising in the future.

The report says: “The first lockdown, from March to May 2020, severely impacted women. Like others in cities and towns all over India, women too lost jobs, saw their savings dwindle and witnessed family and friends falling seriously sick. What was not foreseen, however, was that the slogan ‘Stay home, stay safe’, urging people to follow the lockdown rules and isolate, would mean something entirely different for women. With family members at home all the time, women were doubly impacted not only with economic and other losses but also with a heavier burden of housework and with the ugly spectre of domestic violence looming over them.”

Stories abound of women across age groups being subjected to abuse that ranged from severe verbal violence by men and older women in their families to physical violence and sexual abuse. Domestic violence was also witnessed in marginalised groups like transgenders and Dalits.

The report documents the crime through the experiences of NGOs who struggled to handle cases during the countrywide shutdown. It focusses on establishing that the violence faced by women was of a severity that cannot be overlooked. The report is straightforward, forceful and fact-based but avoids the kind of language that might be seen as shrill or strident. It does not suffer in any way by eschewing anecdotal evidence. Forward-looking and positive, it is a collation of observations and experiences of respected organisations working in the field.

‘A family matter’

Far too often domestic violence is seen as a family matter. Even the authorities have been known to fall into this trap. Excuses are made for the perpetrators and the victims are expected to get on with life. All this was exacerbated during the lockdown with the prison-like restrictions it had on movement. Akshara decided to document the experiences and responses of a variety of NGOs across the country to the domestic violence so that they could serve as a baseboard for future course of action.

The loneliness of women victims cannot be emphasised enough. The usual support structures—hospitals, the police, government welfare cells, dedicated phone lines, government-run shelter homes, One Stop Crisis Centres, legal aid cells, protection officers—were either not functional or occupied with COVID-19 duties. As the lockdown progressed, however, NGOs devised innovative ways to reach out, while acknowledging that their efforts were inadequate.

Also read: Families in distress

The report says, “Our objectives in publishing this report and policy brief are to document some of the problems survivors of domestic violence faced during the pandemic and lockdown, to describe some state and women’s rights groups’ interventions and to put forward recommendations for immediate and long-term advocacy so as to be more pandemic/disaster prepared in the future. We referenced 2 women’s rights organisations from 11 States and interviewed 13 of them working on the issue of violence which were active during the lockdown period and were ready to share their field experiences. We chose women’s rights organisations or those with a feminist orientation. In-depth interviews were conducted by telephone by using a set of questions relating to trends in violence, responses, challenges and experiences of solidarity. We also contacted groups working with women with disabilities and the LGBTQI + communities. Although the selected groups were from different parts of the country, they are not representative of the hundreds of organisations that risked their lives to support women survivors.”

It spoke of how many women and their children found themselves “locked up” with their abusers during the pandemic. “Initial data and experiences of women’s rights organisations suggest that there were many more survivors of domestic violence than those who reached out for help. Women had nowhere to go and no one to whom they could turn for help. All support services were discontinued and the nodal agency for women, i.e. the police, was concentrating on patrolling and imposing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.”

Danger of isolation

Breakthrough, which describes itself as “an organisation working to create a cultural shift and make discrimination and violence against girls and women unacceptable”, is quoted in the report as saying: “One thing which aggravated the violence was the idea of social distancing. It made people believe that they cannot intervene in other people’s matter. You have to stay away from people and there is no way you can reach out. That isolation made things even worse.” They also pointed out the stresses of tiny living spaces. “It’s just one room and everybody just stays in it. Sometimes the washroom is also not available. Sometimes there is no access to common toilets. So where do women go and how do they keep themselves safe? Another problem was women’s access to resources like money and sometimes even a mobile phone. If there is only one phone in the house then it is in the possession of the man in the house, how do you reach out for help?”

Swayam, a feminist organisation, observed that during the lockdown there was no support of the kind that women would otherwise have got. “If you are being abused, where do you go? There is no family member and even if there is, how do you get to them if you don’t have public transport? A lot of them were also not supportive, saying, stay where you are right now, you can’t come because of what is happening.”

The Lucknow-based feminist group AALI (Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives) says: “At first, they did not call it violence but women spoke about the stress and the tough time they were going through. Women had to become sponges that absorbed all the accumulated frustrations of everyone in the family. They did not want to talk about it because they felt they should not add to the family’s stress levels. It was not violence all the time but an emotional overload.”

Akshara Centre in Mumbai found that “being confined at home often led to increased work and sometimes domestic abuse. Men’s demands did not reduce, in fact they increased. Women had to do all the housework and that increased the levels of resentment and anger on both sides.”

Jagori Grameen’s experience in Dharamshala showed that “everyone’s nerves were frayed. Any small thing could cause a problem, reprimand and sometimes beatings. Many young girls complained that their fathers or brothers would get annoyed if they saw them on the mobile for a long time. They would criticise, or grab the mobile to see who they were speaking with or ask them not to use them.”

The North East Network said: “The pandemic has rebuilt itself on the existing inequalities. There has always been a social bias, there has always been inequality, which women have faced … the pandemic actually reinvented, rebuilt on these biases. So there was double trouble for women.”

The report speaks about the peculiar problems caused by the lockdown: “Activists and field workers trying to help women experiencing violence and abuse inside their homes soon realised that women were not even able to make a phone call to them to ask for help. And even if they managed to reach out somehow, it was nearly impossible to intervene in any manner except telephonically because no one was allowed to step out.” Activists from the Special Cell for Women and Children, TISS, elaborated on how strained marital relationships led to aggression against women in families during the lockdown: “When the man would go to work, a woman was away from him for quite a few hours. In small houses, there is a sense of space only when everyone goes out to work. Now the father, children, grandparents, everybody were at home, required food three to four times a day, and needed to be looked after. Housework increased. Tensions built up. And in that small space, conflicts flared up, with women and children bearing the brunt.”

Swayam says, “If you have the perpetrator at home all the time, how do you contact services? Women also didn’t have contact with family members or friends or neighbours. Everybody was so scared to meet anybody. There was no support of the kind that they would normally get. Every access they had was cut off.”

The TISS cell found: “In normal circumstances also, women are told to stay at home. With the lockdown, it was worse. The internal controlling of women continued and there were external forces not allowing her to step out. Even if she called the police helpline number 100, their first response was manage kar le” (take care of it yourself). So we were helping the woman ‘manage’ within home because in April, May and June (2020) we could not do much.”

Child victims

Almost all the organisations interviewed spoke of instances of natal violence. Domestic violence is commonly understood to be perpetrated by husbands or in-laws on adult women. But female children and adolescents are also victims. It is just less spoken about, and often the mother is involved in hushing it up, especially if there is sexual abuse. The report quotes instances saying, “SNEHA intervened in a case where a girl had to be rescued because her brother was beating her up so badly that she sustained injuries on her vagina/private parts. While that may be an extreme incident, almost all activists reported young women having a tough time at home. Young girls were criticised for being on the phone, they had to do a lot more housework than male family members (brothers/fathers), they were not given preference when it came to online education and were reprimanded for the smallest of issues.”

Additionally, the report draws attention to an area of domestic violence that is not often discussed. “Apart from the challenges that all women faced during the pandemic, women from marginalised and vulnerable communities went through other ordeals of discrimination—by people around them and even by state agencies… When dealing with domestic violence, organisations working for Muslim women’s rights face layered challenges, on one hand resisting patriarchy within the community and on the other, discrimination from the external systems such as the police. Awaaz-e-Niswaan, a Muslim women’s organisation, said that during the pandemic they were able to continue resolving cases of domestic violence from both their offices in Mumbra and Kurla in Mumbai. Despite the lockdown, their staff were able to come to the offices as they lived within walking distance.

“The pandemic magnified the problems faced by Dalit women. There was an increased incidence of anaemia in the areas where they worked amongst Dalit and Muslim women which was connected to the unavailability of food. Women turned to quacks to terminate pregnancies during the lockdown in the absence of medical services. They felt they could not afford another mouth to feed due to loss of livelihood caused by the pandemic. In some cases, the women were discriminated and beaten up by upper caste women while fetching water in villages. Women’s Voice pointed out that during the lockdown, more so than ‘normal’ times, state mechanisms such as access to police and courts did not work for Dalits.

“The number of calls for help and support to Nazariya, a queer feminist organisation, more than doubled from 44 between August 2020 and March 2021 to 86 between April and June 2021. Even in ‘normal’ times, the transgender and queer community has a number of difficulties like their family’s rejection of their sexual orientation or non-conforming gender binaries as well as their own traumatic journey of self-awareness. Nazariya reported that during the lockdown period, they came across instances of queer women being forced to meet prospective grooms while those already married were subjected to increased violence… In some cases, they were forced to go for conversion therapy. The worst sufferers were those with stalled surgeries and transitioning treatment causing hormonal imbalance and body dysphoria. They were turned away from hospitals and asked ‘Is hormone injection an emergency?’

“People with disabilities, largely invisible in India, constitute little over 2 per cent of the total population… women with disabilities are even more disadvantaged and vulnerable than their male counterparts. The Association for Women with Disabilities (AWDD) and the Disability Activists Forum said that the special challenges women with disabilities faced ranged from not being able to access basic facilities or relief measures to being abused at home. The International Disability Alliance collected data from Odisha, Gujarat and Telangana’s Women with Disabilities Network and found that there was an increase in violence from partners and personal attendants. Women avoided reporting their problems because of fear of abandonment by the families.”

Also read: Gender issues and patriarchal values in relationships

Calling domestic violence a “parallel pandemic”, the report says: “The UN Women collected data from different parts of the world to show the rising rate of intimate partner violence on women during the pandemic. Around 243 million women and girls between the ages of 15-49 years were at the receiving end of violence during the first year of the pandemic.” Prior to the pandemic The World Health Organisation (WHO) had “put out the startling data that worldwide, about one in three women or 736 million women across ages are subject to violence”.

According to the National Commission for Women (NCW), there was a 2.5-times increase in cases of domestic violence registered between February 27 and May 31; it received 1,477 domestic violence complaints. In April and May 2020, 47.2 per cent of all cases received by the NCW were of domestic violence, against only 20.6 per cent cases between January and March 2020.

In some instances, there were services to help women. The One Stop Crisis (OSC) centre run by SNEHA in Mumbai stayed open, but that was because it was in a public hospital. OSCs are five-bed facilities for temporary stay available in extreme cases of domestic violence. After five days in the OCS, women have to move to a shelter and this proved to be a problem during the lockdown. The North East Network had a positive experience when it sent an appeal to the Commissioner of the Social Welfare Department, who responded by creating a Standard Operating Procedure for women’s access to shelters. Assam was the only State to have a dedicated SOP of this kind which helped women to access them.

The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) in Chennai was one of the few organisations that kept their shelter home open for new admissions even during the lockdown. It says: “Many shelters were not admitting women because of the COVID scare. In Chennai, we were able to do it because we are based in the city. But in other districts, it was challenging to refer women to shelter homes. We kept it open with all protocols. Fortunately, no COVID cases were recorded from our organisation and we followed quarantine for 14 days for new admissions.” This system will continue until the end of the pandemic.

With a few exceptions, the report is critical of government interventions to help women trapped with abusive partners. The police, in particular, are reported as having a “patchy record” of providing assistance.

Lockdown guidelines

The concluding pages of the report offer guidelines on what the States and the Centre can do if another countrywide lockdown occurs.

“A disaster of the scale of the pandemic needs public activism as well as state intervention and collaboration between different entities to be successfully handled. Whilst there was a discussion and subsequently a policy on the involvement of the private health sector for supplementary hospital beds and vaccination alongside the state, we did not hear or see any collaboration with women’s rights groups. The latter maybe small in number but have direct contact and experiences with communities of women. On the other hand, the state has a vast network of departments and people like ASHA workers who can be mobilised. A systematic collaboration would have benefited a vast number of women and ensured their right to security and a dignified life during the pandemic.

“The State and Central governments could have taken some immediate steps, created safety nets and issued directives based on the demands made by women’s rights groups. In future the State and Central government can be more pandemic prepared by:

Declaring all service providers like counsellors and protection officers as ‘essential service providers’ with ID cards for mobility and have refresher courses for them to handle survivors in a crisis situation, especially disabled, migrant women, religious and caste minorities and people with different sexual identities.

Installing and operationalising a national emergency helpline with a common number for the entire country with trained women personnel, effective recording and monitoring systems.

Creating and publicising a directory of services which can be accessed by survivors and their relatives or friends with information and mobile numbers during crisis.

Strengthen the capacity of functionaries of One-Stop Centres and other shelter and safe spaces for women in the State as well as all service providers on provision of GBV related essential services adapted to humanitarian context.

Preparing a Standard Operations Procedure for guidance and kept all shelters and One Stop Centres open for survivors. Establish and ensure application of a gender sensitive protocol for medico-legal documentation. Build capacity of personnel for ensuring safety of women in judicial and police custody.

Allocating space for women’s cases in courts and hospitals especially for emergency cases.

Advising the police in all States to keep some personnel available for emergencies involving survivors and their issues.

Ensuring that information and food security for different marginalised sections especially disabled women reach them.”

The report says: “As we move towards a ‘new normal’ in post-pandemic times, we need to heed the lessons we have been taught in this period. There will be many such pandemics and crises in the future and women will need different forms of support which we will have to build today to prepare for tomorrow.”

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