Features | Society | South Asia

India’s ‘Shadow Pandemic’

Domestic violence in India surges during the COVID-19 crisis.

By Neeta Lal for
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India’s ‘Shadow Pandemic’

An Indian women looks out from a closed temple gate during lockdown to prevent the spread of new coronavirus in Hyderabad, India, April 14, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

“I’m calling you from the ration shop as I’m scared to talk from home. My husband lost his factory job a month ago and is always in the house. He beats me in front of the kids, doesn’t help around [the house] and flings the liquor bottle at me if I try to reason things with him. I’m trapped in my own house. Please help!”

This plaintive call was made in the dead of the night to a crisis intervention counsellor at the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based non-profit working for gender equality. The call is among dozens the organization has been flooded with these days.

“There’s been a surge in such calls since the country entered into a 21-day lockdown from March 25 to control the spread of coronavirus,” says the Center’s counsellor, Rakhi Sharma. “Shockingly, a new trend we’re witnessing,” Sharma adds, “is of married women asking to be rescued from parental homes. Mothers, fathers, stepmothers, and siblings are also being accused of domestic violence.”

At a time when women are already shouldering higher proportions of the domestic burden during the lockdown, escalating tensions due to depleting resources are further accentuating domestic violence behind closed doors. Denied access to traditional forms of support – family, friends, doctors – the threat for these unfortunate women looms largest where they should be safest – inside their own homes.

It’s a story that is playing out around the world. Since mid-March, the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline has received over 2,000 calls from individuals citing the coronavirus lockdown as a factor in their abuse. Lebanon and Malaysia too, have seen the number of calls to help lines double since the start of the pandemic, the UN reports, compared with the same month last year. In China, the number of calls has tripled.

“Confinement is fostering the tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries. And it is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behavior behind closed doors,” UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a statement calling the violence against women and girls “a shadow pandemic.”

In India, the state-run National Commission for Women reported a total of 257 complaints received through email alone related to various offenses against women from March 24 (when the lockdown was announced) through April 1. Out of these, 69 incidents related to domestic violence. NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma told the media that complaints are increasing every day. She suspects that the number of such cases must be much higher, but many are not getting reported due to the constant presence of the abuser at home.

“Because of the lockdown, women are not able to reach out to the police. They don’t even want to go to the police because they are afraid that once their husband comes out of the police station, he will again torture her and she can’t even move out,” Sharma said.

As the virus roils one country after another, most governments are focusing on the disease’s economic and financial ramifications. Meanwhile social issues, many of them gender-related, are getting ignored. This is wreaking havoc on some women’s physical, mental, and emotional health. Spikes in domestic violence are a direct result of women losing access to vital social support, say experts.

A 2016 study published in Demography magazine found that rapid increases in the unemployment rate during the Great Recession “increased men’s controlling behavior toward romantic partners.” Another study, “Gendered violence in natural disasters,” by Australia-based researcher  Jacqui True argues that if gender-based violence and women’s particular needs are not addressed in disaster preparedness, disaster recovery plans, and humanitarian assistance, then women and girls’ vulnerability will increase.

India, never an exemplar for women’s equality, is a especially unenviable place for battered women. According to the National Family Health Survey (NHFS-4, 2018), every third woman in India suffers sexual or physical violence at home. Worse, 27 percent have experienced physical violence since the age of 15.

Most of the times perpetrators of this violence are husbands who unleash either physical (27 percent) or emotional violence (13 percent). For unmarried women, the experience of physical violence stems from mothers or step-mothers (56 percent), fathers or step-fathers (33 percent), sisters or brothers (27 percent), and teachers (15 percent).

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 elaborates that domestic violence can take on sundry hues — physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, or economic violence. In April 2013, the Indian Parliament amended the law, expanding its ambit to incorporate new categories of offenses and making punishment more stringent.

There are other laws to address gender-based violence, including the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) observed that persistent gaps in enforcing them scupper a victim’s chance of seeing justice done.

HRW also reported that women in India are often afraid to report attacks for fear of being stigmatized, and because they feel unable to overcome institutional barriers in a criminal justice system that offers no protection to victims or witnesses.

Even if they muster courage to report the abuse, there are other daunting challenges. Uncooperative officers may refuse to file even a First Information Report (FIR), the first step to initiating a police investigation, especially if victims belong to economically or socially marginalized communities.

So is there a cultural underpinning to domestic violence? Experts suggest so. “Violence gets amplified in relationships where there is a clear power dynamic. Unequal relationships exist whenever patriarchy and hierarchy kick in,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research. “In the current environment, the collateral damage of the epidemic seems higher than the damage caused by the epidemic itself. Everyone is at home due to the lockdown and women are scared to reach out for help. It is not a good situation.”

Where does the solution lie? In a society like India’s, where this malaise is deeply entrenched, experts say building awareness is vital. Sensitization campaigns and platforms like the ones established by Breakthrough, an NGO working to making gender-based violence a mainstream issue, can help. The NGO’s platform — “StreeLink” – allows women to share, exchange, and collaborate with other women to deal with a variety of problems at home, in public spaces, and at work to get practical, actionable solutions and find strength from each other.

Another of Breakthrough’s initiative – a community radio program in Uttar Pradesh – helped raise awareness about violence against women, how to recognize domestic violence, and ways to address the issue. Callers were encouraged to call in and share their experiences. Another campaign, “Bell Bajao!” (Ring the Bell), calls on men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence.

The state too, is stepping in to make a difference. The Uttar Pradesh  police launched an initiative last month titled “Suppress corona, not your voice” asking battered women to call a helpline number to enable women police officers to reach them following a complaint.

“The problem is that a lot of violence in India isn’t even looked upon as violence. Women and girls accept it and treat it as a part and parcel of their lives due to our patriarchal setup,” says Bhakti Chowdhury, a counsellor with Women Power Connect, a pan-India advocacy body on women’s issues. “The silence around domestic violence needs to be broken and the subject mainstreamed.”

Until then, calls in the middle of the night from tormented women will continue to haunt counsellors.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based Editor and senior journalist.