“As people are asked to stay at home, the risk of intimate partner violence or sexual assault is likely to increase which significantly exposes women and children to the risk of domestic and sexual violence.”
Satta Sheriff, Action for Justice and Human Rights (AJHR).
COVID-19 has impacted people all over the world be it rich or poor, man or women or elders or children. Despite this one cannot deny that it has impacted everyone differently. While most of us rejoice over the time we are getting to spend with our families, cooking our favourite meals or clearing our backlogs. As people spend more time locked in their homes and face pay-cuts which add-ons to the existing frustration and anger, the risk of intimate partner violence increases. Thousands of women are trapped in home with their violent husband/ family members full time. The ugly side of the lockdown has resulted in a surge in the number of cases related to domestic violence amidst COVID-19. The United Nation Population Fund report articulated that in the low- and middle-income countries, the danger of COVID-19 will only compound existing cases of domestic violence and increase the danger of lethality. The National Commission for Women attributed that many in the cases could be as a result of frustration which is setting specially among the men those who are sitting at their houses, not able to go out to work or for any other activity which in turn is being taken out on the women in their houses. The National Commission for Women has received 69 email complains on domestic violence, mental and physical abuse within just the first 8 days of the lockdown. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that one in three women will experience violence during their lifetime and in comparison to normal circumstance it is a sharp increase. The big worry for the National Commission for Women is that many of the women specially living in the semi-urban or rural areas as they do not know to operate e-mails or send messages to seek help. Many of the women from the rural areas used to write letters to the National Commission for Women as complaints but due to lockdown Indian Post services are also being affected and they are unable to do so and this could be a reason they are unable to get larger picture of domestic violence across the country. This worrying phenomena is not only being reported from India but it has now become a global problem. According to media reports calls to online services and domestic violence cases in The United States of America has significantly increased by 20% while in Australia there is a surge of 75% in online searches for support or domestic violence. The killing of women has surged in Turkey while cases rose 32% across France and 36% alone in Paris. Keeping this in mind, the United Nation Secretary-Antonio Guterres has urged governments across the world to take necessary actions against the domestic violence cases happening in their country.
Definition and Meaning of Domestic Violence
According to Section 3 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 – “For the purposes of this Act, any act, omission or commission or conduct of the respondent shall constitute domestic violence in case it –
(a) harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so and includes causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse; or
(b) harasses, harms, injures or endangers the aggrieved person with a view to coerce her or any other person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any dowry or other property or valuable security; or
(c) has the effect of threatening the aggrieved person or any person related to her by any conduct mentioned in clause (a) or clause (b); or
(d) otherwise injures or causes harm, whether physical or mental, to the aggrieved person.”
Domestic violence is an indoor crime which usually happens in an intimate relationship such as dating, marriage, cohabitation or a familial relationship and hence it is also termed as ‘intimate partner violence’. Abuse or violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person.
The Utility of Domestic Violence Act in the Light of Contemporary Pandemic
For safeguarding the rights of the women and ensuring protection of women against violence of any kind occurring within the family and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 has been passed under the Constitution of India. As per section 4 (1) Any person who has reason to believe that an act of domestic violence has been, or is being, or is likely to be committed, may give information regarding it to the concerned Protection Officer. Protection officers are appointed by the government in each district and is mainly tried as far as possible that these protection officers are women. It is then the duty of protection officer to make reports of the incident and forward it to the magistrate and concerned police officers, make available safe shelter home to the aggrieved if required and get medically examined if she has sustained any injury. Aggrieved has right to make an application for obtaining a relief by way of a protection order, an order for monetary relief, a custody order, a residence order through which in some cases the respondent can be removed from the house as well no matter that a man may alone own a particular house, he has no right to be violent or abusive against his spouse or wife or the woman he lives with and if the Court sees any violence he must be restrained from entering upon the residence essentially to secure the spouse or wife and children against further violence and similar disputes (upheld in case of Sabita Mark Burges vs Mark Lionel Burges), the wife or spouse is also entitled to a compensation order or more than one such order under this Act. Further, it is explicitly written under the act, that nothing in this Act shall be construed in any manner as to relieve a police officer from his duty to proceed in accordance with law upon receipt of information as to the commission of such cognizable offence. Hence, the police in-charge who is reported of such incident is now duty bound to act not only to tell the women of her rights but to take an action against such act.
Review of Cases Impacting the Current Framework of Laws against Domestic Violence
With restrictions placed on movement all over the country during the COVID-19, Government needs all the way more and effective measures to enforce these provisions as;
the aggrieved now neither can they go to nearby shelter homes provided by the government due to the overcrowding in fear of spread of corona virus and bad sanitation or as some of the shelter homes have now been converted to places of quarantine nor there is any way for them to run to their mother’s home or any other acquaintance with having government orders of all public transport being suspended in place, leave women with nowhere to go and live locked with their perpetrators.
Women literacy rate in India is 65.46 % that indicates large chunk of women is illiterate who neither can read or write nor have basic understanding of rights ensured under the Constitution of India and laws of the country, therefore, totally impaired from accessing all the relieve measures that can be accessed by the way of internet.
In some cases, women are totally unaware of the fact that they can even report such incidences of violence and can change the life they life.
With curtailed mobility and a police force being engaged in ensuring that lockdown properly followed, women are losing even the avenues that could have saved them from abuse, and in extreme cases, death.
Further, due to the prevalence of orthodox social norms and the stigma that is placed on survivors of domestic violence, such cases are being grossly under-reported.
Women belonging to poor and vulnerable classes are not able to file any complaints.
The counseling centres are supposed to reach out to the complaint pertaining to domestic violence. However, amid lockdown the NGOs and volunteer organisations, that are usually the avenues for women to report such attacks are not working.
The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)- 5 that seeks to “eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women in the public and private spheres, and to undertake reforms to give them the same rights to economic resources and access to property by 2030,” is being enormously compromised. An added challenge has been the importance of intertwined negative psychosocial impact on mental health of women. This further increases with job losses and other economic pressures on women.
Global Position and Socio-Legal Mechanism to Combat the newly emerged challenges of Domestic Violence due to Lockdown
Before discussing India’s policies vis-à-vis domestic violence during the lockdown, let’s take a look at the attempts by other jurisdictions to tackle the situation.
The rise in domestic abuse has been steep across jurisdictions, from Brazil to Germany, Italy to China. Activists and survivors say that they are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse.
In Spain, where lockdowns are extremely strict, the women have been exempted from lockdown if they go out to report domestic violence. The country has also reported adomestic violence fatality, where a woman was murdered by her husband in front of their children in the coastal province of Valencia.
In the United Kingdom, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for the authorities to waive court fees for the protection order.
In Trento, Italy, as per a court decision, the abuser must leave the family home, and not the victim.
In Germany, there has been a demand for budgets for safe houses. The problem is that the safe houses are over-occupied even during normal times.
In Greece, officials said they were stepping up a campaign to help women deal with problems clearly emerging from the issue of confinement.
In France, victims are being asked to report domestic abuse at pharmacies and to use code if they happen to be accompanied by their abusers. The pharmacies in turn inform the police. A similar system can be set up during lockdown in India as a few pharmacies and grocery stores are meant to remain open in each area, and walking a short distance to buy essentials is permissible in most places. Local authorities should assure the informers that their identity will not be disclosed. In addition, applications for ‘curfew passes’ (issued for a defined period for availing essential services, emergency movement, etc.) made by women can be considered more liberally so that it is possible for them to step out of homes and seek help, if required.
Countries such as Canada are investing in shelters for those fleeing gender-based violence. Resources are being devoted to ensure that there is no overcrowding at the shelters and social distancing and is maintained. As India scouts for accommodation spaces such as hotel rooms and stadiums to set up quarantine wards for Corona patients, providing for abuse victims can be part of the same effort.
Policies that can be adopted in India –
Local NGOs can track cases that were known to them pre-lockdown with frequent phone calls, and encourage friends and relatives to keep in touch with victims. Remote counselling of the victim and perpetrator may help in some cases. Where possible, online surveys can help identify new victims. Promotion of app- and email-based reporting by state women commissions is a welcome step.
Microfinance institutions – particularly those with an SHG (self-help group) focus – can now play a much more important role in this regard. Leveraging their pre-existing networks, they can dually serve as complaint points as well as providers of livelihood support in these times of financial hardship.
More and more awareness is required along with giving morale boost to women in order to stand up for themselves against their perpetrators. Other measures that might be taken can be appointing female constables near slums to monitor the areas and in a way providing sense of secured feeling to women living in these slums. Advertisements against domestic violence should be done on large scale with accessible toll-free helpline numbers. Regular reports shall be made by Protection Officers reporting status of each case that is reported to them. Work of such officers shall also be considered as essential.
Domestic violence against women is a problem around the world. It affects women of all races, ethnic groups, classes, religion and nationalities. It is a life – threatening problem for individual women especially married women and it is a serious problem for societies. It will take several decades for these imbalances to be rectified. Educating both men and women will lead to change in attitudes and perceptions. In the current situation, it is necessary to stop domestic violence against women. The rise in the cases of domestic violence could be seen globally and institutions at international, national and local level should spread awareness and frame policies to combat this issue.
As cities around the globe have gone into lockdown, the reports of significant rise in domestic violence are mostly related to Coronavirus pandemic. The increased threat of gender based violence during public health emergencies becomes a nightmare for female victims. Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, women’s vulnerabilities across the globe are aggravating the pre-existing gender-based susceptibilities. There is no doubt that the pandemic accelerates economic or financial stress among the low-income households. As a result, women in these households are the worst-hit. Outbreaks like Covid-19 forced overtly populous countries like India to go under lockdown coupled with social distancing norms. Unsurprisingly, the lockdown brought to light the sharp spike in domestic violence cases due to income stresses. In emergent public health emergencies, women’s increased financial dependence on the male members bolsters the patriarchal norms of households. Huge economic uncertainties due to pandemic increase women’s fragility that exposes them to face the increased unemployment. The most disturbing concern is that global health institutions or organisations and national governments barely address the gendered implications during the epidemic outbreak. The paternalistic regulations of religions have also subjugated women in India. For example, Manusmriti, the ancient Indian text, determines the moral yardsticks for women through sermons. In Islam, the so-called moral guardianship is reposed in males. Women are victims of gendered spaces that are monitored by deep-rooted patriarchal prejudice.