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The Menace of Domestic Violence in the times of COVID-19

6 min read
Sexual Violence

Sexual Violence LAW INSIDER IN

By Diya Sareen-

As reported by the National Family Health Survey (NHFS-4) every third woman, since the age of 15, has faced domestic violence of various forms in our country. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 defines Domestic Violence as “Any act, omission or commission or conduct of the respondent shall constitute domestic violence in case it:

  1. 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
  • Harasses harms injures or endangers the aggrieved person 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
  • 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
  • Otherwise injures or causes harm, whether physical or mental, to the aggrieved person.”

Forms of Domestic Violence

There are many dimensions to domestic violence, which includes:

  1. Physical Abuse: Physical abuse is the most recognizable form of domestic violence. It involves the use of force against the victim, causing injury such as a punch, kick, stabbing, shooting, choking, slapping, or forcing a person to use drugs.
  2. Emotional Abuse: Emotional abuse involves the destruction of the victim’s self-worth, and is brought about by persistent insult, humiliation, or criticism. Emotional abuse can be a difficult type of domestic violence for many people to understand, since, on the surface, it appears to be quite common in unhealthy relationships.

In most states, emotional abuse is not enough on its own to bring a domestic violence action unless the abuse is so persistent and so significant that the relationship can be labeled extremely coercive. Typically, evidence of emotional abuse is combined with other abuse such as physical, financial, sexual, or psychological to bring a domestic violence action.

  • Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse is a common form of domestic violence. It includes not only sexual assault and rape but also harassment, such as unwelcome touching and other demeaning behaviors. Many victims don’t realize how broadly sexual abuse is interpreted. This form of abuse is known as reproductive coercion.
  • Financial Abuse: Of the many types of domestic violence, financial abuse is perhaps the least obvious. Financial abuse may take on many forms, such as a husband preventing his wife from obtaining an education or a job outside the home. Financial abuse is simply another form of control, even though it is usually less obvious than physical or sexual abuse.
  • Psychological Abuse: Psychological abuse is a catchall term for intimidating, threatening, or fear-causing behavior. This behavior must be persistent and significant. A one-time event generally won’t be enough to bring a domestic violence action. Like emotional abuse, psychological abuse may not, on its own, be enough to bring a domestic violence action unless it’s especially severe.

According to a 2018 Report published by the National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB), a woman in India is subjected to domestic violence every 4.4 minutes. The country is said to top the category of violence against women. As per the data, 89,097 cases related to crimes against women were registered across India in 2018, higher than the 86,001 cases registered in 2017.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced several countries into a lockdown, cases of domestic violence have risen at an alarming pace all over the world. On 6 April 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a ceasefire to address the horrifying global surge in domestic violence. Closer home, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown, the number of domestic violence complaints received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) had doubled. From 30, in the first week of March, the number of complaints rose to 69 between 23rd March and 1st April.

A report stated that a 42-year-old man in India allegedly murdered his wife, Savithramma, in front of their daughter, in a fit of rage, suspecting her of infidelity. These happened days after the family was quarantined in a temple in Dodderi in Karnataka following the first nationwide lockdown announced on March 24, 2020.

This shows that almost half a billion women are at risk in India due to the pandemic. Caged in violent homes, the women are being placed in a situation where it is difficult to seek help or support from the outside world. Exposure and opportunity for abuse increases as there is no one to intervene to protect women.

Locked with their abusers in situations of restricted mobility, and limited privacy, women are constantly facing grave dangers. Abusers are taking advantage of isolation measures and abusing their powers. Hence, the very technique that is being used to protect people from the virus is making an adverse impact on women and children in violent homes as the abuser is getting more opportunities to unleash violence. 

It is not that women were not being abused in homes earlier, but during the lockdown, the virus is mirroring and magnifying the discrimination, inequalities, oppressions, privileges, and patriarchal violence, all of which already exist in the male-dominated hierarchical and layered society. Structural gender-based violence is being reiterated during the lockdown where women who are already considered at the lowest rung within the family hierarchy are now being economically and socially disempowered.

Even otherwise, home is a contested site for unequal gender relations where both men and women are placed unequally and men hardly share the household unpaid care work. The cultural and social biases act against the interest of women. During the lockdown, women are expected to take up traditional gender roles and engage in domestic work with little or no contribution from men. Data from the National Family Health Survey reveals that domestic violence is not considered a serious crime. 42 percent of men and 52 percent of women believed that husband is justified in beating his wife in certain situations such as when she argues, disobeys, cannot serve hot food, or couldn’t take care of the babies. Only less than one percent of women sought help from the police.

Steps taken In India during Lockdown to Prevent Domestic Abuse:

Though the concept of domestic abuse is being raised in India, no major steps have been taken by the government to deal with the issue at the policy level. Several NGOs when petitioned the courts, some courts have issued directions to the state to protect women and children. For instance, the Delhi High court, on a petition filed by an NGO, directed the government to deliberate on measures to ensure effective implementation of Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 in the wake of increasing in several cases.

The state in its reply said that it has put a protocol in place where a survivor once calls the helpline, the telecom caller will take the complaint and will forward it to the counselor who will establish phone communication with the survivor during the lockdown. The court disposed of the petition after the status report is filed by the government.

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court took suo-moto cognizance and on 18 April 2020, offering slew directions that include the creation of special funds and designating informal spaces for women such as grocery stores and pharmacies where women could report abuse without alerting the perpetrator. The Karnataka High Court, too, has asked the state government about the helplines and action taken on domestic violence complaints.

The state in its reply stated that helplines,   counselors, shelter homes, and protection officers are working round the clock to help victims of violence.

In Tamil Nadu, protection officers appointed under the Domestic Violence Act 2005 are allowed to move during the lockdown and some women in dangerous situations are being rescued and have been moved to shelter homes.

In UP, the state government has initiated a special helpline for victims of domestic abuse under the title Suppress Corona, not your Voice. The police have assured that once a woman lodges a complaint, a woman officer will attend to it. The chairperson of NCW claimed that ASHA and Anganwadi and other frontline health workers are counseling against domestic violence and women can report these workers in case they are facing abuse.

However, these measures, seemingly and evidently, are not sufficient enough. Considering the diverse situation of India, and recognizing the limitations, a multi-dimensional approach is required at the national level to address the grave situation of domestic violence including denial and deprivation of their right to health care.