Copyright © 2020 - Ex Gratia Law Journal

A brewing storm behind closed doors: Increasing domestic violence during Covid-19; a Human Rights perspective

1. AN OVERVIEW:

While all borders were sealed and cities were bracing to go under intense lockdowns, somewhere, feeble yet desperate cries resounded for help in the darkness. These voices dreaded not the virus more, but were dreading the implications the lockdown would bring forth for them at home. Abused, either physically or mentally, these voices who could at least seek help before were now confined within the four walls and were forced to live with the perpetrators. This has led to a mixed trend throughout the country. Wherein some states reported a spike in the complaints, others indicated a decline in the number of domestic violence cases reported.[1] When the entire nation was battling an unknown virus, many of these victims were left to battle known violators.

Although graphs and statistical data do help in computing the prevalent situation, they relate nowhere to the actual situation on ground. With various dimensions of domestic violence stemming out of the exercise of orthodox social norms and patriarchal power, the prevailing stigma placed on survivors of sexual or domestic violence has resulted in cases being grossly under-reported. While domestic violence is predominantly attributed to the abuses a woman or a child would face at the hands of those they know or in their households, the members of the LGBTQ+ community and the differently abled are left to tend to their own set of demons. Feeling ‘trapped’ with families who want them to undergo sex change therapy sessions, they are left with no place to run to for solace. While some victims accounted for the encounters to be a ‘never ending nightmare’, others felt there was literally ‘no escape’ from the abuse.

1.1. A Silent Cry for Help

The gripping fear of being overheard or eavesdropped while trying to contact for help, has these victims in a shackling bind. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) state that domestic violence was already one of the greatest human rights violations.[2] And this pandemic has infuriated the situation at hand further.

As prisons began to look as hotbeds for the spread of the virus, reduced arrests and decongestion of prison spaces have led to inmates previously accused of domestic violence being released on interim bails. Victims, who breathed a sigh of relief when these perpetrators were put behind bars, are seen begging authorities to not let these abusers walk the roads free again. In Kottayam, a family had approached the prisons department against the release of one of their male members from jail on this account. The prisoner was released, but was warned not to stay with his family.[3] These behaviours of abuse and violence often tend to leave a lasting impact on the psychological mind-sets of both the victim and the offender and are proven to significantly affect the mental health of a person.   

2. Increase in Interpersonal violence across the globe

Mandatory stay-at-home rules brought along with it increased cases of domestic violence being reported in Australia, United Kingdom, Singapore, Cyprus, United States, Brazil, France and many other countries around the world. India ranked along the same lines showcasing similar trends of abuse. During times of economic hardship, studies since the time of the Great Depression have provided for evidence of increase in violent, abusive, impulsive, compulsive, controlling behaviour and aggression directed towards cohabiting partners.[4] They tend to have a destructive effect on family and child well-being. Abusers experiencing unemployment, economic instability, increased anxiety and financial stress look towards laying the stage for domestic violence. Experts have characterized an invisible pandemic of the increasing domestic violence situation during the COVID-19 crisis as a “time-ticking bomb” or a “perfect storm”.[5]

With less than 40% seeking help or reporting the crime, less than 10% of the victims approached police authorities for help. Early trends in Singapore, Cyprus, France and Argentina reported for a 20-30% increase in emergency calls for domestic violence. With increasing demand for social service assistance around the world, help facilities such as rape crisis camps, childcare centres and shelters are heavily overburdened and understaffed. While 86% of the women who experienced any kind of violence never sought help, an overwhelming 77% of the victims were said to have never mentioned the incident(s) to anyone.[6] Their cries were stifled even before they could be ever heard and acted upon, maybe due to fear of the abusers or of how they would be looked down upon in their respective societies.

While the Dalgona coffee did become a trendsetter in many houses across the nation during the lockdown, all was not well behind the lens in some households. The number of domestic violence complaints the National Commission for Women (NCW) received had doubled during this period. The NCW went on to release a special WhatsApp number to be made more accessible to women in abusive homes. With 75% of the women in India not having access to phones, their options for registering complaints drew slim pickings. The NCW was reported of having received complaints from other family members of the victim too.

3. The Gender Lens

Gendered Roles or Gender based Roles world over, are said to be another aspect for surge in domestic violence cases during the pandemic. Socially and culturally demarcated jobs as being that of a ‘women’s work’, have gotten extremely taxing and overburdening during these hard hit times. With everybody staying at home, and housekeeping facilities being unavailable, the expectation is for the women of the household to bear the entire load; and on account of her failure to do so, it increases her chances of being prone to violence. The place where she is to be the safest has become gloomy today, with the threat of physical or sexual abuse looming over her always.

Lesser commercial activity and many women losing their jobs to the pandemic, has resulted in her being viewed as an extra burden in the household. Many families in various parts of the country began to marry off their daughters when the police were occupied in the forefront of the battle.[7] Activists fear this would lead to an exponential decrease in the medical and health care facilities and services that the women of the household would be able to procure. With lesser income and money, families look to neglect health care for the women. This has also led to the curtailing of a women’s right to healthcare in cases of various complications in unwanted pregnancies and other such ailments. Her right to equality is also starting to take a hit with increased tensions surmounting her place of residence.

Although the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA or Domestic Violence Act), 2005 provides a wide scope for the definition of domestic violence to include not just physical but also verbal, emotional, sexual and economic violence, the pandemic in temporarily paralysing the economy has had an upper hand in the ineffective implementation of the Act. The Act further provides for urgent and protective injunctions in matters including economic rights of maintenance and compensation.

4. Grabbing the attention of the courts[8]

On April 18, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, having taken suo moto cognizance of the rising cases related to domestic violence during the lockdown, has passed an order offering a slew of directions including the creation of a ‘Special Fund’ and designating informal safe spaces for women such as grocery stores and pharmacies, where the victims could report such abuse without alerting the perpetrators.

The Karnataka High Court had also asked the State Government about the action taken on such domestic violence complaints. The State Government went on to specify that helplines, counsellors, shelter homes and protection officers were working round the clock to help victims of violence.

The Delhi High Court directed the State and Centre to take measures to protect women from domestic violence, following a petition filed by an NGO. The Delhi Government on April 12, had submitted to the court that it had put in place protocols to tackle these cases: once a victim reaches out to the helpline (181), the telecaller would then take down their complaint and later forward the case to a counsellor who was required to establish a phone communication with the complainant on account of the lockdown. The counsellor was also empowered to conduct sessions with the victims and their families if required. However, if the complainant was a victim of a physical or sexual assault, then the police authorities would be informed to assist in filing an FIR regarding the same. The counsellor would be further required to inform the Protection Officer to allow them in filing an incidence report.

On the review by the court on April 25, the Centre, the Delhi Government and the National and State Commissions for Women submitted status reports on the action taken against domestic violence, including spreading awareness about helpline numbers, shelter or one-stop homes as well as appointment of protection officers. However, it is argued that there is no data to show for the responses of the government and the action that it has taken in cognisance of these incidents. Mere cognisance alone will not suffice to put an end to these acts of violence in the country.

5. SSS: Silent & Safe Services and Tales from around the world

The increasing need to create a silent yet safe haven for these victims of domestic abuse allows us to look at lessons from around the world. While the French, German, Italian and Spanish looked for the utterance of code words such as ‘Mask 19’ signals in supermarkets and pharmacies for protection, South Wales in Australia had its frontline workers being approached for help. Ukraine had its psychologists teaming up with a UNFPA-supported psycho-social team to provide services online via Skype, Zoom, etc. Norway also had gone mobile with teachers and other child welfare workers prompting for a more direct follow-up action with the known sect of vulnerable children. With newer forms of violence taking shape, such as cyber violence or cyber bullying, counsellors, various organisations and governments are looking at more creative ways to reach out to these victims at the grassroots to help safeguard them.[9] A more gender centric approach to promote gender equality and human rights of all is proving to be much essential in the post pandemic scenario. 

5.1. Tales closer to home

NGOs and Indian celebrities collaborated to stand against such violence while some others took to their Instagram handles to promote people to speak up against it. They looked to reduce the shame associated with domestic violence by empathizing with the victims. A black and white advertisement and hashtags such as LockdownMeinLockup targeted 3 major groups: the victims, the bystanders and the perpetrators. Anti-DV Campaigns initiated focused prominently to (i) stigmatise the behaviour of the perpetrator and not the person and (ii) to protect past victims from future instances of violence.[10] While shaming the perpetrator is not said to achieve the intended outcome, speaking up on the issue and creating wide spread awareness in order to bring to light the incidents of violence is known to have a preferred long term effect on better handling of these.

6. MEN RISE TO THE OCCASION:

Many male activists of the slums and colonies in Calcutta were seen to stand tall during the pandemic in fighting to keep domestic violence at bay. When NGOs began receiving over 200 complaints of domestic violence in April, May and June, the West Bengal Commission for Women had launched a helpline for the aggrieved in April.[11] These men till date have been known to challenge conventions that men are the breadwinners of the family and that they must do any domestic work. Activists say the fear of abandonment by in-laws and a lack of shelter or a sense of security are factors which compel women to compromise and to silently subject themselves to such abuse. And that this is why most of these abusers remain in the dark, being content of not being exposed.

The 2019 ground-breaking Convention on ‘International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment’ specifically obliges governments to recognize and mitigate the impacts of domestic violence on work.[12] This convention’s ratification and effective implementation by nations could make a huge impact while saving those being abused behind closed doors.


[1]DhaminiRatnam, Domestic Violence during Covid-19 lockdown emerges as serious concern, HINDUSTAN TIMES (Apr. 26, 2020, 08:58 PM), https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/domestic-violence-during-covid-19-lockdown-emerges-as-serious-concern/story-mMRq3NnnFvOehgLOOPpe8J.html.

[2]Department of Global Communications, UN supporting ‘trapped’ domestic violence victims during COVID-19 pandemic’, UNITED NATIONS (June 12, 2020), https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/un-supporting-%E2%80%98trapped%E2%80%99-domestic-violence-victims-during-covid-19-pandemic.

[3]Supra Note 1 at Page No.1.

[4]Arjun Kumar, Balwant Singh Mehta & Simi Mehta, The link between lockdown, COVID-19, and domestic violence, IDR ONLINE (Apr. 17, 2020), https://idronline.org/the-link-between-lockdown-covid-19-and-domestic-violence/.

[5]Caroline Bettinger-Lopez and Alexander Bro, A Double Pandemic: Domestic Violence in the Age of COVID-19, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, (May 13, 2020), https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/double-pandemic-domestic-violence-age-covid-19.

[6]VigneshRadhakrishnan, Sumant Sen, NareshSingaravelu, Domestic Violence complaints at a 10-year high during COVID-19 lockdown, THE HINDU (June 24, 2020, 03:53 PM), https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-domestic-violence-complaints-at-a-10-year-high-during-covid-19-lockdown/article31885001.ece

[7]Shemin Joy, Coronavirus Crisis: No lockdown for domestic violence, DECCAN HERALD (Apr. 26, 2020, 07:06 AM), https://www.deccanherald.com/specials/insight/coronavirus-crisis-no-lockdown-for-domestic-violence-829941.html.

[8]Supra Note 1 at Page No.1.

[9]UNFPA, Putting the brakes on COVID-19: Safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls, UNITED NATIONS POPULATION FUND, (July 11, 2020), https://www.unfpa.org/news/putting-brakes-covid-19-safeguarding-health-and-rights-women-and-girls?utm_campaign=fullarticle&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=inshorts

[10]AkshayaVijayalakshmi, Violence No More: India’s COVID-19 opportunity for anti-domestic violence campaigns’, WARC (June 09, 2020), https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/opinion/violence-no-more-indias-covid-19-opportunity-for-anti-domestic-violence-campaigns/3641.

[11]DebrajMitra, Men run campaign against ‘rising domestic violence’, TELEGRAPH INDIA, (July 07, 2020, 02:38 AM), https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/calcutta/coronavirus-lockdown-men-run-campaign-against-rising-domestic-violence/cid/1785984.

[12]OjimaAbalka, Women Face Rising Risk of Violence during Covid-19, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, (July 3, 2020, 7:40 PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/03/women-face-rising-risk-violence-during-covid-19.

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Author

Shuvedha Subramaniam
Student - SASTRA Deemed to be University