By Manu Shrivastava*
“The lockdown has itself created psychological issues and violence within the family. Women have been burdened with more work; children have been unable to go to schools…One of the critical areas which has come to our notice was rising violence within the family itself,” said Supreme Court judge Justice N V Ramana at a webinar conducted on June 4, 2020.
The judge at the apex court was speaking during his keynote speech at the release of ‘Handbook of Formats: Ensuring Effective Legal Services’.
As India entered Lockdown 5.0 or Unlock 1.0, as some call it, the event highlighted a critical trend during the lockdown — an increase in cases of violence with the family, especially against women. Justice Ramana, also executive chairman of National Legal Services Authority, pointed out the effect the pandemic has had on the rights and safety of women in the country.
It was a regular Tuesday evening. As everyone went about their usual chores at a crowded chawl in Mumbai’s Dadar area, 30-year-old Savita More was hurriedly fixing a snack for her alcoholic husband. It was his second peg and, she knew by habit, things could quickly go out of hand if he didn’t get his chakna on time.
She had heard of a deadly ‘bimari’ that was spreading across the world and wanted to hear India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech due to start within minutes. She served the Gobi Fry to her by-now-livid husband and slinked away quietly to sit on the ground against a wall to watch TV, away from his arm’s reach.
At 8 pm sharp, as all of India heard the PM announce a 21-day nationwide lockdown, following the successful Janata curfew a few days back, a shiver ran down Savita’s spine. The lockdown meant she would be ‘locked in’ with her husband for a long time. And, as her husband bolted off a nearby wine shop to fill in his quota for whisky for the period, tears welled up her eyes as she quickly called her friend to share her woes.
And, Savita is not alone as the nationwide lockdown imposition on March 25, 2020 threatened the lives of millions of women in the country. “I had made peace with my marriage and the abuse that was associated. Now, the mere thought of having my husband and his wayward brother ‘in the house’ for days on end gives me the shivers,” says a visibly-shaken Geetha, a helper at a beauty salon in Chennai.
Her husband, a fruit-seller, has been abusing her physically and sexually since they got married four years ago. “It has become a way of life for me. After dinner and a lengthy bout of drinking, he beats me up and then ‘rapes’ me.” With the continual extensions, she is not sure she will “survive the lockdown”.
On April 20, 2020, when the division bench of the Delhi High Court, in an order, directed the governments at the Centre and Delhi and the Delhi Commission for Women ‘to deliberate measures to curb the increasing instances of domestic violence and protect the victims during the nationwide lockdown’, the signal was clear enough that the nation needs to take stock of a bigger threat hiding in Indian households. And, it’s no coincidence that the cases of domestic violence have witnessed a rise since the imposition of the lockdown, as reported by the National Commission for Women (NCW).
The lockdown has turned into a virtual trap for vulnerable women and most are even scared to complain to the police fearing the harassment will increase. “The men are frustrated sitting at home and are venting it out on the women. Many of these complaints have come from North India,” states NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma. The number of actual cases is presumed to be higher as the data available only comprises ‘emailed’ complaints. The State Commissions have also reported an increase in the number of cases of domestic abuse.In the absence of a ‘functioning’ office, the NCW launched an emergency WhatsApp number for women facing domestic violence, an option in addition to the available and operational options of complaining online and through email. With the abuser at home, a victim is unable to make a call, send an email or register a complaint through post.
“The police are basically preoccupied with handling the coronavirus outbreak and relevant government agencies, NGOs handling domestic violence cases are all closed for now leaving a victim nowhere to go at this point. This further emboldens the perpetrator,” says Gauri Reddy, a Hyderabad-based social worker.
Lockdown has turned into a virtual trap for vulnerable women. They are scared to complain to the police fearing harassment will increase
The uncertainty over opening of liquor shops in the country as the restrictions were eased during the second, third and fourth phase of the lockdown only made the situation even worse. Chaotic scenes of men gathering at liquor stores in different parts of the country proved how desperate people had become to buy alcohol.
The confinement of women with an abusive partner or husband or family member has resulted in increased physical and emotional violence against women around the world. China, Italy, Spain, UK, France, USA have all reported increased instances of distressed women calling helplines as the COVID-19 pandemic spread to these nations. On April 6, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a “ceasefire” to address the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
Back home, authorities are trying to find viable options such as phone counselling, hostels, etc. to support the victims. According to a Home Ministry official, the government has even started “fifty-two helplines in different parts of the country to help women facing domestic violence during the lockdown”.
“Fact remains, with all the resources, material and personnel, diverted to tackle the deadly coronavirus pandemic, it’s very difficult for victims of domestic violence to seek help as the systems are reeling under immense pressure to keep up with the outbreak,” says Gauri.
In Rajasthan, a state with poor track record of violence against women, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot announced that his government is determined to stop domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown and women facing any kind of atrocities can lodge a complaint on the 1090 helpline. He said, “In the present circumstances, the state government will not neglect its responsibility to take care of women.”
That notwithstanding, Jaipur-based perpetual offender ‘Raja Babu’ has once again begun to stalk his ‘daughter’ living in another city who left her dysfunctional family five years ago. This, despite a lengthy history of police complaints, legal notices and more. He is fully aware that the system is busy with the pandemic and the associated lockdown and, under the guise of ‘familial concern’ he continues to harass.
The system is overburdened with the onslaught of the virus – beyond and from within!
*Co-convenor, The Woman Survivor. A version of this story was first published in The Woman Survivor