India's Domestic Abuse Survivors Are in Lockdown With Their Abusers, But The Helplines Are Silent

New Delhi: Last week, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the country into a lockdown, a woman called a helpline number. Her in-laws had threatened to throw her out if she coughed. Another woman locked herself inside a room after her husband slapped her. Scared, she didn't open the door till the police arrived.

The lockdown-- a mass effort across the world-- to save lives have put one vulnerable group at risk. It isn't surprising though. A lockdown would mean many women and children sharing the same roof with their abusers. From Brazil to Germany, Italy to China, there are reports of increasing cases of domestic violence. The calls to helpline numbers have surged. However, in a country where every third woman has faced domestic violence and where in 90 per cent of rape cases the perpetrators are known to the victims, the calls to helpline numbers have dropped.

"The week after lockdown, we got only four calls. This was a drop in calls from the usual 10-15 every week," said Swetha Shankar, head of psychosocial programmes at the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC).

The organisation that helps domestic abuse survivors has a 24-hour hotline called 'Dhwani', a WhatsApp number, an email ID, and a chat feature on their website, all for seeking help. But, the phones aren't ringing as much; the notifications are less.

The reason is just one, the monsters are at home.

More Violence, More Silence

"It's a ticking bomb in already abusive homes," said Swarna Rajagopalan, political scientist and the founder and director of Prajnya Trust, a Chennai-based nonprofit organisation working for gender equality. She pointed out that when the tension outside goes up, violence on women and children increases at home. "There's already so much sexism and gaslighting in Indian homes. It doesn't take too much for these homes to turn violent," she added. The research activist said that the anxiety of economic uncertainty that the Coronavirus pandemic has brought with itself only adds to the burden of that violence. Despite this constant fear and certainty of increasing violence, women are unable to seek help. With abusive families at home and limited services available, the silence of the already silent victims is only getting louder.

In the first week after the country-wide lockdown was imposed, between March 23-30, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 214 complaints, out of which 58 are cases of domestic violence. The number of complaints that were registered during that week of lockdown is equal or even less than the number of complaints they receive on an average normally. The NCW has already registered 861 cases of domestic violence this year.

In January, they received a total of 1,462 complaints, out of which 270 were cases of domestic violence. In February, there were 302 cases of reported domestic violence. In March, out of 1323 complaints, 302 were cases of domestic violence.

Kanchan Khattar, Senior Coordinator for NCW said that the organisation is prepared to handle the expected rise in domestic violence. "We are encouraging women to send us emails instead of using the postal service," she said. This, she said, is one of the ways the NCW is trying to help victims of domestic abuse.

"Even in normal circumstances, we do not have a robust reporting system. We do not have the structure to find out the extent of violence. The numbers are only reported cases, only if the woman has gone to the police station and filed a case. There are cases the police themselves don't want to record, or women are discouraged to report," said Jayashree Velankar, Director, Jagori. The number of calls to the Delhi-based, one of the oldest NGOs running a distress helpline for women facing domestic violence, has dropped by 50 per cent.

Jagori has two helpline numbers- One, a landline; the other, a mobile. All calls for help are now redirected to the mobile with the call forwarding option.

Once this lockdown is lifted, Velankar says she expects a lot more calls. "With the anxiety and no sense of what's in the future, men would be coping with the help of alcohol. And women and children become easy targets. In all probability, violence has gone up, but the calls have gone down," she said.

Anuradha Kapoor, Founder and Director of Kolkata-based Swayam, said that although they have put out their helpline numbers, the organisation's ability to reach out is very limited. "With abusers at home, they probably can't make that call," she said. "Only after the lockdown is lifted we will get to know what the situation was," Kapoor said, not dismissing the possibility of a big concern. Swetha Shankar from PCVC said that women would find it difficult to speak and reach out when the perpetrators are at home. There have been similar trends in other situations too. "We witnessed the same during Chennai floods. Usually, the calls drops and then increase," she said. Shankar, too, said that she believes they will get a lot of calls once the lockdown is lifted.

Listing out one of the many reasons why victims of domestic abuse are not making calls, Rajagopalan said, "A lot of Indian homes have one phone and most often that does not belong to a woman."

A Harvard Kennedy School study in 2018 had estimated that 71% of men in use mobile phones, as against 38% of women, pointing out that India, along with Pakistan and Bangladesh, is “clear outliers among countries of similar levels of development”, exhibiting “some of the world’s highest gender gaps in access to technology”. Victims of domestic violence are not making calls for help. Or rather, unable to.

The Many Shades of Violence

Recently, one of Shankar's friends shared a message that a male colleague sent in a work WhatsApp group while they were checking on each other. The colleague said he is enjoying the lockdown because he gets 'chai, pakora' almost every couple of hours. "Household labour will go up for women," she said.

In Bengal, a woman was forced to starve during the lockdown after her husband stole her ration card. "She wasn't getting any ration because the police refused to give it to her without her ration card," said the founder of Swayam. "The impact of this lockdown is not just about violence, it is also the aftermath. What the impact will be on single mothers, survivors of abuse who do not have the family support. It is going to be doubly difficult."

Kapoor said that Swayam is trying to transfer money into bank accounts of women who are daily wage earners and have lost their earnings. But, with a lot of banks being closed and with no access to debit cards, the women have nowhere to withdraw the money from.

In many homes, if a woman shows any symptoms of Coronavirus or even has flu, Velankar believes, she is likely to face violence. "History of communicable disease, whether it's HIV or Tuberculosis, has shown that vulnerable suffer the most," she said. Women, children and the queer community.

Rituparna Borah, a queer feminist activist said that Nazariya, a non-profit organisation, has been organising Zoom meetings every Thursday and Saturday. The virtual meetings have connected queer communities from Chandigarh, Jharkhand and even Thailand. "For queer people, home is often not the most comfortable space. They find freedom when they are outside. With the lockdown, they are trapped inside," she said. This, she said, results in 'mental violence'. Even something as simple as what clothes to wear turns into argument that then turns into violence.

Those who are transitioning are now unable to find their medication. "It's not regarded as essential services," Borah said.

The meetings perhaps give some solace, but with privacy a concern, getting on those calls is difficult. "The other day someone joined the call from their storeroom," Borah said.

However, the activist said that they are advising the ones calling for help to 'try and be complacent' for now. "If parents are talking about marriage, we are asking them to just listen. Even prospective grooms can't come out during lockdown," she said. But it's very difficult to be complacent, she said, adding that it's a form of 'violence'. "But where can they go in this lockdown? They have to stay at home."

In the rural parts of Varanasi too, Shruti Nagvanshi, Founder of 'People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, said that domestic abuse has escalated. "There's hunger and no income. The men are going through a feeling of helplessness and turning that into violence on women. Gaali, maarpit, torture have become regular," she said. But the activist, too, has been telling the women to 'not fight' in this period of lockdown. "We are telling them they have to tolerate," she said.

How Difficult is it To Get Help?

A day after the lockdown, in a colony in Jaipur, someone heard screams of children from the building opposite to theirs. They called Akancha Srivastava and told her about the suspicious behaviour of their neighbour who would disappear for long periods, leaving the children behind. They said they hadn't seen the children before in the house. They were sure their neighbour was abusing the children. Akancha Srivastava, founder of Akancha Against Harassment', helped the police track down the man and rescue the children. The neighbours' suspicions were right; the children had been abducted.

Srivastava said that domestic violence and child abuse will rise 'exponentially'. Meanwhile, the police machinery, she said, is 'overburdened and overstressed'.

"We have not seen a pandemic in our lives. The police need to train and transfer resources in emergency situations. That is why we should be more mindful. More reporting will happen only then," she said. The founder of India's largest social impact initiative against cyber harassment said that even with multiple helpline numbers and apps available, it still is very difficult for victims of violence, especially now when they don't have even have that window when they step out or their husbands do.

The director of Jagori said that women are scared to step out in fear of the police. "They would have seen those videos of cops beating up people who were out on the streets. Will any woman step out after seeing that? They will think it is better to get beaten up by a known man than to get beaten by a bunch of policemen," said Velankar.

Right after the lockdown, Swetha Shankar got a call from a woman who pleaded, "I can't live with my husband for two weeks under the lockdown. it is impossible for me." Shankar's team from PCVC went to the police and they immediately responded; got the husband to move to his mother's house until the lockdown is lifted. But, the police isn't always helpful, especially in a situation where they are dealing with an emergency crisis.

Shankar said that the lockdown has made it doubly difficult for women to report cases of violence. "One, it's not going to be easy for women, trapped at home, to reach out. Two, it's easier for authorities or even families to discourage them from reporting, telling them it's not the right time."

"We have got calls from survivors who told us that the police told them they can't do anything. They have been asked to come back after the pandemic is over," she said.

France's Hotel, A Secret Code-- What Does India Need?

France has announced that it would pay for hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence and open pop-up counselling centres after figures showed the number of abuse cases had soared during the first week of lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. The French government has also announced an extra one million Euros ($1.1m) in funding for anti-domestic abuse organisations to help them respond to increased demand for services.

Inspired by Spain, France has also started telling victims to head to drugstores. If they can't talk openly in the store, they can simply say the codeword "mask 19" to the pharmacist behind the counter.

So far, except for a few 'awareness messages' on social media, the Indian government has done nothing.

Before the lockdown was announced, the Uttar Pradesh police put out a front-page advertisement in a newspaper announcing, "Suppress corona, not your voice". The advertisement included the sketch of a woman's face wearing a face mask. The advertisement asked victims to dial '112' when in case of any complaints. It isn't a new helpline for women though. It's the all-encompassing emergency helpline number to access police, fire brigade, ambulance and other services under the Emergency Response Support System.

Velankar, who was pivotal in setting up Sukoon Centres in Haryana in 2014 for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic abuse, said that even those have not been helpful during the lockdown period.

The Sukoon centres, she explained, are usually near the emergency ward or the trauma centre in public hospitals. "It is because when a woman is beaten up, or raped, or physically abused, they first need medical attention." The women who show signs of physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence are isolated and sent to separate rooms with counsellors who help them with the provision of medical treatment, psychological counselling, police assistance and legal aid. With the lockdown, she pointed out, that even the staff to run these centres are not able to reach the hospitals. Their services have not been placed as 'essential'.

"We had made an appeal to the government that social workers and trained staff are on the ground for such cases. Women safety has to be a part of essential services," she said.

Shankar said although PCVC has a 24x7 helpline number, in emergency situations, the choices women have are lesser and narrower. "We let them know they don't have to live with violence, we can help them out. We are putting out messages on social media and are in touch with our clients," she said. PCVC is also trying to provide grocery support to single mothers who were employed as domestic workers and in other services and who now find themselves out of work.

"With the Nirbhaya fund, every state should have 181 helplines and one-stop centres," Shankar said. Both the women's safety helpline and the one-stop centres were started after the 2012 Delhi gang rape. "The government should be using the already available infrastructure," she said. Shankar said that the government needs to add the safety of women to their messages in announcements on the pandemic. "They should send out messages of support, assuring us of women safety," she added.

Velankar, too, shared the thought. She said that there should be SOPs regarding violence against women. "The government is doing so much on messaging of social distancing, washing hands, covering your faces about coughing. Similarly, they have to release messages for domestic abuse, for victims, perpetrators, and the medical staff," she said.