As different parts of the world go into varying degrees of lockdowns, shutdowns, curfews, social distancing etc, in the face of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, there seems to be an ominous associated trend emerging: that of a rise in reported cases of domestic violence.
A recent report in the Guardian noted that "in Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during the lockdown in February, from 47 last year to 162 this year". In Brazil, the spike in cases has been around 40-50 percent; in Catalan, calls to helplines rose by 20 percent, in Cyprus, 30 percent. In Italy, activists reported being inundated with desperate texts and emails.
Increased abuse is the predictable side effect of any crisis situation.
Between 23 and 30 March 2020, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 58 complaints of domestic violence; many of these cases were from North India, chairperson Rekha Sharma noted. The complaints were received over email " which illuminates several aspects particular to our reality.
Many women in India do not even know of the existence of the NCW, or if they do, then how to avail of its support. As postal services have ground to a halt, just like transport, during this nationwide lockdown, the number of complaints received by the NCW via post have seen a decline. Email is not a mode of communication many women who are in vulnerable situations even have access to. There is little information about which forums exist to address domestic violence, except for the local police station, which in turn is perceived as the worst possible place to seek help. Confronted with the police's outdated counselling methods and entrenched patriarchal worldviews, many frustrated victims resign themselves to continue living with their abusers.
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India has women's commissions across states and union territories; their contact details are displayed on the NCW website. But this list doesn't reveal the whole story.
Let us take the case of Telangana. There are 12 night shelters for the homeless, maintained by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. Of these, only four are for women, as per a Times of India report. The Kamala Nagar community hall in Golnaka has 35 beds; 50 women stay there " many are victims of domestic violence. During the summer and monsoons, up to 70 women may be crammed in the shelter. GHMC officials have said the city needs more than 30 night shelters to accommodate urban homeless people, but that doesn't even begin to address the gap in shelters intended specifically for victims of domestic violence.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, empowers women to file complaints against their abusers; seek protection, residence, maintenance, custody and also return of articles and compensation. But it may take years for the court to pronounce a judgment. How will a victim access this machinery when there is a nationwide lockdown, basic services are hard to come by, autos and buses are not plying the roads, the homes of others are out of bounds due to social distancing, and the police force (which may offered some help) is deployed in enforcing the curfew? Women are locked in with their abusers, with little recourse to leave the spaces in which they are being abused. Abusers, moreover, who now have plenty of spare time on their hands.
Legal provisions aside, the reality is that even in normal times, women must often battle their cases on their own, in different courts, with little to no State support. State Commissions do not provide shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse; the women themselves must find an alternate residence, paid for by their abusers on the orders of the court. The end result is that the victim is left with two equally troubling choices: being subjected to the apathy of the State, or the continuing violence at home.