COVID-19 Lockdown: India is Failing Domestic Violence Victims

In the middle of an unusually pleasant April night, a scream pierces the air in a Delhi neighbourhood. A woman’s shrill calls for help don’t go unheard, but the response is usual: “Ye toh unke ghar ki baat hai” (it’s an internal, household matter).” The following morning, the woman frantically alerts a fellow domestic worker to reach out to a helpline and call for help. The call goes unanswered. There is no way to escape.

Left with no choice, Sona (name changed) decides to flee the house. She walks for three kilometres in her condition. The table had made it worse. It was thrown at her by her husband in pure rage. She wouldn’t be stopping until she reaches the only safe haven she has ever known – her employer’s house.

For Sona, a domestic help working in Delhi’s Greater Kailash area, her own house a few kilometres away in Madangir was the last thing she considered safe, according to a recent case brought to an non-governmental organisation, Volunteers Collective.

Cases Rise with the Lockdown

Observing the lockdown hadn’t come easy for her, and she isn’t the only one.

As families around the world are quarantining together due to the nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, home is not necessarily synonymous with a safe space for many people. Countless women, including trans and queer women, have faced the first gendered impact of the lockdown after the rapid spread of the COVID-19 disease – domestic violence.

At 30.8 percent, homes are the most common place of violence against women, as per a four-state study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development done in 2017. And that’s reflected in the 239 cases the National Commission for Women (NCW) received as of April 16, since the lockdown began on March 24.

Rekha Sharma, who heads the NCW, thinks that this number may be a little different from the reality. In an online interview, she said, “There’s a lot of pressure of domestic work on women, along with child care and the added burden, if, say a married woman is living with her in-laws. The woman, playing the role of the primary care-giver, is stretched to her limits.”

The increase in the number of cases has been a cause of concern because, as she stated, “We aren’t able to receive any direct complaints, postal or telephonic, since the office numbers can’t be reached. People who are not familiar with complaining online will not be able to reach us, which is why we think that the actual number of cases maybe more.”

Special arrangements were made by NCW since the lockdown by activating a WhatsApp number as an additional helpline. “We thought more women know how to WhatsApp as opposed to an email, and so we went ahead in setting up this number for registering complaints,” Rekha observed.

Are Cases Being Registered?

Ever since the lockdown started, women’s helplines have reported sudden sharp rises and declines in distress calls. However, Jagori, an NGO which provides psycho-social counselling to women survivors of violence, reported a 50 percent drop in fresh case calls in the first week of the lockdown. 

Sunita Thakur, counsellor and legal advisor with Jagori, said, “Since the lockdown, many men, including daily-wage earners, returned home to their families after 3-4 years. Many of them hadn’t lived with their wives for longer than a week or so at a stretch and that too during festivals. From small fights to threatening to kill themselves, they push these women out of their homes. Where will these women go? The shelter homes are full.”

Sunita worries about the reach of their helpline, which functions only between 9:30 AM and 5:30 PM. “What if there is a case in the night and a 24X7 helpline doesn’t answer it? What happens to that woman?” she asked.

The extension of the lockdown until May 3 as a safety precaution, was met with dismay. Stuck under the same roof with their husbands and families for more hours than usual, many women feared exposure to physical and emotional abuse. Getting help wasn’t easy, and for most it was a privilege.

Making the Right Call

Tanvi Sharma, an advocate who started the Volunteers Collective, floated a flyer on social media asking people to report cases of domestic violence, including those who had witnessed such cases  around them. Moments after the information was circulated, she received her first call. Tanvi answered it herself, but soon realised that she may not be the right person to answer that call. They needed a therapist, a trained professional, who could handle the first-response of these calls. Since then, her team has been working to bring a one-stop solution for domestic violence victims during the lockdown.

Struggling with stop-gap arrangements, she said, “DCW (Delhi Commission for Women) and NCW remain toothless organisations; they haven’t been given many powers. The people working there do go out on a limb in getting the case registered at the police station and looking for shelters. Even their helpline WhatsApp number directs you to a link to register the complaint. The moment you register it, the PCR is supposed to come and take you down to the station or for a medical check-up, if required. (But) there is no mental support offered.”

The lockdown has made it difficult to prioritise domestic violence cases with the police. “When the victim or someone calls the police directly these days, they insist on coming down to the police station to register the complaint. But in a lockdown situation, how will they go to the local police station? Especially, when they have been beaten up,” Tanvi observed.

“In Sona’s case, for instance, she is staying with her employer for the time being, but would eventually need a place to stay. She wants her two children to be rescued from the clutches of her toxic husband. So, I called Mahila Ayog (DCW) to find out if there was a shelter that could rehabilitate her. They reassured me that they have a system in place for providing shelters but we didn’t get any update after that. Even so, the shelters are running full. How do we make such arrangements for a victim who needs to be rehabilitated? Shouldn’t this have been included in essential services?” Tanvi asked me, infuriated with the progress of the cases all over again.

Tanvi wants to find an approach for working with victims of domestic violence that is more long-term, accomplishes more than just registering a case and rehabilitates the victim in a more sustained fashion. “You can’t just give her first aid, an FIR (first information report, or formal police complaint) and forget about her. The process should recognise her trauma. If she is willing to move out, employ her through some self-help group, you know, think beyond that one day she chose to break her silence.”

Courts Closed, No Legal Aid

Audrey D’mello, who runs Majlis Legal Centre in Mumbai, walked out of her office a week before the national lockdown was announced. All the employees had been asked to work from home as a precaution. She left out a note on the office door sharing a number in case someone wanted to reach them. Since Majlis is not a first-response centre for domestic violence cases and is primarily a legal centre for women and children, she didn’t expect the phone to ring. She was surprised to see the number of women landing outside their office, because they couldn’t reach the office number. Seeing the note at the office door directed the calls to Audrey and her co-workers. Her team responded with a helpline number put in place for consultation. When the lockdown began, they were already receiving calls from women in crisis who were asked to leave their homes.

Maitri (name changed) was one such person to reach out to Majlis and was directed to the local police. To her surprise, police asked her to go home immediately. The police’ defence – “It’s not safe for you to wander outside with possibilities of contracting coronavirus.”

“I reached out to some shelters, pleading with them to take her. They told me straightaway that they had guidelines from above and they couldn’t take new inmates. Even if they could, they had to be tested for COVID-19,” shared Audrey, looking visibly disheartened over the video call.

Access remains a sore spot. “Unlike women in rural India, women in urban cities do have access to say a mobile phone or internet connection. But the futility of reporting a case: ‘where will it go, who can really come and rescue me in this lockdown’ are all concerns that have turned women away, forcing them to ‘bear with it’.”

For Audrey, the policy blind-spot in imposing the lockdown is its class and gender-specific impacts. “The lack of planning for the poor and vulnerable groups was visible in the imposing of this sudden lockdown. The short notice had an impact on migrants and on women victims of violence. The measures of the lockdown only cater to the elite and upper middle class.”

In her view, the way courts were shut down was arbitrary. “Don’t come to court – works when there is a pending case of property, but not for a civil or a criminal case of domestic violence. Usually we do run the courts for interim orders. We could have developed an online mechanism to at least hear interim orders. For instance, in cases where husbands haven’t paid maintenance for March and now for the month of April, how do we provide support to these women? How do we ensure that they get their monthly maintenance?”

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Audrey’s team drew up a list of all the women who are dependent on monthly maintenance in their area. After reaching out to them, the team made a list of essentials required by them. They then tied up with Sodexo, a  food services and facilities management company, in providing these women with basic groceries and other support.

A Case for Mental Health Support

Lawyers or police are perhaps not the best choice for answering a distress call. A licensed psychotherapist and co-founder of The Safe Space, Nishi Joshi, was distraught to see the state of domestic violence victims in India. She is also one of the counsellors at the Volunteers Collective, working together with Tanvi, providing first-response and on-call therapy for victims.

Furious to see victim’s mental health taking a back seat in the conversation, Nishi said, “More than a lawyer or a cop, there’s a need for a trained professional to answer the call. The woman on the other side is in trauma and for all we know she may be injured. The person receiving the call has a very limited time frame.” A victim in a distress situation may need to be rescued, sometimes with children, she explained. “They might not have any money at that time, any access to financial support or an alternative place of shelter to fall back on (especially, because of the lockdown).”

In Nishi’s opinion, time plays a very crucial role in determining the outcome of the case. “You don’t know the circumstances in which she is making the call. The perpetrator could be around or might suddenly come back as the victim tries to leave the house. These can be very difficult circumstances, especially in a lockdown situation like this.”

Preparedness is the only way for voluntary efforts such as these. The Safe Space and Volunteers’ Collective have a set of questions ready with them for a such a scenario: “Asking the victim how much time she has, what is her location, are they hurt, is there a physical wound, etc. Most importantly, do they need immediate medical attention? If yes, then we can call an ambulance for them. Do we need to alert the local police instead of them making the call? Can we set up a safe spot for them to be rescued and taken to, in case they don’t have a place to go to?”

The Biggest Hurdle

The lockdown is just another eye-opener for the degree of gender-based violence in India. Summer breaks or vacations, when the children were home longer than usual, also saw a spike in the cases of domestic violence. For women hailing from vulnerable sections of the society or marginalised communities, the impact of intimate partner violence is more sustained. Their chances of reporting it, more bleak.

The fact that her services can’t be reached beyond a segment of the society and to the lower strata bothers Nishi every day. “One of the primary challenges is accessibility,” she said. “Looking after someone’s mental health, especially in a case of domestic violence, largely remains inaccessible to the majority of those who suffer. Like the domestic help that is going through intimate partner violence and is in dire need of mental health support, wouldn’t know that something like this exists.”

Nishi has been on the frontline, answering distress calls and scheduling therapy sessions for follow-ups. “The government didn’t put any legal agencies or support systems in place for domestic violence victims,” she noted. “There are many free helplines but most of them are not working. These include the government helpline 1091 that was reported to be unanswered by many victims. What if perpetrators know this … they know that there isn’t a support system in place, that a woman’s cry for help might go unanswered? Maybe that is one reason why there is an increase in cases during the lockdown.”

On the other hand, providing financial help and legal help to the victims are also challenges that remain. What’s worse is that the majority of women find it difficult to access institutional support at a time when offices, transport and courts have shut down. Voluntary support groups are their only hope. Together, Tanvi’s team of lawyers and Nishi along with other counsellors are providing free legal and mental health support to women and their children experiencing domestic violence.

But what about the government, which has more manpower, resources and capacity? Having a more inclusive approach, reaching victims on the ground, creating more awareness and providing aid on a large-scale requires access to such resources and policy-level interventions. Civil society groups will be able to deal with the high incidence of domestic violence only when policy-makers work in tandem with them.

How much longer would being at home mean being at risk?

(Emails and calls to the Delhi Police and the Special Police Unit for Women & Children, Delhi Police, went unanswered.)

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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