As the nation braced the strict lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country, many women were being subjected to another kind of confinement.
In Delhi, in the second week of April 2020, a man contacted a government-licensed shelter home for women survivors of violence and abuse to seek help for his sister. The woman, a mother of two toddlers and a resident of Uttam Nagar in Delhi, had allegedly suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband and his family. The woman was suffering abuse for the past few years and that worsened during the lockdown.
In another incident in Telangana in May 2020, a 22-year-old woman was raped by her 80-year-old relative after he offered to help her with accommodation during the lockdown. The woman had recently separated from her husband.
In a shocking incident in Rajasthan, in April 2020, a 40-year-old woman was allegedly gang-raped by three men in a government school premises. The survivor had gone to Dausa to visit her son, but was stuck in Sawai Madhopur for more than a month once the lockdown started. She had taken refuge in the school premises where the men, taking advantage of her situation, raped her.
Rise in violence during lockdown
These are some of the many cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse and sexual violence against women that have seen a sharp rise during the lockdown in the country.
In April 2020, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 315 complaints, only of domestic violence. These were received online and on a dedicated WhatsApp helpline / complaint number and not by the commonly-used postal services owing to the lockdown restrictions. Still, the number was the highest since August 2019 as per NCW records. In another part of the country, in a crowded chawl in Mumbai’s densely-populated Dharavi area, Laxmi Phule is worried about the well-being of her daughter and herself. Her husband, an auto-rickshaw driver who is an alcoholic, is making frantic calls to arrange for his daru – the wine shops, liquor stores and bars being shut during the lockdown.
She had become accustomed to the occasional beating by her husband when he would come home late, drunk and extremely angry. Very often, her daughter would also face the wrath of her violent, enraged father. And now, with her husband sitting at home all day, doing nothing but drinking, Laxmi is not certain if she would survive the lockdown at all.
Women facing threats at home
Laxmi isn’t alone because the nationwide lockdown that started after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on 25 March 2020 to save Indian lives, unfortunately, endangered the lives of lakhs of women in the country.
“When I was getting married, I had not imagined my life will turn upside down with the abuse perpetrated by my husband and his father. I had made peace with the violence. Now, the mere thought of having my husband and his wayward father ‘in the house’ for days and no chance of me stepping out of the house, gives me the shivers,” says a petrified Aarti Pawar, a saleswoman in Pune. Her husband, an alcoholic and a small-time gambler has been abusing her physically and sexually since they got married five years back.
Order to protect women from violence
The division bench of the Delhi High Court, in an order in April 2020, 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 intention of the court was clear that women need to be protected from the clear and apparent threat at home.
The order was in response to the petition filed by the All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Social Justice (AICHLS) that detailed ‘the extensive threats to the safety of women, particularly during the lockdown period, when they are locked down with their abuser’. The petition also quoted statistics as evidence: In the month of January, they received 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.
The uncertainty over opening of liquor shops in the country as the restrictions were eased during the second and third 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.
Frustration being vented on women
“The men are frustrated sitting at home and women are facing the brunt of their anger and frustration. 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.
To help these women during these extraordinary times and in the absence of a working 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 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 police and other law enforcement entities are diverting all their resources and personnel to handle the COVID-19 outbreak. Also, because of the lockdown, government agencies, NGOs, women organisations handling domestic violence cases are all closed leaving limited options for a victim. And, because of the restrictions on movement, women are unable to step out of their homes and away from the abuser. This further emboldens the perpetrator,” says Meenakshi Sharma, a Delhi-based activist.
Global rise in violence
The increasing number of cases of violence against women who are confined in homes with an abusive partner or husband or family member can be seen all over the world. Most countries – South Africa, China, Italy, Spain, UK, France, USA – have reported increased instances of distressed women calling helplines as the COVID-19 pandemic spread to these nations. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also called for a “ceasefire” to address the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
Organisations and women groups working closely on issues related to women rights, domestic violence and safety of women have been receiving complaints of abuse of women from across quarters. Mumbai-based NGO Sneha has seen a four-fold increase in calls with women reporting abuse from their husbands after they lost their jobs or received salary cuts.
Authorities are trying to find viable options such as phone counselling, hostels, shelter homes, etc. to support the victims. “With all the resources 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 Coronavirus outbreak,” says Meenakshi.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the government has even started “fifty-two helplines in different parts of the country to help women facing domestic violence during the lockdown”.
‘Stalker’ father emboldened during lockdown
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot also 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, Pradeep Khare, a habitual offender and stalker in Jaipur, has once again begun to stalk his ‘daughter’, who left her criminal, dysfunctional family five years ago and now lives in another city. Fully aware that the system is busy tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown, under the guise of ‘fatherly concern’ the stalker continues to harass her.
The threat to women lurks outside and within the ‘safe’ confines of their homes.