Beneath the surface of a global pandemic lurks a human rights crisis for women. The World Population report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warns that the pandemic could reverse the entire milestone achieved in the fight against human rights.
Data suggests that pandemics and epidemics have always affected women in far greater ways than men. One of the most serious blows to the dignity of the women amidst this pandemic is the increase in cases of domestic violence.
With a surge in domestic violence cases across the world, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, has termed this increase in violence as a “shadow pandemic”. Some of the reasons for physical as well as verbal abuse as reported are not serving food on time, loss of a job, not being able to procure ration, etc. However, as said by Rev. Donna Mulvey “When it comes to abuse, there is no way out. But there is always help. There is a way out”
During the first four phases of the lockdown, women in India filed more domestic violence complaints than recorded in the last 10years. According to the official data of the National Commission for Women (NCW), domestic violence complaints received in 2019 were 607, while in 2020 between March and May they registered 1477 cases. And between March 23 and April 16, the NCW received 239 complaints of domestic violence as compared to 123 complaints during normal times.
Also, recent data released by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) is shocking. The report by NALSA shows cases from the start of the lockdown till May 15, 2020, and was collected from 28 State Legal Services.
A total of 144 cases were reported in Uttarakhand, 79 from Haryana and 69 from Delhi. The NCW also took note of the fact that the maximum cases of crime against women were reported from the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tripura, Maharashtra, and Assam.
Bearing in silence
Almost 86% of women who experienced violence never sought help and 77% of the victims did not even complain about the incident to anyone. It is often seen that women regard verbal/emotional abuse as normal behaviour from their male partners and thus do not even realize that it is a form of violence.
It is disturbing to note that domestic violence is often treated as a family affair requiring counseling that discourages women from proceeding with legal remedies. In 90% of cases, the victim seeks help from immediate family rather than police, doctors, lawyers, or service providers, and only 14% of women who experienced violence have reported it.
Due to the pandemic victims are confined within the four walls of the house with their abusers, which leaves them with little or no option to find any help or solace.
In Italy, an app named “YouPol” was launched by the Government that allowed victims to seek help without talking on the phone. In France, since medical stores were allowed to remain open, victims sought help from them by using the code word “Mask 19”.
Course of action
The victims of domestic violence must remember not to blame themselves ever for what is happening to them. The perpetrator is 100% responsible and the victims must not find excuses for the actions of the perpetrator. If the victim accepts even one incident of abuse, it may lead to a vicious cycle of abuse.
The victims of domestic violence face severe mental and physical health issues, such as depression, anxiety, sexual disorders, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and in extreme cases substance abuse. In a bid to tackle the issue of domestic violence Twitter launched a search prompt to serve information or updates from authoritative sources.
Twitter has collaborated with the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development and the National Commission for Women to ensure safety for women. The NCW also suggested DGP’s of the state to appoint Nodal Officers to deal with such issue.
Also, the Delhi High Court, noting the seriousness of the issue, in response to a petition filed by the All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Social Justice directed the Delhi Government and the Centre on April 24 to ensure effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
Also, there are NGOs and service providers like SAKHI, 181 Helpline Number, etc who are doing a commendable job in protecting the rights of women. Even countries like Italy have increased the number of helplines, Australia has increased funding for anti-violence organizations and even Kenya facilitated telephone counseling services.
Undoubtedly the steps taken by the courts and government are commendable; however, they might not be enough keeping in mind the stigma and fear related to domestic violence. And the recent report shows that only 38% of women in India own a mobile phone and thus it must not be easy for women especially in rural areas and low-wage households to avail the benefit of different helpline numbers.
The option of reporting domestic abuse to the police is always available either by the victim or some other person. Section 4 of the Domestic Violence Act gives protection to any person who gives information to the Protection Officer about domestic violence in his interest and good faith. However, the consent of the victim is required before filing any complaint.
If an aggrieved woman does not intend to seek legal remedy, she can create a safety plan for herself by alerting people safely when faced with a threatening situation. It is also advised to keep friends, family, or neighbor aware of the abusive situation.
The resources for the NGOs that deal with domestic violence should be increased. Moreover, apart from all these steps, marital counselling and awareness campaigns should be conducted in both rural as well as urban areas, to prevent male partners from abusing women and making women understand that domestic violence is more than a mere family problem, rather it is a social evil; a threat to the dignity of women.
Shilpa Roy is a lawyer and columnist based in Guwahati. She can be reached at: [email protected]