Dealing with Domestic Violence during a Pandemic
By Swetha Shankar
Swetha Shankar is Director – Client Services, PCVC. She has a Masters in Psychology and an M.Phil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. With a concentration in gender and violence against women, she has 5 years of experience in the social development sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of women facing domestic violence in a way that perhaps no other single global event has ever before. With strong anecdotal evidence and first-hand data, we can state with confidence that domestic violence has increased during the coronavirus lockdown, and women are paying an inordinately high price. The pandemic is a grim reminder that for some, home is not the safe haven we imagine it to be. While protected from the virus, there are other horrors lurking around women staying indoors, and our institutions are failing to help them because they are ineffective even when we are not facing a pandemic. In this blog, I will try and set out some specific actions that can help address this situation.
Official reporting of domestic violence in India is extremely poor, and those cases only represent a minuscule fraction of violence that women actually face. Even so, the lockdown has seen a palpable increase in violence. The National Commission for Women (NCW) has reported a surge in cases with 123 domestic violence complaints registered between March 24th and April 10th. This is double the number recorded in the preceding two weeks. In response, they launched a WhatsApp number to assist survivors. At the Dhwani Domestic Violence Hotline run by PCVC, we have been flooded with calls. In the first 4 days of the lockdown, we received ten times the calls we usually cater to in a full month before the pandemic. The follow-up calls from women experiencing violence was double the number of first-time callers. Not only were more women facing violence, the frequency and intensity of violence against them also increased.
The single-most debilitating factor of the pandemic for women facing violence is isolation. India has been in lockdown since March 24, 2020. For many women, that’s over two months of being locked in with their perpetrators amidst fear, uncertainty, and job and financial insecurity. Cut off from family, friends, colleagues, and other support systems and facing institutional apathy, many survivors are reporting that their communications are being monitored. Hence, they are unable to seek external support.
But even if they could seek external support, help might not actually ever arrive, or arrive on time. Most shelters are closed, police are refusing to file cases and women seeking emergency support through 100 are being admonished for overburdening the system at a time when they have “far more important things to deal with”. The options for applying for emergency travel passes included health reasons, but domestic violence and the detrimental effect it can have on physical and mental health was not considered grave enough to grant passes in many cases.
To be clear, it is not that our institutions were completely silent. According to an article in the New Indian Express, the Tamil Nadu health department responded to a writ petition filed in the Madras High Court stating that 111 Anganwadi workers had been temporarily deputed as protection officers, and one stop centres and protection officers in the state had handled 65 and 92 cases respectively as of April 21st. It was reported that in most cases, survivors chose for the abusers to be warned, rather than pursuing legal remedies due to obstacles posed by the lockdown. The Jammu & Kashmir High Court took suo motu cognizance of the increase in domestic violence cases and issued interim directions designating informal spaces such as pharmacies and grocery stores as safe spaces where women can report domestic violence, and educational institutions and hotels should be made temporary shelters to shield them from violence. The Delhi High Court called on the government to ensure effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence (PWDV) Act and, the Karnataka High Court has asked the government about availability of hotlines and actions taken to address domestic violence.
But the fact is, such emergency measures don’t really achieve anything, and they do not translate into safety for all women on the ground. Even if a few women do get some respite from the violence, they are not free to make choices that prioritize their well-being without compromising their support systems, their financial security, their continued custody of their children.
So, what does a coordinated response look like, in such a disparate eco-system of support? We need to understand a few things before we answer that question.
First, solutions which disregard consequences for the survivor are ineffectual. Actions are often black and white, but consequences very rarely are. Leaving is not an immediate option for many women and it takes a lot of support to make that decision. We can ask a woman to leave, but where will she go? What about financial support? On the other hand, we can ask a woman to stay and warn the perpetrator, and create safety plans for the survivor – but can we guarantee safety or freedom?
Secondly, any support system that does not understand that breaking the cycle of violence is a process cannot respond effectively in an emergency. Legal solutions are long-term solutions and take time, resources and support that are not accessible immediately. Getting the buy-in and support of the birth family requires many counseling sessions, conflict resolution and negotiation with various family members.
Thirdly, crisis support requires us to think creatively and generate options with survivors, where there may seem to be none. As a hotline crisis responder, I have learnt that telling women that they can apply for a protection order under the PWDVA Act, whilst valuable information, does nothing to alleviate the need for immediate support. In one case during this pandemic, we were able to coordinate with the police and one-stop centre, to temporarily move the husband out of the marital home and into his mother’s house for the duration of the lockdown. He also provided financial support for the survivor to keep the house running. Solutions like this help provide immediate safety and time to contemplate long-term needs.
Keeping the above in mind, here are, in my opinion, five pillars of any immediate and effective solution to address domestic violence against women, especially during a pandemic.
- Mobility – Allowing women to travel to safety is an immediate need during these times and must be facilitated by state mechanisms. Getting them out of the unsafe environment is the first step – it will provide space and time for women and their families to consider various options available to them and think of next steps. A separate nodal agency can be set up to provide and coordinate travel passes for domestic violence survivors, such as the social welfare department.
- Safe Housing – Women who are unable to reach family members or friends who can put them up need to be offered safe housing options – this requires that emergency shelters are in operation, extra beds are organized, hotels can be an option as has been in some countries.
- Financial Support – Immediate financial support for food, medical expenses, travel expenses etc. needs to be provided by the state. Access to joint family resources can also be facilitated by emergency workers.
- Custody Arrangements – Women should not be forced to choose leaving their children behind if they wish to leave. Emergency custody arrangements, especially in cases of young children, will help survivors negotiate longer-term measures post the emergency.
- Access to Personal Items – Many survivors are denied access to essential items such as clothing, their ID cards and certificates, ration cards, their jewellery etc. Emergency responders should coordinate to ensure that they are able to have access to these items and they are not used as leverage to prevent them from taking any action.
- And finally, for any solution to work, providing support to women facing domestic violence should be declared an essential service. Our counsellors found it immensely difficult to even rescue women facing violence due to the unavailability of passes. If the entire system does not recognize and acknowledge the magnitude of the problem in general, we will never be able to address it during a pandemic, and women will continue paying a price for it.