Unseen. Dangerous. It struck us. Hard, and fast. Before we knew it, Covid-19 had us stuck at home Googling new recipes. A lot of us may have been excited by this sudden ‘vacation’ but before we lose perspective, we need to keep in mind that unlike for a lot of us, ‘home’ is not the safe haven for everyone. To a lot of people, it means being stuck, with no means to escape, with their partner, or more appropriately, their abuser.
Domestic violence, as described in Section 3 of ‘The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act’, 20051, is of four types: physical, sexual, verbal or emotional, and economic. The ‘aggrieved person’ under this Act, however, is considered to only be a woman. In a country that is progressing so rapidly, it is a shame to see that the laws are failing to keep up with the changing times. Men, and even transgenders, find no place under this act and therefore, have no legislative safeguards against domestic violence.
Marianne Hester, a sociologist who studies abusive relationships, said that domestic violence increases whenever families get the opportunity to spend more time together, such as the Christmas and summer vacations2. The Covid-19 lockdown presents such an opportunity. On the 6th of April3, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), pointed out that violence was not only limited to the battlefield. He, in his appeal for a ceasefire, asked governments to address the ‘horrifying global surge in domestic violence’ and urged them to place women’s safety first as they responded to the pandemic.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) reported that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nation-wide lockdown on the night of March 23, 2020, the number of cases reported to them doubled, as compared to the first week of March, 2020. From 30 in the first week of March to 69 in the last week, domestic violence cases in India have surged. In accordance with their findings, the NCW released a WhatsApp number to facilitate the easier filing of complaints by women4.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone to stay at home. This only serves to give more power to the abuser. Despite the UN asking governments to be prepared for a surge in cases of domestic violence, they failed to prepare for the way the new public health measures would create opportunities for abusers to take advantage of their victims. Governments are scrambling to provide those services now, but irreparable damage may already have been done. ‘Intimate terrorism’, a term experts use to describe domestic violence, needs to be dealt with, swiftly and decisively.
The fact that the victims have no option of escaping from their abuser, even for a few hours, means that things become all the more dangerous. Fights may become more frequent which means that the abusers may have a higher tendency to abuse their partners. For people brave enough to report their cases to the authorities, the pandemic means that their cases may not be given priority. Amanda Taub, while reporting for ‘The New York Times’ wrote that ‘institutions that are supposed to protect women from domestic violence, many weak and underfunded to begin with, are now straining to respond to the increased demand’5. The lockdowns mean that such institutions cannot operate at full capacity, even if they operate at all.
The judgement of Rupali Devi v. State of U.P.6 helped expand the jurisdiction of Section 498A (relating to the husband or relative of a woman subjecting her to cruelty) of the Indian Penal Code. It laid down that if a survivor of domestic abuse chooses a separate place of residence, away from her abuser, the courts there would have the jurisdiction to deal with the case. This can be interpreted in the sense that Indian women, staying at their matrimonial homes away from their abusers, would be empowered to file a case against their abuser at that very place.
Domestic violence forms a very specific challenge that governments need to tackle. It is understandable, but not acceptable, that they may be ill-equipped to deal with the surge in the number of cases relating to domestic violence. Releasing helpline numbers are just a small stride towards helping the thousands, if not millions, of victims, stuck at home with their abusers.
The government needs to recognize the danger that domestic violence poses to the general health and well-being of its population. It should look to providing the public with access to therapists, over call, or using apps, who may be able to help reduce the aggression of the abuser. Identifying the root of a problem is the best way to curb it, and a therapist may help do so. However, if the government does provide access to therapists, it needs to keep in mind the perceived stigma of the Indians. Taking help from mental health professionals is considered to be a stigma in the Indian society and the government needs to work towards changing such a perception. It is understandable that perceptions do not change overnight, however, steps taken by the government may make an impact
The author also believes that deterrents would go a long way in helping mitigate domestic violence. The government should advertise the penalties that one may attract for domestic violence. This may seem to be a drastic measure but considering the fact that a lot of abusers do not even know the punishment they may attract for domestic violence, this seems like a viable option.
In conclusion, it is imperative for us to understand that domestic violence greatly alters the life of the victim. Be it physically or mentally, violence by a loved one always leaves its mark. In straining conditions such as the ones in the present scenario, the scars seem to be deeper. Abuse by a person who you trust is devastating, and the government needs to step up before it is too late.