Posted by Abeera Dubey and Vandita Morarka
Due to the spread of COVID-19 globally, many countries have imposed a general ban on leaving the home for anything but essentials including India. This move has proved to increase the vulnerability of already at-risk persons, including those facing domestic violence. During this lockdown, many people have faced an increased risk of domestic violence as they have been forced to stay at home with their abusers at a time when there is extreme volatility all around. There is also increased economic uncertainty due to the impact of the lockdown and research shows that at times of economic hardships, abusive and violent behaviour often increases.
According to the United Nations, this upsurge in violence is not limited to a country or a region. Media reports show an increase in violence across the globe. Calls on helpline numbers have doubled in Lebanon and Malaysia, while it has tripled in China. In India, according to the National Commission of Women (NCW), there has been a sharp increase in the number of distress calls since the country has been under lockdown. The total complaints received by NCW rose from 116 in the first week of March to 257 in the final week of March. The data, however, does not reflect the accurate picture of the situation as only a few women are actually able to reach out for help when their abusers are constantly around them. The current situation is distressing as, for many victims, their own homes have become a frightening place to be during an already uncertain time.
One Future Collective runs a FemJustice Legal Aid Helpline that provides preliminary legal support to survivors of gender-based violence. Since the commencement of the lockdown the helpline has received more than twice the number of phone calls than it received since its launch in January 2020. Advisors at the helpline have been recommending a safety module to the survivors who are calling us, which includes providing them with safety tips and mental health support.
What support is available for victims of domestic violence at this time?
When someone is experiencing domestic violence and they choose to report the crime, they would normally approach a police station to file a complaint or may speak to an advocate to send a legal notice on their behalf. Due to the lockdown, victims are now in a very difficult position as they cannot avail either of these two remedies. In the absence of a way to physically approach the authorities, there is an immense need of urgent mechanisms to be put in place to address the issue.
One Future Collective made calls to various police stations in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi to enquire if the complaints of domestic violence are being taken by the police and if a system (including an online portal or helpline number) has been put in place to help the victims of domestic violence.
Due to the lockdown, victims are now in a very difficult position as they cannot avail any remedies.
In Mumbai and Delhi, our calls went unanswered at many police stations. From what we could gather, there is no online portal or a helpline number that has been put into place which can direct the survivors to the police in cases of violence. Except for a few stations, most said that in case a complaint is registered, enquiry won’t take place at the moment, however, in exceptional cases they may look into it.
It was observed from talking to the police that they themselves were unsure of what to recommend and how to answer the questions, indicating that there is a complete lack of awareness even from senior authorities about dealing with the issue of domestic violence in this scenario. However, in Bangalore, the police recommended that the survivors can call area police stations and it will be looked into. In one of the cases we received in Bangalore, the two police personnels accompanied the survivor to her partner’s place to pick up her belongings after she moved to her company guest house. This was an essential support given the rules around the lockdown.
We also contacted the National Commission for Women to understand what recommendations they are giving to the survivors of domestic violence during the lockdown. However, the reply looked like an auto-generated response where we were directed to their online complaint forum.
A general apathy to the plight of women has also been observed from most of the stakeholders concerned. One of the callers who called our helpline number had told us that she went to a doctor who refused to give her any medical report saying that the bruises were caused by violence as the case could drag further and they don’t have the capacity at the moment for it. In another shocking case, one of the police stations we called, the police personnel said, “In cases of domestic violence generally they have already been living in those households for a year or two, let it be fifteen more days.” The lack of sensitivity on issues of gender based violence and general lack of understanding of how the virus is only exacerbating existing issues, along with internalised patriarchy creates further obstructions to justice for survivors.
One of the callers who called our helpline number had told us that she went to a doctor who refused to give her any medical report saying that the bruises were caused by violence as the case could drag further and they don’t have the capacity at the moment for it.
However, frontline workers are not to be blamed entirely. They are at the forefront for implementing the lockdown orders, and are engaged in constant overwhelming work. Of the calls we made, police officers talked about how they are completely occupied due to the lockdown. They appeared hesitant during the calls regarding what to recommend. In the absence of any systems put in place by the government to address the issue of domestic violence, the police are unsure on how to deal with the cases and queries that are coming up. The government has overlooked the need to formally integrate domestic violence into emergency response plans against the pandemic.
There is no denying the fact that people facing violence need help and need it urgently. Arrangements have to be made to deal with the matter of domestic violence being faced by many people in the country. In Spain, the government has told women that they won’t be fined for breaking the lockdown in case they leave the house to report a crime, while in France victims have been encouraged to discreetly seek help at pharmacies. Some initiatives have also been taken by a few state authorities in India.
One Future Collective makes the following recommendations to be worked on to address the issue of domestic violence in the country during the lockdown:
- A follow up should be done by local authorities on women who have earlier reported domestic violence to them. The Phone-up Programme launched in Orissa being implemented with the help of State Crime Record Bureau can serve as a good example for the same.
- An online portal and a helpline number that runs 24*7 for each state should be launched, like the Uttar Pradesh Police launched for domestic violence during the lockdown.
- Extensive awareness should be raised about the above written portals through TV networks, SMS alerts and other methods. These awareness programs should go beyond requesting the victims to report any issues and instead should have complete information on how exactly the victims can report the crime, including the steps they can take for safety.
- A code word or an action should be developed which survivors can indicate to the neighbours, shopkeepers of grocery shops and pharmacies to seek help. For example in the Red-Dot initiative where they can put a red dot on their forehead and show it to their neighbours or shopkeepers, or even send it as an image to the helpline as a distress call.
- A task force comprising of police personnel, lawyer, mental health professional and social worker should be appointed for each district to guide the women reaching out through the helpline on the best way to deal with their respective situations. Their services should be listed under permissible activities list issued by the government.
- Courts should function to hear the matters of domestic violence on an urgent basis. Women should be provided with transport facilities to travel to the court and back for their hearings.
- Existing shelters homes should be used to provide refuge to women living under violent conditions at home. For lack of capacity at the existing shelters, new shelters at hotel rooms, hostels and other fitting spaces should be built to help women find refuge.
The incorporation of these recommendations is the need of the hour and should be done right away. However, as the fight for survival for victims of domestic violence would not end when lockdown is lifted, initiatives like helpline numbers and portals, code words for alerting the people around and the task force should be sustained and included in the long-term policies of the government.
Written by Abeera Dubey, Program Associate, FemJustice Legal Centre [One Future Collective] with inputs from Vandita Morarka, Founder and CEO [One Future Collective].
Featured Image Source: Srishti Sharma/Feminism in India