Posted by Lian Cicily Joseph
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, defines domestic violence and provides remedies to a survivor of domestic violence. One of the remedies present under Section 17 of the Act, is that the aggrieved woman/survivor will have the right to reside in a shared household whether or not she had any title, right or beneficial interest in the property. The intent behind this provision is to ensure that the survivor is not evicted or excluded from the shared household or any part of it as a consequence of initiating proceedings under this Act. Prior to 2020, the position of the law was such that this right would only extend to households which were owned solely by the spouse-husband of the survivor. Given the familial structure in India and the fact that it is often the parents-in-law who are the legal owners of the property, this legal position caused great disadvantage to survivors of domestic violence.
Taking note of this misinterpretation of the law, the apex court in 2020 overruled the previous legal position. Instead of relying on technical considerations such as the names of the title-holders of the property, the court emphasised the need to interpret the law in a manner that was truly beneficial for the survivor. The Court observed that the right to reside in the matrimonial residence and not be evicted is a statutory right, conferred with a very specific intention – to ensure that the survivor who is usually dependent on the family of her spouse is guaranteed a place of residence.
This decision comes at a pivotal moment in the history of domestic violence cases in India due to the negative impact the pandemic has had on survivors of domestic violence. During the pandemic, there was an urgent need to relook the existing support infrastructure and enhance its accessibility. Currently, however, India’s response towards survivors of domestic violence during the pandemic has been negligible and far from the realities that survivors face. In addition to enhancing accessibility to formal justice systems and enforcing the Domestic Violence Act more rigorously, the pandemic has highlighted the need for us to make an active effort to redesign the existing support infrastructure available to survivors to include housing, healthcare and employment opportunities dedicated for them as well.
Domestic Violence and the COVID-19 Pandemic
The need for a robust system that effectively deals with domestic violence was heightened by the pandemic which exposed several deficiencies within the system. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations called for nations to account for DV and intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lockdown policies and pay special attention to the needs of this section of survivors.
The pandemic has been a tumultuous time for many and its uncertainty and uncontrollable nature has resulted in an increase in the cases of domestic violence. Domestic violence during the pandemic has been called the “Shadow Pandemic”, and has exposed the lack of adequate infrastructure and preparedness, in spite of having a large amount of research that suggests that there is a direct positive relationship between a large scale life changing event like a pandemic, economic recession or natural disasters and an increase in domestic violence.
India’s response to the pandemic was slow and reactionary. The imposition of the mandatory stay at home orders was sudden leaving many survivors socially isolated. The National Commission for Women (NCW) reported that India witnessed a steep increase in cases during the lockdown. During the period of 25 March 2020 and 31 May 2020 alone, the NCW reported receiving around 1,477 cases of domestic violence. Around 727 of these complaints were made on the NCW Whatsapp helpline. The number of cases during this period was the highest in the past 10 years.
While the shift to tech-based solutions was obvious and most convenient, it begs the question, what do survivors without access to technology or similar services do in such circumstances? Thinking of an alternative, a more inclusive solution becomes more imperative in India given the fact that only 35% of women have access to technology.
The reliance on a centralised system of handling cases of domestic violence including the reliance on the judiciary, governmental agencies and law enforcement makes access to justice harder and more strained. The government failed to formulate a national comprehensive policy that would take into account the needs of a diverse population. The call for a proper response and adequate planning came mostly from NGOs and other organisations that petitioned the government and courts to take urgent and immediate steps to address the same. The Delhi High Court while hearing a petition filed before it, directed the several state-bodies engaging in offering support to survivors to convene a meeting at the highest level to deliberate on better ways to implement the Act and the suggestions put forward by the petitioners in lieu of the rise in cases. The respondents in their reply detailed the various measures that were already put into place such as the 181 hotline that was run 24/7, contact with the child welfare committees, among others. While the Court expressed satisfaction at the measures undertaken, it asked that the Act be implemented properly with the staff being trained adequately and suggested the appointment of temporary protection officers be duly considered.
The High Court of Jammu and Kashmir also took suo motu cognisance of the matter and issued a series of interim directions. Some of these measures include creating a dedicated fund to address domestic violence within the territories, increasing online telecommunication services, and designating formal spaces within public spheres such as supermarkets and pharmacies where women can feel comfortable to report domestic violence. Similarly, the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu High Courts have also issued strict directions to ensure that adequate actions against domestic violence are undertaken.
Building Capacities Amongst Diverse Stakeholders as the Way Forward
One of the most urgent needs during the pandemic is to explore alternative remedies and develop a more community-centred approach to effectively handle domestic violence. The remedies available to the survivor need not only be restricted to the formal legal system: they cannot be, if we wish to build better, and quicker, support for survivors. Prevention or mitigation programmes are seen to have a direct effect on reduction of prevalence of domestic violence. An effective strategy in order to prevent and or reduce domestic violence would be to create economic community intervention programmes with the focus on challenging existing gender norms. Many organisations have formed self help groups and other small scale funds that are dedicated to support the economic independence of women in a way that they feel most comfortable.
Communities across the globe have undertaken a host of activities to counter domestic violence, during the pandemic. Countries like Spain and France began to train pharmacists and other essential workers to identify a specific phrase ‘mask 19’ which denoted that the woman was being subjected to domestic violence and needed assistance. Similar initiatives are emerging in India. For example, the Pune Zilla Parishad quarantined abusive husbands and also undertook a host of awareness campaigns. Other similar campaigns included the Suppress Corona and Not Your Voice Campaign and the setting up of a community radio in Uttar Pradesh. There is a need to focus on investing in different support channels for survivors and building capacities in diverse stakeholders to not only normalise the conversation around domestic violence but to also ensure that survivors have access to integral support systems. Some of these support channels could include community-funded shelter homes and housing facilities, increased government and community funding to civil society organisations and investing in disseminating key information about legal rights, remedies and support available to survivors through mediums which are popularly accessible such as news and radio channels.
Building capacities amongst first responders can also be an effective way of ensuring that survivors continue to remain supported. This involves working not only with key community organisers and leaders but also with neighbours, resident welfare groups, and essential or other service providers. Some of these initiatives include conducting training workshops or sessions for large apartment complexes to equip them with the necessary skills to respond to domestic violence cases within their localities. Resident Welfare Groups and similar associations can act as essential stakeholders in bystander intervention as they are usually closest to the survivor as well. With access to law enforcement and other formal entities severely impacted by the pandemic, it has become important that there are large scale community mobilisation programmes undertaken with the specific goals of generating awareness and taking action through bystander intervention. Building this network of key informal players and strengthening their involvement is one of the most direct ways to tackle this issue. Social media too has served as an important tool in addressing domestic violence during the pandemic. The Signal For Help hand gesture is a way for social media users, primarily on Instagram, to convey to family members and friends that they are facing domestic abuse and are in need of help.
The call for community participation reflects the need to ensure that domestic violence is not considered to be a private affair alone and also recognises that as individuals we can assist survivors in the smallest of ways. There exists a strong need to ensure that efforts to prevent or address domestic violence are not limited to centralised redressal agencies alone. The focus must be on gaining widespread community participation and awareness generation programmes that will ensure immediate redressal and the safety of survivors is sustainable and not inhibited or compromised by the lack of intervention by centralised agencies.
One Future Collective is conducting a research study titled Civil Society Response to Domestic Violence During COVID-19 | Building Better Support for Survivors and is funded by the Azim Premji University Covid-19 Research Funding Programme 2020. If you are individual working with the issue of domestic violence during the pandemic, please take some time out to fill our survey for this study. If you are a civil society organisation (this includes NGOs, informal groups of volunteers, collectives, educational institution affiliated bodies and more), please please fill this brief expression of interest form, and we will reach out to you to schedule an interview with a member of our research team.
Lian Cicily Joseph is an intern at One Future Collective’s FemJustice Center.
Featured image credit: Sunidhi Kothari/Feminism In India