Posted by Kuhoo Tiwari
Every year, the budget is looked to with bated breath owing to the massive repercussions that the allotment of resources can have on every individual in the country. In 2021, the anticipation reached an all-time high, as it came at a time highly unpredictable and unprecedented. The world is still reeling from the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, and the economy has been one of the factors most impacted by the sudden and unforeseen spread of the virus. Entire markets came to a standstill last year, and all eyes were on Nirmala Sitharaman as she announced India’s first-ever COVID budget.
However, a reason that the budget became even more important is the disproportionate way that the lockdown has affected women across the country. Women had to not only run the domestic economy but also manage all household chores and take care of family members who have been forced indoors due to the spread of the virus. There was a heavy spike in the domestic work women are expected to perform and while more people were at home, these chores were hardly divided equally. Moreover, what became even more clear as the pandemic wore on was the existence of a parallel ‘shadow pandemic’ as termed by the United Nations – the rise of domestic violence against during COVID19.
Domestic violence during the pandemic
In a desperate bid to provide protection from the virus, across the globe, varying measures have been implemented to different degrees to encourage social distancing. A devastating result of what has been constituted as ‘the lockdown’ across the world is the fact that more women and girls have been forced to be locked into the house with their perpetrators, with little to no contact with the outside world. It has become a form of perfect isolation, and the situation has become extremely conducive to the unchecked rise of domestic violence. On both a national and state level, our infrastructure failed to account for this rise, and as a result, many survivors have been unable to avail help within the pandemic.
In March 2020 itself, the National Commission for Women (NCW) was able to recognise this pattern of rising domestic violence as complaints received from women rose from 116 in the first week of March (March 2-8), to 257 in the last week (March 23-April 1). While this 200% rise in the number of complaints received is extremely alarming, it is also pertinent to note that it only accounts for cisgender women complainants who are aware of the mechanism of the NCW being in place.
It is reported that as many as 86% of women facing domestic violence in India do not report, and out of the 14% who do, only a small fraction are able to reach out to relevant authorities. The reasons for this underreporting are many, ranging from the aspect of shame and honour of family to not having any resources to survive outside of the marriage. However, the lockdown situation made reporting even tougher as the chance of a perpetrator constantly monitoring the survivor increased tenfold. Even as the year wore on, there was no respite. The instances of violence against women rose even more, with the NCW recording around 23,722 cases in 2020, which is the highest number in six years.
The breakdown of formal machinery as we know it
Another reason that little to no help was available for the survivors that did end up reporting was the reduced capacity of key organisations and social structures. The limited working of these spaces made it extremely hard for them to provide adequate support needed by a survivor. The machinery and structures in place to account for the protection of women under the Domestic Violence Act were not classified as ‘essential‘ during the pandemic. This led to a severe problem as individuals trained to provide support during volatile situations like Protection Officers and individuals working with CSOs were unable to reach survivors. Services that are often availed in the case of domestic violence, like the police, were also overburdened with work, and the need for empathetic infrastructure to support survivors of GBV took a backseat. Shelter homes were overflowing or at full capacity, helplines were not fully functional, and the state was just unable to cope with this ‘shadow pandemic’ that grew exponentially simultaneously.
India’s response to the problem
The response to this horrifying rise in violence has mostly been led by civil society organisations and individual social workers, all of whom have been stretched beyond capacity. It is CSOs who have been working with survivors day in and day out, with several check-ins and constant follow-ups to ensure the safety and swift delivery of resources that might be needed. Some state governments have taken certain steps to address the problem, however, this has not been adequate on a national level. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, Protection Officers were classified as essential workers and allowed to move around, and women were allowed to move out of their houses even during the peak of the pandemic if it was believed that their life was in danger.
Around 111 counsellors were also given special status as protection officers to allow survivors to be able to gain access to more empathetic and trauma-informed responses. The Uttar Pradesh government launched a helpline specifically for survivors of domestic violence, while the Karnataka High Court asked many tough questions about the availability of funds and the kinds of resources being offered to survivors in the wake of this increasing violence. While these individual steps taken by state governments were helpful to start conversations, and for survivors in those specific states, it was hoped that the 2021 budget would finally also look at this problem on a central level. The budget was looked at as a respite to this growing turmoil, however, it also failed to set aside enough to adequately fund for the abuse that has been exposed as a result of the COVID19 crisis.
The failure of budgets in responding to domestic violence
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to build survivor friendly infrastructure at multiple levels, with the opportunity to avail multiple services available for individuals. The crisis has only exacerbated inequalities that already existed, and it is important to fill the gaps that the past year has exposed. Across the globe, it was hoped that economies would account for this staggering spike. In England and Wales, domestic abuse schemes are set to receive an additional £19m over the next two years. This comes in addition to the £125 million that was announced earlier this year in February, which was essentially allocated by Councils across England to support survivors of domestic violence and their children. This money has been set aside to provide resources like therapy, legal advocacy and safe accommodation for survivors. The additional £19m are greatly welcomed and a large portion of this money will be invested in ‘respite rooms’ which are specific modes of shelter to provide support to homeless women across the country.
This money, while helpful, is not nearly enough to combat the problem. Responses to the allocation have been tepid, as research done by Women’s Aid which is a national charity organisation in the UK calculated that nearly £393m would be required as a whole to ensure sustainable change nationwide. Moreover, a large sum of the £19m being set aside would also focus on perpetrator rehabilitation, which some fear may take away from resources that survivors need at the moment.
The Malaysian Government set aside RM21 mil to set up support centres locally for survivors, and also recognised the spike in violence during the pandemic as an extremely important part of the budget-making process. The government has also recognised the importance of community and CSOs during this time, and Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz even mentioned that NGOs will be critical in the setting up and running of these centres.
Back home, however, the resounding silence around this issue in the 2021 budget has been extremely disappointing. An example that can definitely be learned from is that of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that took suo moto cognisance of the rapid rise in violence and issued various interim directions including dedicated funding, increased access to legal as well as call-in services for survivors and designated safe spaces for women like grocery stores, pharmacies etc. where they can alert individuals of domestic violence without the perpetrator being made aware. However, there has been no indication of similar responses on a nationwide level.
Since 2001, India has been releasing a different ‘gender’ budget along with its union budget. However, this budget continues to remain less than 5% of the total expenditure laid out in the Union budget and in 2021, the gender budget shrunk by a staggering 26%. While traditional social service schemes have retained half of their allocations, new areas like domestic violence have received but 2%. The ‘Mission for Protection and Empowerment of Women‘ budget outlay saw a cutback to INR 48 crore, in comparison to the INR 901 crores allotted just a year prior. The money that has been allotted also seems to lack direction, as there is no plan laid out for how the money will be spent and how much of it will be specific to survivors of domestic violence.
Moreover, the funds that do exist also remain unutilised. As reported by Oxfam, the Nirbhaya Fund, which is specifically set up to aid survivors of GBV remained largely unused during this time. This money has specifically been allotted to set up helplines and crisis centres, both of which were heavily needed during the pandemic, but no expenditure is being done to improve upon the existing infrastructure. Globally, budgets have failed to realise the severity of the problem and have been inadequate in their approach.
Making our budgets more inclusive going forward
Major strategies that need to be implemented at a national, as well as at a global level are empathetic and flexible advocacy (which provides access to trauma-informed support personnel for the survivor), access to shelter or housing and, to mental health services. Ministries of finance, as well as state and local level authorities, need to address violence against women in both policies as well as funding and account for the various costs that exist for the survivor and the structures that exist to support them.
In addition, plans for the distribution of funds need to be in place so funds are not mismanaged. Now, more than ever, it is pertinent to provide these funds to CSOs that are directly working to provide survivors legal and mental health help or shelter or to set up other specific mechanisms that can aid the survivor with the same. Whether it be through providing more safe spaces and shelter homes, making sure helplines are fully functional or providing direct legal and health support services, it is important that going forward ministries are ‘gender-responsive in their budgeting’. Through this practice, it is possible to achieve a sustained stream of funding for survivors, especially to provide them with the best quality of services.
There is still a long way to go in terms of providing survivors equitable resources, and it is only through setting aside specific funds in our gender budget and addressing policies and existing structures can we build robust mechanisms to address and eventually, solve for the rise in domestic violence.
Kuhoo Tiwari is the Program Officer for Knowledge and Advocacy at One Future Collective.
Featured Image Credit: Arpita Biswas/Feminism in India