Just before the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in India on March 25, a young woman rushed to her mother’s place in Delhi to save herself from the verbal and physical torture of her spouse. She felt she could remain safe and at peace for some days, but her hopes were short-lived.
With the lockdown preventing her from returning to her husband’s house and slide in income with no job, the tension was rising in the lower-middle-class family. As income was squeezed, her brother was apparently feeling that she was an additional burden. One day, the brother severely beat her up. Somehow, the woman managed to call a helpline to narrate her ordeal but was unwilling to call the police, fearing they may also beat her up. Far away in Hyderabad, another woman and her teenage son from an earlier marriage were facing the brunt of her second husband’s frustration over not getting alcohol during the lockdown. She reached out to the police, who provided her with an official helpline number. But the intensity of the abuse increased when the husband came to know about her complaint.
Incidents of domestic violence appear to be rising in the country during the COVID-19 lockdown, in line with reports suggesting that such cases have increased exponentially across the globe, in countries like China, the United Kingdom, and the United States among others. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the risk of intimate partner violence is likely to increase, as distancing measures are put in place and people are encouraged to stay at home. The number of domestic violence cases reported at a police station in Jingzhou, a city in the Hubei province of China, the region where COVID-19 was first detected, tripled in February 2020, compared with the same period the previous year. In India, the first signs of the problem have appeared in data provided by the National Commission of Women (NCW) in mid-April, which suggested an almost 100% increase in domestic violence during the lockdown. In 25 days between March 23 and April 16, the NCW received 239 complaints, mainly through email and a dedicated WhatsApp number. This is almost double the number of complaints (123) received during the previous 25 days, from February 27 to March 22. The country initially went into a complete lockdown from March 25 to April 14, which was later extended till May 3. Curiously, several police officers and NGO helplines have witnessed a decrease in the number of calls they received during the lockdown period. For example, the Delhi Commission of Women (DCW) witnessed a decrease in calls related to domestic violence– from 808 during March 12-25 to 337 during April 7-20.
Activists also highlight that the moment there is a shortage of food, as in a crisis situation like this when there is not much commercial activity, the immediate victims are the daughters and mothers in the houses. The same is the case with healthcare as spending on women in families will further shrink in a period of economic stress. “The likelihood that women in an abusive relationship and their children will be exposed to violence dramatically increases, as family members spend more time in close contact and families cope with additional stress and potential economic or job losses,” the WHO said in its note. “The health impacts of violence, particularly intimate partner/domestic violence, on women are significant. Violence against women can result in injuries and serious physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies,” the WHO added.
With women also losing jobs during the lockdown, their vulnerability has further increased. In many circumstances, whatever little women earn is given to their husbands and now, they are not able to as and when he demands. That is another reason for violence, activists observe.
For women, the lockdown has also resulted in an increase in what is called as “unpaid work” at home. The cooking time has increased as all family members are at the house. The women in rural areas have to walk longer for collecting fuel and water, as reported by activists in Jharkhand.
Young girls are more vulnerable during the time of COVID-19 as families are attempting to marry off many minors. Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Chairperson Antony Sebastian has recently highlighted the recent spike in such cases in the state. With the police and authorities concentrated on implementing the lockdown, families are using it as an opportunity. Activists feel that the situation is grim as many girls who try to prevent marriages are facing physical violence in their houses and are unable to reach the police or helplines due to the lockdown.
Urvashi Gandhi of Breakthrough, a women's rights organization, summed up, “With a lockdown in place, no one to turn to and the usual services not reaching them, women living in abusive relationships and heir children are forced into or exposed to uncomfortable and dangerous circumstances.”