Covid-19: When home becomes unsafe

In Spain, the government had exempted women from fine if they left home to report abuse. France had opened pop-up counselling centres. In Britain, domestic abuse services received an extra £2m to ‘immediately’ bolster helpline and online support.

Covid-19 has derailed the normal course of our lives. Globally, the citizens of almost every nation are learning to accept the reality of lock down and social distancing. Suddenly, the world has become unsafe. For many, the world has also become unsafe inside the four walls of their own home. The already vulnerable have become more vulnerable. One of the many effects of Covid-19 is the effect on the tender fabric of family life; on the conjugal bond. Globally, there is a rise in domestic violence cases and our country is no exception. It is a fallacy to say that Covid-19 is resulting in violence. It is the overall set of circumstances, the isolation, the uncertainty and close continuous proximity with the perpetuator of crime which is resulting into the rise in violence against women and domestic violence in particular. The isolation has resulted into severing the networks and breakdown of social security systems, collapse of social cohesion and harmony. With difficulty in access to help due to isolation, the overall circumstances have exacerbated the underlying conditions of structural domestic violence i.e the intimate partner violence. This article revolves around the issue of increase in ‘intimate partner abuse’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though in general, the relationship between spouses should not have violence as means to solve any issue, intimate partner violence’ is a fact of lives of many women in normal circumstances also. The circumstances as a consequence of Covid-19 are not normal circumstances, a lockdown of this kind has its own psychological implications. This continuous stress and uncertainty for life takes a toll on our sensibilities. Moreover, the economic implications like job uncertainty, pay cuts, late release or partial release of salary, business uncertainty etc. on individuals might be severe. Norms of gender stereotyping make a few men refrain from doing the household work. The patriarchal setup allows men to vent their anger on the easy victim – wife. In some cases, in such circumstances, an otherwise sensible family member may also suddenly become irrational or even violent. Probably, because the best was worst resilient. This would add to domestic violence cases from an unexpected corner. For this otherwise sensible, stressed person also, there is only one easy victim – wife. This ‘intimate partner violence’ makes home a very unsafe place for many women during this period of isolation wherein they are forced to stay back with people who use abuse as necessary means to receive the end i.e oppression. In fact ‘social distancing’ can easily become one more weapon. Stricter and coercive measures can easily be implemented against the victim as they seem to be justified in current circumstances. In this entire set of circumstances, the stress for a victim who is working woman has increased multifold times. Domestic responsibilities have increased, children and old are cantankerous, work from home requires more efficiency with comparatively different resources. The situation is far tougher for a woman. In these circumstances increased violence takes a toll of the physical and mental energy of the victim. These incidences could be isolated, repetitive and pan generations. This happens because disasters and domestic violence have a crystal clear connection.

Also, the caution comes from a well accepted fact of disaster management that the imbalances in power which are a characteristic feature of society in normal times, create even more obstructions during disasters. What remains comparatively implicit in normal times makes itself explicit in a very severe manner during disasters. It makes the vulnerable more vulnerable. Those who deal with vulnerable groups during disasters had predicted increased threat to vulnerable groups during corona virus lockdowns. Increased domestic violence is a well known pattern repeated in many disasters. The lockdown rules pose a particularly grave challenge. This is the reason why I often remark – contrary to the general belief, disaster divides.

The fact remains that this lockdown has made the vulnerable people captives in their house. Due to lockdown a domestic violence victim cannot leave the marital home temporarily also, an option available in normal times. Also lack of privacy has made it difficult for women to call helpline numbers. This means we are aware of only those cases where the women are able to seek help. We must consider the fact that there could be far more unreported cases. We should be willing to handle the very severe cases once the lockdown ends.

Globally, the cases of domestic violence have increased. As per the U.N. experts, this is the ‘Shadow pandemic’ which knows no borders. The UN Secretary-General  appealed to governments to pay attention to and prevent a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” over the last few weeks amid lockdown measures imposed by several countries to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The National Commission for Women (NCW) has also flagged the issue of a spike in cases of domestic violence since the enforcement of the national lockdown. There is more than two-fold rise in the cases of violence against women. In addition to the online complaint links and emails in operation the NCW was constrained to start a WhatsApp number. The number will remain operational till the normal office resume. Kerala Government has also done the same. Delhi High Court and Karnataka High Court have shown concern over the rising cases of domestic violence during lockdown.

We must also appreciate the measures taken by different countries. In Spain, the government had exempted women from fine if they left home to report abuse. France had opened pop – up counseling centers. In Britain, Domestic abuse services received an extra £2m to “immediately” bolster helpline and online support.

To conclude, though at normative level we have sufficient norms relating to domestic violence, dowry harassment, sexual abuse etc , extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures. This sudden increase in intimate partner abuse needs more proactive approach. In addition to the whatsapp numbers, we need to take some more steps to provide help to victims of domestic violence. It is important for NGO’s to be able to access them because the police machinery is otherwise strained. This can only be done if the National Commission for Women, State Commission for women and NGO’s are given sufficient freedom during the lockdown to access the victims. A provision for shelter in bad cases is a necessary requisite of times. This needs to be done when the victim is found in badly abused condition and the NGO’s report that the life and wellbeing of the women is in danger. We certainly do not wish to lose lives to this shadow epidemic. The cases should be taken seriously otherwise the violence can increase. Moreover, the pre pandemic existence of domestic violence as tolerable normal should not be our aim because the women are equally under stress. We, as a society in general and the governmental agencies like NCW, SWC, NGO’s in particular should also be prepared to handle the cases which get reported once the lockdown ends. We should also provide counseling to the parties during and after lockdown, otherwise we may also witness increase in divorce cases.

 Dr. Priya A. Sondhi, Professor and Associate Dean (Academics), Asian Law College.