Author : Sadaf Farheen
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 for such a development. This is despite 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 and intimate partner violence. India’s response to the pandemic was slow and reactionary. The imposition of the mandatory lockdown 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 in the form of 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 difficult to access. 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. 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, and 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. As country after country announced lockdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “home” was seen as a refuge.  Globally, nearly 243 million women and girls between 15 to 49 years were subjected to sexual and/or physical intimate partner violence in the last year (UN Women, 2020). A survey of 122 community organisations shows that 85% of them reported a rapid increase in violence against women and girls (VAW/G) between March – September 2020 (UN Trust Fund to End VAW, 2020). The National Commission of Women (NCW) received 13,410 complaints of crimes against women between March–September 2020, of which 4,350 were domestic violence. Complaints peaked in the March–May period, with 1/3rd of complaints being filed in these 3 months alone.  In May 2020, increase in domestic violence complaints in red zone districts was 131% higher than green zone districts with fewer restrictions. Red zone districts also saw much higher increases in complaints of cybercrime. Only 14% of women who have ever experienced violence seek help, thus making it clear that figures of reported violence are only the tip of the iceberg. Women call in distress because they or their children are being abused at home, with or without physical violence.  As the Covid-19 pandemic spread to Europe, the “Shadow Pandemic” (as UN Women calls it) spread to Italy, Spain, France, UK, and finally to the US. Several commentators had raised concerns at the start of the lockdown that confinement at home with an abusive partner is likely to result in greater physical and emotional violence against women, with disastrous consequences for their health and well-being. A lockdown, induced by the apocalyptic scenario of death and disease, is the exact opposite of a happy occasion; why should we expect abuse to follow a different pattern? Indeed, it doesn’t. The lockdown provides the perfect opportunity to the abuser to practise “intimate terrorism”— dictate and control all actions and movements of women, with violence if needed. The increased violence is not just a result of the frustration due to physical confinement. The pandemic has brought in its wake a global slowdown, massive economic dislocation, closed businesses, the spectre of looming unemployment, often accompanied by the threat of hunger and poverty for what seems to be an indefinite future. While both men and women are affected by the economic downturn, there is evidence from the past that violence against women increases during episodes of high unemployment. There is evidence for India that alcohol consumption by men increases violence against women, both inside and outside the home. In principle, therefore, an increase in the total cases of violence induced by confinement, stress or unemployment could be offset by reduced incidents of street violence, as well as reduced alcohol-fuelled violence. The public concern about violence outside the home obfuscates the enormity of intimate terrorism—violence inside homes, by husbands, fathers, uncles, including in joint families. Accounts of survivors reveal how other women in the family either watch helplessly or condone/minimise/ignore the abuse. This abuse, because of its location (inside the home) and its perpetrator (a close relative), is widely underreported. Women who are brave enough to complain about domestic violence represent a small minority of the total cases that take place. On April 4, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, via a gazette notification, suspended some key sections of the PCPNDT Act (Pre-Natal and Pre-Conception Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994) till June 30. This Act makes fetal sex determination illegal. As women’s organisations have pointed out, this weakening of the Act was completely unnecessary. It will only make it easier for families with deep-rooted son preference to freely exercise their prejudice against the girl child. The first step is for administration and law enforcement agencies to recognize the gravity of the problem and to believe women. Reaching women in distress needs to be classified as an essential service. Women need safe spaces where they can be shifted if needed. Providing safe spaces away from the abuser, if necessary, by converting empty hotels into temporary shelters in urban areas, is of utmost urgency. In rural areas, frontline health workers need to be the first point of contact for abused women, with panchayats and women’s self-help groups working jointly to provide safety and security to women. As we take all the necessary steps to flatten the pandemic curve, we need to be equally vigilant to make sure that the shadow pandemic curve of intimate terrorism does not rise exponentially. This is not a matter of pitting one curve against another. As some of us argued in a recent policy brief, we are in this situation for the long haul. Women’s lives can’t be put on hold till we emerge out of the pandemic.

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 for such a development.



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