Mithu, 43, was all set to walk out of her marriage and shift into a working women’s hostel on April 1. But the COVID-19 lockdown means she is now locked in with her husband and mother-in-law in a two-bedroom flat in Kolkata.
“Every day is a nightmare. My husband is short-tempered and foul-mouthed. Though I am doing the household work, he is constantly nitpicking and telling me I have ruined his life. I don’t feel safe with him,” Mithu said, over a distress call to the city’s violence helpline number at Swayam last week.
“I called up the local police station and asked them to check on her and also told Mithu to keep herself confined to her room, hide things like kitchen knives and kerosene, and if need be, scream for help from her balcony,” says Gargee Guha, Swayam’s team coordinator. The organisation opened five new lines on April 13 and within 72 hours received 10 calls from distraught women.
A 34-year-old woman from South 24 Parganas called the same helpline to say how her husband, who had abandoned her for eight years for another woman, suddenly returned during lockdown as she continued to stay with his parents. “He is now sexually abusing me daily,” she had sobbed over the phone.
The domestic abuse virus
Domestic violence haunts women across ages even more aggressively now, says Gargee. She talks of a 70-year-old woman tortured by both her husband and son over money and food. There are multiple layers of domestic abuse — physical, emotional, psychological — and some victims don’t even recognise it, though their self-esteem and confidence are crushed through taunts, name calling, and beating, she says. It’s a double burden of the fear of both COVID-19 and the family.
‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ is the battle cry to protect everyone from the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world. While the global health emergency has posed an unprecedented threat to all, a shadow pandemic is ironically making homes, thought of as safe spaces, unsafe for many women. Countless women are now trapped with perpetrators: they cannot go out, are cut off from their friends, unable to make calls and complain, or move to a safe place like their parents’ homes.
- Pan India: All India Women’s Helpline 1091 / Emergency Response Support System 112 / Women’s Helpline 181 / All India Women’s Conference 10921 / iCALL-Initiating Concern for All 9372048501 and 9920241248 / Shakti Shalini 10920
- Jagori (Delhi): 8800996640/011-26692700
- Swayam (Kolkata): 9830772814/9830204393
- Gramya (Hyderabad): 9440860271
- Sneha (Mumbai): 9833052684/9167535765
- Women Power Line (UP): 1090
- Women in Governance (Assam): 6003214180
“Whom do I fight, the distant fear of the Coronavirus or the immediate fear of my husband who slaps me just because the dal was not cooked properly today,” Archana recently confided, to her neighbour in an apartment block in Dwarka, Delhi.
Archana works in a local play school and lives with her aged parents-in-law, an unmarried sister-in-law and her two pre-teen children. Two weeks ago, her husband was told that he may be laid off and she became a target for his ire and insecurity. Her neighbour reports that he gets irritated and shouts at her often, insulting her in front of other family members. Nobody stops him. Her children are fearful. He finds fault with what she cooks, what she wears at home, how she takes care of his parents.
She is not sure if she will get her salary next month. Her parents live in Kanpur, but she does not want to tell them her troubles. Her neighbour has tried explaining to her that mental and emotional abuse is also domestic abuse, but Archana is not yet ready to call a helpline number.
The police, healthcare providers, mental health counsellors, and social workers are overwhelmed by several constraints during the essential lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. With the exception of some States like Telangana that have declared helplines as essential services, in the rest of the country, immediate intervention as a rescue measure is found wanting.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) flagged the spike in complaints when it received 257 online complaints between March 23 and April 1 (when the country was under the first lockdown phase). The complaints more than doubled from the pre-lockdown week of March 1 to 8. But the lockdown imposition has also seen the complaints receding subsequently.
“Women are being subjected to physical, mental, and sexual assault but are failing to ask for help because they think all services are closed and there is nobody to listen to them,” says Rekha Sharma, the NCW chairperson. The NCW has now opened different channels with a WhatsApp number (7217735372), emails ([email protected] / [email protected] / [email protected]), and more responsive social media platforms (Facebook.com/NCWIndia, https://[email protected]).
“At the moment, we are not interested in collating data or differentiating between old and new cases. We are taking cognizance of the complaints, and depending on the severity of each case, seeking police help to rescue women who are in distress,” says Sharma. So far, 69 cases of physical violence have been reported and the respective area police have been apprised of the matter. “We have suggested the distressed women could be shifted to shelter homes under police protection,” she adds.
Dr Vijaya Rukmini Rao, Executive Director of Gramya Resource Centre for Women that runs one-stop crises centres called Sakhi in 33 districts of Telangana says, “Women usually come to the centre to lodge complaints. Now, they are finding it difficult to even call with their husbands around at home. Some have managed to call surreptitiously from their bathrooms, but it is not easy to follow up, as many of the victims are not even able to recharge their phones. “With COVID-19 precautions and a skeletal staff, it is not possible to do home visits,” she says, and cites a case in Nalgonda district where the team had to seek the village sarpanch’s intervention in resolving a complainant’s domestic issue.
- The idea of safety within home is a very gendered area. It is important for a battered woman to recognise that she is in an emergency situation. Our NGOs are under-resourced and offer patchy services with their inadequate networking with medical professionals, cops and lawyers. Yet their timely intervention in recording a complaint is half the emotional battle won.
- This is the time for the authorities to establish more one-stop centres to holistically deal with the issue of domestic violence and also build more shelters or immediately identify and use the dharamshalas for the victims as a preventive escape. The district administrations need to be proactive and preemptive. A minimum cash transfer to women suffering domestic abuse, not necessarily physical attacks but economic deprivation, would give them the hope and right to live with dignity. — Karuna Nundy, Lawyer
Vaishnaruby Raja, a senior clinical psychologist from Coimbatore, has counselled six people in a week post-lockdown. In one case, a wife called to say she was depressed as her husband had taken to alcohol abuse out of anxiety over a financial crisis. In another, a college-going boy said his father was becoming violent, beating up his mother and even grandmother, because he was having alcohol withdrawals.
“There are many calls which we are not able to follow up on due to lockdown restraints,” says Vaishnaruby. Men tend to vent their frustrations through violence on the most intimate member. She fears a surge in domestic problems once the lockdown is lifted. “With prolonged uncertainty of the pandemic, patience will give way soon and the full impact of the crisis will unfold,” she says.
Though collective countrywide data is yet to emerge on domestic violence during the national lockdown, NGOs are finding it difficult to cope with the complaints received online. According to the National Family Health Survey-4, one in three women in India suffers physical and sexual violence at home. But these are unusual times, says Delhi-based Jagori’s medical counsellor Sunita Thakur. “In the given situation where we cannot meet them in person, we are only able to help a distressed caller strategise her safety,” she says. “With the support systems such as police and doctors totally occupied with Coronavirus patients now, it is difficult to coordinate help for domestic violence victims.”
- Sujata Mody, leader of the Chennai-based women worker’s union Penn Thozhilalar Sangam, says in the less privileged section of society, the incidence of domestic abuse seems to be reducing. “With no money for alcohol, the men in marginally poor families are actually sharing the burden of household work and couples are liking the break from their rushed lives,” she says.
- Dr Vijaya Rao says Sakhi received 44 domestic violence complaints between April 1 and 13 from across Telangana and this number is much lower than in non-COVID-19 times.
From helpline Sneha in Mumbai to Women in Governance in Assam, NGOs are only dealing with online calls that describe stress gone out of control.
“We are trying to do con calls or Zoom sessions involving the family. We encourage the vulnerable complainants to speak out instead of feeling isolated. We are asking them to call the national helpline numbers so that their repeated calls, even if unattended, get registered as emergency at least,” says Gargee. “Apart from showing empathy, we are unable to do anything more at this moment,” she adds.
Disclaimer: Names of victims changed to protect their identity
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