By Nilakshi Srivastava, 4th Year student B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) from National Law Institute University, Bhopal and intern with Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy with the Judicial Reform Vertical.

It is not an unknown fact that in India women are at the lowest rung of the patriarchal, hierarchical society. Some data to support the same can be that according to the last census of India, child sex ratio is highly skewed having only 908 girls per 1000 boys; according to UNICEF, 1 out every 3 child brides are found in India and the average literacy rate of rural women is a staggering 20%. Looking at more detailed statistics, the India Human Development Survey conducted on 41,554 Muslim households in 1,503 villages and 971 urban neighbourhoods revealed that 89% Muslim women practice veiling and rate of enrolment in higher education was a meagre 23.6%. The figures for Schedule Caste (Dalit) women and Scheduled Tribe women are also not very encouraging as the indirect  analysis of Nation Crime Record Bureau suggest the highest sex based crimes against these specific groups.

In addition to these terrifying statistics, the menace of domestic violence is also a sad reality.  The exponential rise in the numbers of domestic violence cases across countries during COVID-19 pandemic gathered so much attention that the UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the issue and it is being recognised as a shadow pandemic by UN Women. India is no exception. Since the mandatory imposition of lockdown focusing on curtailing the pandemic, gender related issues took a back seat.

The National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body established by National Commission for Women Act, 1990 with one of the aims to redress grievances of women, registered 587 cases between March 23 and April 16 2020, up from 396 cases between February 27 and March 22 2020. The numbers are surprising, considering the fact that domestic violence is an indoor crime seldom reported, hence hinting that women are being pushed to their margins.

How has the lockdown propelled the situation?

Home is a sanctuary for most but for some it might feel like chambers of torture due to imposition of the countrywide lockdown. Disconnection from social support and reduced intervention from neighbours and the public gives wider opportunity for abuse of women.

NCW mentions that the only modes through which they received complaints during lockdown were through WhatsApp, emails and calls. This is highly problematic as India faces a large gender gap when it comes to access to mobile phones and the internet, with only 43% of the women owning a phone as compared to 80% men; according to a recent UNICEF report only 29 percent of Indian women have access to the internet. Access to help seems nearly impossible as the perpetrator is always at home without providing a safe window for the victim to seek help and hence numerous incidents go unreported.

Women usually seek help from their natal families in case of domestic abuse but the same is also not possible under current conditions. Access to police and hospitals for the victim is restricted as it is not considered to be “essential” in the lockdown.

The Problem of Gender Inequality

One factor which is a significant contributor is the gender unequal domestic labour. On an average a woman in India spends up to 353 minutes a day on household work, which is 577% more than the 52 minutes spent by men on it. This is not the end of the story as according to a study in the past, the impact of losing jobs is many times larger for women than for men and this would be a condition post Covid-19, further increasing women’s vulnerability.

These data show in furtherance of the data mentioned in the introduction that the mentality of the society in India is still carrying on from the patriarchal origins that the four walls of the household is a woman’s world and it is the primary responsibility of the women to take care of the family and remain in the private realms of the household. Being restricted to household also instigates the notion of women being a lesser being and making them predisposed to violence by their male counterparts.

Mentality Behind Abuse

According to a survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society, within a week of the start of the lockdown, the number of reported cases of mental illness in India had risen by 20% and the situation is going to worsen. It is suspected that Indians are going to suffer massively as a study suggests that destructive effects of unemployment, lost income, and economic hardship on marital conflict, parenting quality, and child well-being have negative effects on mental health. These situations are natural consequences of the Covid-19 leading to troubled mental health.

Additionally, alcoholism is recognised as a key factor in intimate partner abuse. First, the unavailability of alcohol in India due to the shutting down of liquor shops lead to withdrawal and subsequent availability in abundance by the reopening of shops can worsened the situation.

The Laws in India Related to Domestic Violence

Numerous international instruments recognise violence against women as a violation of basic human right. These include Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 5, the World Conference on Human Rights held at Vienna commonly know as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,1993 recognising elimination of violence against women as a human right obligation and most importantly the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 1993 which was adopted when in 1992, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee in its General Recommendation No. 19, asserted that violence against women is a form of discrimination, directed towards a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately.  

 India also needs to abide by these human rights instrument and ensure the same for it’s women population. Public Interest Litigations, is a popular recourse in India to approach the courts by any public spirited individual to advance human rights and highlight issues of gross injustices being a key tool of judicial activism are also resorted to. Countless PILs have been filed in numerous High Courts across the nation including at Delhi High Court, Tamil Nadu High Court to name a few. These PILs aim to highlight the issue of domestic violence during lockdown and seek guidelines on the same. One common relief sort in most High Courts is to appoint more protection officers on duty to ensure safety of the victims.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 is the primary legislation recognising physical, mental, emotional, verbal, or sexual types of violence against women. It contains provisions for the appointment of Protection Officers and also shelter homes which can be essential under the Covid-19 conditions. Furthermore, the option of lodging a criminal complaint under Sec 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1880 is always available.

Remedies to the Rescue

Victims must stop blaming themselves or finding excuses for ordeals as violence is unacceptable in any condition whatsoever. Rather than spotlighting women as victims, they should be portrayed as agents capable of changing their own lives.

A pivotal role is played by NGOs and Counsellors in spreading awareness and creating a social support mechanism for the victim along with the positive sensitization through media. On of the innovative method is adopted by the SHEROES App for Women developed by a practicing female lawyer herself wherein it provides a portal for online chats with the SHEROES Helpline and have a better understanding of the situation. They also provide regular online sessions with mental health counsellors and can subsequently ask for legal advice if such need arises. Another innovative strategy is adopted by NGO Sneha wherein they developed a successful online campaign against domestic violence by roping in various famous Bollywood actors to attract attention towards the cause.

Even in lockdown, people are allowed to go out for walks or essential services and hence the “time out technique” can be employed which creates a buffer to stop immediate violence by creating a window of escape by physical distancing in case behaviour changes are observed in the perpetrator.

Stigmatising a violent behaviour rather than the perpetrator is proven to be more effective. The bystanders and neighbours must be encouraged to intervene through media campaigns (like bell bajao ‘ring the bell’ campaign).

The biggest role that the government can play is to provide assurance to its people that the turmoil on the health, economic, mental and social aspects will be dealt with and provide a policy framework for the same. Providing temporary shelters for women and families away from abusers, with proper precautions for Covid-19, must be arranged for.