India’s response to the pandemic doesn’t address rising cases of domestic violence due to the lockdown
The world has seen a sharp rise in the incidence of domestic violence since lockdowns, necessitated by the COVID-19 outbreak, were imposed across the globe, and India has been no exception.
In April, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported more than a twofold increase in complaints of domestic violence. This is not surprising, as research has indicated that during times of economic uncertainty and unemployment, domestic violence tends to increase, as was the case during the Great Recession.
However, the issue of increasing cases of domestic violence has remained largely unaddressed in India’s response to the pandemic. This blog highlights the gaps in India’s response to the increase in incidents of violence during the lockdown, and suggests a comprehensive plan to address the issue and support victims.
Negligent governmental response
Apart from a few measures such as the launch of a WhatsApp helpline number for victims to report violence by the NCW in April, the larger state response to the issue during the pandemic has been negligible. This remains the case despite the fact that several petitions have been filed with various courts urging implementation of immediate measures to help victims of domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The lockdown in India was first announced on March 24, and has been extended multiple times since. However, concrete solutions to the problem are still far from being implemented.
No recourse for victims
The measures required to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, such as social distancing and the lockdown, have in fact trapped victims in abusive households, and any access to practicable recourse under the law has been severely limited.
The law prohibiting domestic violence in India, i.e., the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA), requires that victims of domestic violence report the abuse to the authorities, either by telephonic communication, online reporting or in-person meetings with the authorities, in order for action to be taken. However, these reporting mechanisms are not feasible currently firstly because the lockdown entails that one stay at home, and secondly, due to the fact that 57% women do not own mobile phones in India.
The way forward
The Central Government must recognise that women are now doubly victimised, take cognizance of the potential hazards of the lockdown, and effect safety measures for women. Some steps that can be taken are explained below:
1. Integrating domestic violence support into COVID-19 awareness strategy: First and foremost, the law must enable and encourage victims of domestic violence to come forward, and information dissemination is key to this. The Central Government should integrate well-publicised large-scale campaigns into COVID-19 preventive materials across mediums, such as social media, news channels, etc. These campaigns should spread awareness about the legal rights of victims and the available avenues for seeking support. Specifically, the local media should be directed to display the helpline numbers and the contact information of Protection Officers.
2. Allow for anonymous reporting of violence: Given that reporting domestic violence requires a certain measure of mobility and privacy, which is currently lacking in Indian households, bystander intervention should be encouraged through these campaigns. The government should also allow anonymous reporting on the victim’s behalf.
3. Measures for protection of victims: Simultaneously, measures should be implemented to protect the victims who have already come forward and reported the abuse. The most basic of these is the availability of safe accommodation for victims who may not be able to reside at home in case of severe violence. The government should consider converting hotels and other such services into shelter homes for victims to ensure their safety.
4. Classify services by Protection Officers as essential: The services provided by Protection Officers should be classified as an essential service, given the crucial role they play in helping women report domestic violence and navigate court procedures. Additionally, given the likelihood of violence persisting in households in the face of stay-at-home orders, Protection Officers should be directed to periodically monitor the homes of the women who have reported domestic violence.
5. Identify gaps in the law on domestic violence: Further, the government must attempt to identify the shortcomings of the very framework of the PWDVA, and how it fails women even during ordinary times. The government must mandate periodic state-wise monitoring and data collection to identify the gaps in implementation of PWDVA as well as to improve the quality of the institutional response. Special regard must be paid to the functioning of Protection Officers, shelter homes, medical facilities and the judicial response to the reported cases. Additionally, measures must be taken to improve the availability of adequate personnel and physical infrastructure, especially regarding the appointment of full-time Protection Officers.
While the victims of domestic violence remain both endangered and isolated, with the avenues of seeking help immobilised, the government must take measures, as mentioned above, to check the increasing incidence of domestic violence. Merely checking the spread of COVID-19 is not enough. The government must acknowledge the hazardous situation many women currently are in, and work towards preventing domestic violence with the same vigour it with which it is preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Views are personal.