Tackling another pandemic: Domestic Violence
[This article is co-authored by Khushboo Jindal and Akshat Aggarwal]
While the whole world is confined to their homes and facing the Covid-19 challenges with cases mushrooming every second, the lives of women have gotten disproportionately affected across different countries. The increasing number of cases of domestic violence, along with hashtags like #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic gaining popularity, portrays the appalling situation some women are in, today. UN Women- Asia and the Pacific’s humanitarian and disaster risk advisor, Maria Holtsberg, said, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality” and the soaring cases of domestic abuse during the pandemic are the epitome of the same[i]. Amid the imposed lockdown, India has also witnessed a steep rise in the cases of domestic crimes against women.
With the initiation of the lockdown 3.0 in India and opening up of liquor shops from May 4, 2020, the situation became worse with just a few hands to help the aggrieved women. The Delhi High Court also issued directions to put a check on the rising cases of domestic violence[ii]. Between March 23 and April 17, the National Commission of Women (NCW) received 237 new complaints related to domestic violence. This raises severe concerns regarding the safety of women in these difficult times. The Chairperson of NCW (Indian commission), Rekha Sharma, said, “the cases may be high but will go unreported as the victim along with the abuser is confined in her home during this lockdown period”. Generally, most women send their complaints to the NCW by post, as they are unaware of using emails as an alternative option. They lack the adequate capacity and support to come out of their houses and seek help from their friends, relatives, or acquaintances.
The pandemic poses certain logistics problems for most women because of which reaching out to the police has become a challenge for them. The lack of adequate resources, along with the continuous struggle for security, makes a certain percentage of women vulnerable to insufficient aid. Covid-19 has hit the poor strata of society badly. Especially, the rural and migrant women- who depend up on agricultural and construction works to make ends meet. These factors (too) have contributed heavily to the exponential rise in the cases of domestic violence and have also added to the plight of women amidst the ongoing crisis.
Patriarchal Power Dynamical Structure
The Indian society has been patriarchal in structure from time immemorial. Even with the onset of modernization and industrialization, the subjugation of women still exists in some parts of our society. Atrocities against women have increased. Domestic abuse stems from the dominant position held by men who exert physical force over the bodies of women. They take pride in making themselves feel superior to women.
Women are subjected to constant domestic violence to suppress their objections. They are presumed to be child-bearing machines, and are confined to household chores only. They are treated as ‘things’ meant for the pleasure of men. The culture of marital rape can’t be ignored either. Men violate the bodily sovereignty of women without their consent. The thin line between heterosexual activity and rape is often defied.
Inadequate Legal Infrastructure
Women have the right to resort to legal alternatives to protect their rights, but the Indian legal mechanism developed over decades, cannot stand the test of time. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, enacted by the Parliament provides definition of domestic violence for the first time in India. It states that actual abuse or threat of abuse whether sexual, physical, or verbal is to be termed as domestic violence under the Act. It also covers the harassment, through unlawful dowry demands, made by the in-laws and the relatives of the husband.
The various anomalies in the Act can’t be ignored and require comprehensive amendments for safeguarding the interests of women in the society. The Act only serves as a civil law. Criminal proceedings can be initiated against the accused only if he violates any Protection Order under the Act. The Act also fails to serve its designated purpose due to the apathetic attitude of the Indian government regarding its effective implementation. The Protection Officers (POs), who form the linchpin of the Act, are not yet appointed in every district as mentioned in the Act[iii].
Section 498A of Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, was a major step towards criminalizing the cruelty against women by their husbands, in-laws, and the relatives[iv]. However, the scope of the IPC is limited as it considers only severe cases of violence and abuse. It fails to take into account the daily tortures faced by the women within the four walls of their matrimonial homes. The courts, while deciding cases of domestic abuse, fail to consider the quotidian mental and emotional agony faced by women.
The lockdown had provided the abusive husbands with an opportunity to vent out their anger on their wives. The women can’t even approach the police or relevant authorities for justice due to pressure from their families and society. Even if they reach out to the courts, the chances of accused getting punished are minimal as the conviction rate is less than 10%. In these difficult times, the courts have also agreed to employ video conferencing methods for urgent matters. They need to be more vigilant and sensitive and should give priority to domestic abuse cases so that the victim can be protected.
Opening Of Liquor Shops - Aggravating Domestic Violence Issues
The problems for women aggravated due to the opening up of liquor shops around the country. According to the National Family Health Data presented by the Government, there is a direct link between alcohol consumption and violence against women. It leads to the escalation of domestic violence cases as people are already facing financial difficulties and are deeply stressed due to job loss, food security, and health emergency issues. The frustration, along with consumption of intoxicants, adds fuel to the current state of crimes against women[v]. Rather than generating revenue for the government, the situation had exasperating effects on the lives of the women.
The hazy vision and inefficient planning during the pandemic have adversely affected the lives of women who were already vulnerable to the whims and fantasies of their husbands. It is undeniable that immediate measures need to be enforced to protect women’s rights with effective healthcare system reaching out in every part of the country to safeguard them against domestic abuses.
The National Commission of Women (NCW) has introduced WhatsApp helpline number 7217735372 to contact state commissions or the designed authorities in times of violent attacks faced by the women[vi]. According to a study by the International Centre for Research on Women, the women fear resorting to the police at the basic level because they might have to go through the trauma of character assassination. Generally, the police do not take its claims seriously and advise them to solve their family issues through compromises. ‘All-Women Police stations’ have been set up all across the country but they are mostly understaffed and are plagued with inefficient resources. Specific women forces need to take the charge and help reaching out to the distressed women.
India is not the only country facing this severe issue. Many developed countries like China and Tunisia face perils of domestic abuses. The former reported an increased number of domestic violence cases during the pandemic while the latter showed a fivefold increase in numbers[vii]. France has also reported 36% rise in cases related to domestic violence and has provided for hotel rooms for the survivors to stay safe during the pandemic. Countries like Spain have come up with a unique idea where women claiming “Mask 19” are identified as the victims of domestic abuse. The relevant pharmacists contact the assigned authorities if the women find themselves unable to report it[viii]. India can learn these methods and execute them actively for securing the interests of the aggrieved women.
Raising consciousness and spreading legal awareness have been the foremost steps to eradicate the social evil, but relevant laws need to be constructively amended to stand the test of time. It is the need of the hour, and the dowry laws need to be strictly implemented so that no women are subjected to bride burning, dowry death, or domestic abuses at the cost of protecting the illusionary reputation of her in-laws. India needs a sharp transformation from being a patriarchal-based society to a gender-equal society where women are treated as an essential part of society. Their rights should be upheld to eliminate the increasing domestic violence cases.
[i] Lara Owen, “Coronavirus: Five ways virus upheaval is hitting women in Asia”, March 8th, 2020. [ii]“Delhi High Court issues directions to check domestic violence during Covid-19 lockdown”, The Leaflet, May 4th, 2020. [iii] Puja Awasthi, “A law to help women, but who is enforcing it?”, Available here. [iv] “Section 498A I.P.C.- Its Use & Misuse”, Legally India, legallyindia.com/views/entry/section-498a-of-ipc-its-use-misuse-html [v] “Opening liquor shops will increase crimes against women”, Pune Mirror, 4th May, 2020. Read more here. [vi] “NCW launches WhatsApp number to report domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdown” The Economic Times, April 10, 2020. [vii] Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide”, The New York Times, April 6th, 2020.