COVID-19: INDIA’S RESPONSE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE NEEDS RETHINKING

Covid-19: Women trapped between a deadly virus and a deadly partner
According to the United Nations, the combination of economic and social stresses brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as restrictions on movement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing abuse, in almost all countries. © AFP/Loic Venance

by Shalu Nigam 14 May 2020

COVID-19 is posing challenges larger challenges in terms of human rights including health rights of women and children. Since the mandatory lockdown has been imposed, violence against women is exponentially rising world over. Several countries have enacted special policies, laws and programs to deal with violence against women in homes.

However, India which since the 90s has witnessed widening inequalities since the policy of Liberalization, Globalization and Privatization has been introduced, right now is again facing the disastrous impact due to coronavirus. The pandemic is making adverse gender impact in two ways – 1) Middle- or upper-class women facing abuse in homes during the lockdown and 2) Poor women who have no homes or are surviving in slums or those on the roads walking back home or those awaiting in villages for migrant men to come back.

The National Commission for Women has reported a rise of 94 percent in complaint cases where women have been abused in their homes during lockdown. Also, another aspect that has not received attention is increasing number of cases where migrant women, along with men, are walking hundreds of miles, some in their advanced stage of pregnancy along with their children, without food. Some are being forced to deliver babies on the roadside while others are receiving devastating news of migrant men being dead while walking on roads. Deprivation and denial of health and other services to women and children during the COVID crisis is aggravating the disaster.

Therefore, almost half a billion women are at risk in India due to the pandemic. Yet, the state has not made any comprehensive COVID response plan to tackle these challenges. Neither any formal statement is being issued to declare domestic violence as an essential service nor plans have been made to support pregnant women workers walking hundreds of miles without food and water with their children. Rather, the state after 40 days of lockdown, while easing down the restrictions, opened the liquor shops as a first step. In doing so, earning revenue is prioritized over genuine serious concerns of women. This is despite of the fact that the women’s movement has shown evidences that consumption of liquor by men is proportional to increase in incidences of abuse.

This essay investigates the gaps in the state’s response in India to the increase in incidents of violence during the lockdown and argues that a robust comprehensive plan is required to address different aspects of violence women are facing in the largest democracy. The government cannot miss the chance to protect women from violence. In order to imagine a gender just violence free world, the need is to impose the lockdown on the collective imagination that reiterate gender stereotypical notions and to put the viruses of patriarchy and poverty in quarantine and isolation forever. By maintaining social distancing with the misogynist ideas and developing a plan to eliminate inequalities in all forms, gender justice and human rights could be achieved and the rights guaranteed under the Article 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution can be reclaimed.

COVID-19 and Mandatory Lockdown and Increase in Domestic Violence cases

Before COVID-19 broke-out the statistics reveal that every third woman in the world has faced violence at least once in her lifetime. The mandatory lockdown being imposed in wake of COVID-19 in leading to increase in number of incidents of domestic violence. Domestic abuse is being reported all over the world such as China, Argentina, Germany Turkey, South Africa, UK, USA, France, Malaysia, Lebanon to name a few. UN chief Antonio Guterres has called for global `ceasefire’ because of horrific global surge violence directed towards women and girls linked to lockdown imposed globally in response to the pandemic[ii]. It is expected that millions of cases of violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation and unintended pregnancies may occur during crisis causing devastation[iii].

In India, the mandatory lockdown of 21 days has been imposed on 24 March 2020 when the Prime Minister appeared on the national television to impose restrictions on the mobility of 1.3 billion population within the short notice period of four hours in an attempt to slowdown the spread of coronavirus[iv]. This lockdown has further been increased twice and as per the current directions it may continue up to 17 May 2020 or may be extended further.

During the lockdown, home is recognized as a safest place to be. However, not all homes are safe and also not all people have the luxury of the home or could maintain social distance in a small room occupied by many. Poor people are suffering the worst and are further pushed to margins[v]. Coronavirus has exposed the precarious lives and invisible faces of hunger, and predominate among those are women[vi]. There are women living in slums who are facing worse in terms of survival because of lack of resources or even the space to maintain social distancing[vii]. Also, migrant workers, both men and women, who have been working in cities, in the absence of work, are being compelled to face starvation and police brutalities[viii]. The government initially declared to provide them with food and ration, but many could not receive the same[ix]. Later, the government stated that the workers will be sent homes by trains, however, not all could avail the luxury to travel[x]. With no resources left to survive, many are being forced to walk for miles along with their children[xi]. Many pictures are emerging where women are walking in advanced stage of pregnancy and are delivering babies on roads[xii]. One is compelled to walk 160 kms after delivering a baby on the road[xiii]. The government has made no special provisions for such women such as opening shelter homes, or providing food or medical care. Rather brutal actions are being taken by police and administration in some places against the migrant workers.

As far as the upper or middle-class women are concerned, lockdown is probably not a new experience for many in the patriarchal societies. Women have been contesting the boundary of `public’ and `private’ or ghar and bahar since ages.  But, today, patriarchy clubbed with gender in-sensitive policies, is shrinking the women’s autonomy and have reduced women to second-class citizens. The `lakhsman rekha’ drawn once again around the house by the Prime Minister in his address to nation reiterates the patriarchal imagination and symbolizes the complex relation between gender and nationhood through ancient ethos[xiv].

In the absence of checks and balances amidst lockdown, women and girls are trapped in the violence home with the abusive men and many are facing severe abuse[xv]. Steep rise of around 94 percent of violence against women cases has been reported from 23 March 2020 to 16 April 2020 by the National Commission of Women[xvi]. Other agencies across the country, too are reporting jump in number of incidents of domestic violence[xvii]. The child line has received twice the numbers of calls it received on average days[xviii]. During the lockdown, as the reported cases of violence are increasing, at the same times, the support services are dwindling, putting women and children at high risk. Women have lost the access to any support measure available outside the household including access to their parental homes which is earlier providing a safety-net[xix].

Caged in violent homes, the women are being placed in the situation where it is difficult to seek help or support from the outside world. Exposure and opportunity for abuse increases as there is no one to intervene to protect women. Locked with their abusers in situation of restricted mobility, and limited privacy, women are constantly facing grave dangers. Abusers are taking advantage of isolation measures and abusing their powers. Hence, the very technique that is being used to protect people from virus is making an adverse impact on women and children in violent homes as the abuser is getting more opportunities to unleash violence.

 It is not that women are not being abused in homes earlier, but during the lockdown, the virus is mirroring and magnifying the discrimination, inequalities, oppressions, privileges and patriarchal violence, all of which already existing in the male-dominated hierarchical and layered society. In fact, structural gender-based violence is being reiterated during the lockdown where women who are already considered at a lowest rung within the family hierarchy are now being economically and social disempowered. Even otherwise, home is a contested site for unequal gender relations where both men and women are placed unequally and men hardly share the household unpaid care work. The gendered social norms burden women with the responsibility of care work within homes and women are being judged on the basis of the quality of work.  The cultural and social biases act against the interest of women. During the lockdown, women are expected to take up traditional gender roles and engage in domestic work with little or no contribution from men[xx]

Data from the National Family Health Survey reveals that domestic violence is not considered as a serious crime[xxi]. 42 percent men and 52 percent women believed that husband is justified in beating his wife in certain situations such as when she argues, disobeys, cannot serve hot food or could take care of babies. Only less than one percent sought help from police. Domestic violence is rooted in power and control. Finding support from the natal family or a community is already difficult in case women face violence in marital homes[xxii]. Medical care and psychosocial support are not easily available[xxiii]. Parental homes have helped women to provide refuge in some cases earlier, but with the lockdown it is not easy to access the same. Further, the lockdown is adding to this marginalization as violence could not be contained. In the isolation during lockdown, when the perpetrators know that women have no other support available and cannot escape easily, they ferociously abuse women. Patriarchy is dehumanizing men and women. Lockdown neither could prevent men dominating and controlling women nor it could prevent men from displaying their sense of entitlements and privileges or from asserting their prerogative to abuse women in home.

Steps taken in India during lockdown to prevent domestic abuse

Though the concept of domestic abuse is being raised in India, but no major steps have been taken by the government to deal with the issue at the policy level.  In fact, several NGOs when petitioned the courts, some courts have issued directions to the state to provide protection to women and children. For instance, the Delhi High court, on a petition filed by an NGO, directed the government to deliberate on measures to ensure effective implementation of Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 in the wake of increasing in number of cases[xxiv]. The state in its reply said that it has put a protocol in place where a survivor once calls the helpline, the tele caller will take the complaint and will forward it to the counselor who will establish a phone communication with the survivor during the lockdown. The court disposed of the petition after the status report is filed by the government

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court took suo moto cognizance and on 18 April 2020, offered slew directions that include creation of special funds and designating informal spaces for women such as grocery stores and pharmacies where women could report abuse without alerting the perpetrator. The Karnataka High Court, too has asked the state government about the helplines and action taken on domestic violence complaints. The state in its reply stated that helplines, counselors, shelter homes and protection officers are working round the clock to help victims of violence. In Tamil Nadu, protection officers appointed under the Domestic Violence Act 2005 are allowed to move during the lockdown and some women in dangerous situations are being rescued and have been moved to shelter homes. In UP, the state government has initiated a special helpline for victims of domestic abuse under the title `Suppress Corona not your voice’[xxv]. The police have assured that once a woman lodge a complaint, a woman officer will attend to it. The chairperson of NCW claimed that ASHA and Anganwadi and other frontline health workers are counselling against domestic violence and women can report these workers in case they are facing abuse.

However, these measures, seemingly and evidently, are not sufficient enough. Considering the diverse situation of India, and recognizing the limitations, a multi-dimensional approach is required at the national level to address the grave situation of domestic violence including denial and deprivation of their right to health care.  

Gaps in Response

“Put women and girls at the center of the efforts to recover from COVID-19” said the Secretary General of UN[xxvi]. However, in contradiction to recommendations as mentioned above, in India, no advisory is being issued at the national level as yet by the state to declare domestic violence as an emergency or to announce domestic violence services or health services as essential during the lockdown. The Ministry of Women and Child Development is silent on the issue of domestic violence and also has not taken any action to provide medical or other support to women migrant workers delivering babies on roads. Article 14 of the Constitution of India guarantees equality and Article 15 ensures positive affirmation in favour of women and children. Article 21 further envisions the right to life with dignity. However, these promises are not being implemented. In fact, no political leader made any statement regarding stopping violence or providing support to women in need. Half the billion population is facing dangers or are being threatened and the government is not prioritizing the concerns of women to protect them during COVID crisis.

Rather the first step, the state took to ease lockdown, despite of increase in incidences of domestic violence, is that it decided to open alcohol shops after 40 days of lockdown in all, red, orange and green zones[xxvii]. During this period of lockdown, a prohibition was imposed because of the non-availability of alcohol, but in order to collect revenue, the government ignored the direct link between increase in violence against women and consumption of alcohol[xxviii]. The anti-arrack movements at many places, earlier have raised the issue to ban the sale of alcohol[xxix]. Yet, the state decided to prioritize profit over eliminating violence against women. The Supreme court refused to stay the sale of liquor[xxx]. This approach on focusing on the economy and the GDP over human quality indexes such as less violence, gender equality, social justice or happiness highlights the lopsided priorities, callousness and disastrous development model[xxxi].  The toxic masculinity displayed its colors as the liquor shops open. Within a day, a woman is reportedly killed by her husband in UP because she refused to sell her jewellery to buy alcohol[xxxii].  The patriarchal state continued to act in insensitive and gender-blind manner to the plight of women.

Further, for the poor migrant women workers who are walking hundreds of kilometers, no special provisions of facilities have been planned to support those who are travelling with children or are in advanced stage of pregnancies or delivering babies on roads. In its status report, the Ministry of Home Affairs submitted that “workers’ daily need is being taken care of”, there is “no necessity for them to go back” and that any such movement “definitely causes a serious health hazard”[xxxiii]. The Supreme court denies relief to migrant workers in a plea filed for payment of wages amid lockdown saying that it could not run the government[xxxiv] and that the steps have been taken by the Center and the state governments[xxxv]. The matter revolves around the prayer made in the petition regarding payment of wages to the migrant workers and no mention has been made regarding the challenges, pregnant women migrant workers and their children have been facing, by the court or the government.  Health of women is not prioritized anywhere while planning the travel by trains, within the shelter homes or for women walking on roads. For those cases, where migrant workmen have died while travelling, none of the state government has announced any scheme to support their families. Hence, neither the poor nor the middle-class women appears anywhere in the list of schemes, plans, strategies or any other measures being taken by the government in response to COVID crisis. 

Re-imagining the gender-just world in post-COVID era

The Declaration of Philadelphia adopted on 10 May 1944 by the International Labour Organization affirmed that “Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. On a similar note it may be said that, ‘patriarchy anywhere is a threat to gender justice everywhere’. More specifically, in the times of crisis and recovery, when public health is the matter of concern, it is essential that rights of women and children receive attention of law and policy makers and that the viruses of patriarchy and poverty be eliminated forever along with the coronavirus.

However, what is happening is that the decades of efforts and struggles are being rolled back in India while responding to the COVID crisis as the government is not prioritizing women’s concerns. Situation is that both poor and the middle-class women are suffering in different ways, the former are being denied and deprived of their basic rights and the later are being lockdown in home with the abusers without any support services being made available to them. Hence, the country needs a robust comprehensive plan to address different aspects of violence women are facing in the largest democracy.

The situation calls for a need to rethink and restructure the class inequalities widened due to impact of globalization and to reconsider the stereotypical patriarchal assumptions and the notions relating to gender norms. A crisis situation provides a platform to rekindle the collective imagination to alter the pre-existing ideas about the gender discourse.

Homes cannot be reduced to the chambers of torture for women and children. The safety of women and children cannot be compromised in so-called `private’ spaces while drawing `Lakshman rekhas’ further reducing women to second-class citizens depriving them of their agency and their beings. Dismantling patriarchy and gender inequalities at homes and in public spaces is perhaps, essential to create a better world. Within the cure for coronavirus also lies the cure of the viruses of patriarchy and all other forms of inequalities and discriminations.

Also, supporting women, irrespective of their class or other variables, by providing health support services during the crisis is a significant issue that calls for immediate attention. Restoring rights and dignity of all is important. Economic, social and political empowerment of women is important in long run.

In order to imagine a gender just violence free world, the need is to impose the lockdown on the collective imagination that reiterate gender stereotypical discriminatory notions and to put patriarchy and poverty in quarantine and isolation forever. By maintaining social distancing with the misogynist ideas and developing a plan to eliminate all forms of inequalities, gender justice and human rights could be achieved and the rights guaranteed under the Article 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution can be reclaimed for all above the boundaries of class, caste or creed. Lockdown could imply strengthening existing stereotypical notions of locking our collective imaginations to the idea of women as second-class citizens or it could also imply locking the patriarchal notions and ideas to imagine a violence free gender equal world.

***********


[i]

[ii] UN News (2020) UN chief calls for domestic violence ceasefire amid horrifying global surge, April 6,  https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

[iii] UNFPA (2020) Millions more cases of violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation unintended pregnancy expected due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, April 28 https://www.unfpa.org/news/millions-more-cases-violence-child-marriage-female-genital-mutilation-unintended-pregnancies

[iv] BBC News (2020) Coronavirus: India enters `total lockdown’ after spike in cases, March 25, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52024239

[v] Nigam Shalu (2020) COVID-19: Dealing With An Untamable Virus, countercurrents.org, April 8 https://countercurrents.org/2020/04/covid-19-dealing-with-an-untamable-virus

[vi] Jhabvala Renana (2020) Women: The Invisible face of hunger, The Hindustan Times, May 10, https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/women-the-invisible-face-of-hunger/story-8tznm5spx1gElOPP09g11I.html

[vii] Slater J, N Masih and MN Partha (2020) In one of the largest slum, the fight against coronavirus has turned into struggle for survival, The Washington Post, May 11 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/dharavi-coronavirus-india-slums-mumbai/2020/05/11/beb2a4fe-8e1b-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html

[viii] BBC News (2020) Coronavirus: Anger as migrants sprayed with disinfectants in India, March 31, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52093220

[ix] Kumar Chandan (2020) Lucknow woman trudges 900 kms to save daughter from Covid-19, The Hindustan Times, May 10, https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/trudging-900-km-to-save-daughter-from-covid-19/story-62QNDDaOkLXRBNXmSkCniK.html

[x] BBC News (2020) Coronavirus in India: Desperate Migrant workers trapped in lockdown, April 22, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52360757

[xi] Mishra Sohit and S Verma (2020) Pregnant woman, mother carrying two children – Long walk home amid lockdown, NDTV, May 6, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/coronavirus-lockdown-at-3-am-they-began-a-2-000-km-journey-from-mumbai-on-cycle-2224044 Also, Raju S and U Tyagi (2020) Coronavirus Update: Pregnant women her husband forced to walk 100 km without food; rescued by locals, The Hindustan Times, March 30, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/locals-help-pregnant-woman-her-husband/story-s9QEWktmfZ4sKXDx3KUkYI.html

[xii] News18 (2020) Pregnant migrant worker walking back home delivers baby on the roadside in Telangana’s Medak, May 5, https://www.news18.com/news/india/pregnant-migrant-worker-walking-back-home-delivers-baby-by-roadside-in-telanganas-medak-2607249.html

[xiii] Katariya Meenu (2020) Forced to give birth to baby on the road & then walk 160 kms, This is the plight of migrant workers, May 10, Scoopwhoop.com, https://www.scoopwhoop.com/news/forced-to-give-birth-on-the-road-then-walk-160-km-plight-of-india-migrant-workers/

[xiv] Dixit Madhuri and Dilip Chavan (2020) Women Locked and Down: Gendering the COvid-19 Pandemic, Economic and Political Weekly 55 (17) https://www.epw.in/journal/2020/17/commentary/gendering-covid-19-pandemic.html

[xv] Nigam Shalu (2020) COVID-19, Lockdown and Violence Against Women in Homes, countercurrents.org, April 28 https://countercurrents.org/2020/04/covid-19-lockdown-and-violence-against-women-in-home

[xvi] The Economic Times (2020) India witnessed steep rise in crime against women amidst lockdown, 587 complaints received: NCW, April 17, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-witnesses-steep-rise-in-crime-against-women-amid-lockdown-587-complaints-received-ncw/articleshow/75201412.cms

[xvii] Ratnam Dhimani (2020) Domestic Violence during Covid-19 lockdown emerged as a serious concern, The Hindustan Times, April 26, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-witnesses-steep-rise-in-crime-against-women-amid-lockdown-587-complaints-received-ncw/articleshow/75201412.cms

[xviii] Tyagi Tanmayee (2020) Child  helpline receives double the usual number of call amid lockdown, The Hindustan Times, April 27, https://www.hindustantimes.com/noida/child-helpline-receives-double-the-usual-number-of-calls-amid-lockdown/story-gzup46Dt2U66be8TvMkoRK.html

[xix] Nigam Shalu (2019) Women and Domestic Violence Law in India: A Quest for Justice, Routledge India

[xx] Shekhar Divya J (2020) What the COVID lockdown tell us about the gender gap in the household, Forbes India, March 30, https://www.forbesindia.com/blog/missrepresent-women-gender-sexuality/what-the-covid-19-lockdown-tells-us-about-the-gender-gap-in-house-work/

[xxi] National Family Health Survey – 3 Data on Domestic Violence, Available at http://rchiips.org/nfhs/NFHS-3%20Data/VOL-1/Chapter%2015%20-%20Domestic%20Violence%20%28468K%29.pdf accessed on 02.02.2019

[xxii] Nigam Shalu (2005) Understanding Justice Delivery System from the Perspective of Women’s litigants as victims of domestic violence in India, Occasional paper No. 35, Center for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi https://www.cwds.ac.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/UnderstandingJustice.pdf

[xxiii] Nigam Shalu (2019) supra n 17

[xxiv] All India Council of Human Rights Liberties and Social Justice v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) 2973 of 2020, Delhi High Court, decided on April 24, 2020

[xxv] Panicker Lalita (2020) The Lockdown is making women more vulnerable, The Hindustan Times, April 4, https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/the-lockdown-is-making-women-more-vulnerable-opinion/story-C5MchD5I3fzghxKeHL4olI.html

[xxvi] Guterres Antonio (2020) “Put women and girls and the center of efforts to recover from COVID-19” United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/put-women-and-girls-centre-efforts-recover-covid-19

[xxvii] The Indian Express (2020) From door-step delivery to COVID-19 cess: How states are dealing with rush at liquor shops, May 5, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/from-doorstep-delivery-to-covid-19-cess-how-states-are-dealing-with-rush-at-liquor-shops-6395025/

[xxviii] Begum S, B Donta, S Nair et.al. (2015) Socio-demographic factors associated with domestic violence in urban slums, Mumbai, Indian Journal of Medical Research, 141: 783-8

[xxix] Reddy DN and A Patnaik (1993) Anti-arrack agitation of women in Andhra Pradesh, Economic and Political Weekly, 28 (21) 1059-66

[xxx] The Financial Express (2020) No stay on Liquor sale, rules Supreme Court, suggests home delivery to maintain social distancing, May 8, https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/liquor-sale-lockdown-coronavirus-supreme-court-petition-online-order-alcohol-home-delivery-social-distancing-mha-guidelines/1952249/

[xxxi] Roy AN (2020) Coronavirus and Paradise built on hell, The Citizen, May 1, https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/4/18687/Coronavirus-and-the-Paradise-Built-on-Hell

[xxxii] Outlook (2020) UP Man kills wife for refusing him jewellery to buy alcohol, May 8,  https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-up-man-kills-wife-for-refusing-him-jewellery-to-buy-alcohol/352310

[xxxiii] Anand Utkarsh (2020) No need for migrant workers to go back to hometown, Center Tells SC, Warns of serious health hazard, News 18, April 27, https://www.news18.com/news/india/no-need-for-migrants-to-go-back-to-hometown-centre-tells-sc-warns-of-serious-health-hazard-2594077.html

[xxxiv] IndiaLegalLive.com (2020) SC denies relief in plea for migrant workers says it cannot run the government, April 13, https://www.indialegallive.com/constitutional-law-news/supreme-court-news/sc-denies-relief-plea-migrant-workers-says-cannot-run-government-95955

[xxxv] Tripathi Ashish (2020) Coronavirus Lockdown 3.0: Supreme court refuses to pass any order on travel of migrant workers, Deccan herald, May 5, https://www.deccanherald.com/national/coronavirus-lockdown-30-supreme-court-refuses-to-pass-any-order-on-travel-of-migrant-workers-833799.html

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