Poonam, 30, had been married for five years and was at her parents' home in Ludhiana, Punjab, with her only child when the lockdown was announced. She quickly rushed home. But her husband did not let her in, and asked her to go back to her parents. He had previously been physically and sexually abusive, and was also was embroiled in an extramarital relationship, and Poonam's trip to Ludhiana was to seek respite from this situation.
Desperate, she called a helpline. The police responded swiftly and arrived with social workers from the Special Cell for Women. They counseled the husband and got her back in. Since then, social workers continue to contact her regularly to ensure that she is safe, and so is her child. They have also promised that if required, she would be provided with legal assistance after the lockdown is lifted. The Special Cell for Women works with the police in 15 states; this was a creation of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 1984 with the help of organisations that work with women.
In Mumbai, an organisation working on securing rights for prisoners got in touch with a team from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to help shift a woman and her children to a temporary shelter. Her husband who had been serving a prison term was let out on parole during the pandemic as the jail was over-crowded. As soon as he returned home, the abuse began. He attacked his wife and children, threw them out of the house, and asked them to fend for themselves. The police had to be called to deal with the violent criminal. He feared his family might be infected with the coronavirus, he told the police.
In Darbhanga, Bihar, Savitri, a 32-year-old woman was severely beaten by her husband. He even tried to feed her rat poison. When she contacted her family, they curtly told her to reach a mutual settlement and not return to her parental home. As the police did not respond to her calls, she called a social worker. It was only after the social worker intervened that the police arrived and warned the abuser. Though the social worker is in touch with her, Savitri lives in constant fear. Being locked in with her abuser is terrifying.
Ideally, women who are being battered at home are to be sent to a shelter home. But, during the pandemic, this is easier said than done. Most shelter homes are full of migrants, or were converted to house those undergoing quarantine. "We cannot send these vulnerable women into a shelter home unless it is a good one," points out Veena Gowda, a women's rights activist based in Mumbai. So, while counseling women to continue staying at home, social workers have to be very careful and do it very gently as this may prompt abusers to get even more violent, she said.
During the lockdown, say angry women activists, instead of sending women and children to ill-equipped shelter homes, law enforcement authorities should send the abusers to live in those conditions as a punishment.
As cases of domestic violence were increasing, the Pune Zilla Parishad formed dedicated village level committees to first track cases of domestic violence and counsel the abusers. However, if the abuse continued despite counselling, the perpetrator would be punished by putting him under "institutional quarantine" so that the woman would be able to stay peacefully at home with her children and not have to shift to a shelter or an institution that caters to women who have been abused.
The National Legal Services Authority that reports to Justice N.V. Ramana of the Supreme Court found that there were 144 cases of domestic violence registered during the lockdown due to the pandemic in Uttarakhand, 79 in Haryana and 63 in Delhi. These are only those who managed to reach the police and take the courage to register a case.
Ahmedabad based Pallavi Patel, director, Chetna, an organisation that works with women and children, told India Together that only a fraction of the actual cases would have got registered due to the lockdown conditions where people were not allowed to leave their houses. As many as 573 cases were registered in Noida itself which borders Delhi. Ghaziabad which also falls in the National Capital Region and borders Noida reported 633 cases. Helplines in Ghaziabad found that they were getting an average of 35 calls a day which was much more than the usual five calls they would get on a normal day before the lockdown.
Smriti Manocha, coordinator of the Pune-based Maitri Network that works with marginalised and disadvantaged women, says it is ironic that during the lockdown social workers were actually telling distressed callers to somehow try and stay at home till normalcy returns so that they could be shifted to a good shelter.
"Women could not step out of the house to get a medical examination after a violent attack, and as a result there is no way to prove that they were victims of domestic violence. There were calls of women saying that their former husbands had stopped their maintenance allowance. There were calls from girls reporting that their fathers were beating them up. It was such a helpless situation," she said.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) installed a special WhatsApp number to report domestic violence incidents, as it saw an immediate rise in cases when India went into lockdown. In the very first week, NCW recorded more than a two-fold increase in the number of domestic violence cases and sexual assaults. Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the NCW for Women said that there were a large number of cases from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, and Punjab.
Smriti Irani, Minister for Women and Child Development directed her staff to ensure that reporting of domestic violence was encouraged and digital governance employed to ensure women’s safety.
Hearing public interest litigation about the need to curb the surge in domestic violence, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court noted the obstacles women face, even if they wished to lodge complaints. "We have noticed that the biggest obstacle to a woman seeking assistance against abuse and domestic violence is that they have to go against intimate domestic partners or family members. The lack of enforcement and alternative residence impedes women from filing complaints," the court said. Women from economically weaker sections were also unable to access the online systems, and were thus left out of this assistance measure.
In Delhi, a social worker got a call from a woman saying she was in terrible pain after being beaten up by her in-laws and asked to leave her marital home. When the social worker took her for a medical checkup, she found that the abuse had resulted in broken bones.
The police registered a case under Section 324 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with 'voluntarily causing hurt', and not under the stringent Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Numerous social workers have reported that abusers often getaway as there was poor enforcement of the Act and there was hardly any fear of the law.
Unni Krishnan, Humanitarian Director, War Child, based in the Netherlands, who dealt with the abuse of women and children in various countries of the world, including India, told India Together: "The government must not look at the pandemic as a mere health emergency. It has to immediately take steps to stop domestic violence and child abuse. The top leadership must quickly articulate the role of the police in stopping it. Abusers need to be checkmated immediately. Otherwise, its impacts will have serious consequences. In many cases, it will lead to irreversible damage shattering many lives. Years later, women and children who were subjected to violence, will continue to relive the trauma".
When a social worker in Gaya got a distress call from Roopmati, a 36-year-old woman saying that she was badly beaten up by her husband and in-laws, she tipped off the police. She also asked the woman's parents to reach her matrimonial home. They were initially hesitant but later landed up. The battered woman was then handed over to her parents along with her two children by the police after a medical checkup was done because of the physical injuries.
It is not easy to go on with life after having survived years of domestic violence at the hands of a husband and in-laws. After years of abuse, Sarika, 35, from a village in Bihar, finally filed for divorce and got it in December 2018. She took up a job as a cleaner after separation to look after herself and her two sons. Her husband was not paying the maintenance. She lost her job during the lockdown and was totally dependent on whatever the government provided in terms of food. When recurrent thoughts of suicide kept troubling her, she contacted a social worker. She is presently being counseled and efforts are on to get her former husband to pay the maintenance. The social worker calls her daily just to make sure that she is okay.
According to the National Family Health Survey, one-third of women experience domestic violence and that 99 percent of sexual assaults were not reported; 27 per cent had experienced physical violence since the age of 15. Shockingly, the survey found that 52 per cent of women believed that a husband was justified in beating his wife especially if it was because of misbehavior with in-laws.
Dr. Trupti Panchal, Assistant professor of Tata Institute of Social Sciences told India Together that the real numbers of violence against women during the pandemic would not give the real picture as many would not complain when the abuser was present in the house. "We have had cases where the husband forced the wife to keep the speaker on so that he would know what she was talking about and to whom. Women were at the receiving end in this healthcare crisis as they have to work from home, do all the chores in the house, and cater to all the family members locked in the house. The worst reality was the fact that social workers could not be of much help as they could not travel to the homes of the victims and so the impact of the violence and abuse was greater than we would imagine."
With cases of domestic violence during the pandemic increasing, the Delhi State Legal Authority has come up with the idea of helping victims to report abuse. It has authorised Mother Dairy outlets - which are open seven days of the week even during the lock down, and are frequented by women to buy milk and its products - to become centers where women can discreetly report the abuse they are subjected to. The owners of the Dairy would then alert the legal authority or the police. Similarly, chemist shops have also been authorised to take complaints. Such increased access, it is hoped, will encourage and assist victims of abuse.
(Names of domestic violence victims have been changed in this article to protect their identity)