The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tough pill to swallow. With all the health hazards, it has also brought forth various other troubles along. While everyone is fighting their own battles to survive and stay firm, our country's women are in a miserable state now more than ever. COVID-19 has exposed new threats at home for women facing abuse at the hands of men. And this prolonged lockdown has proved to be a difficult time for all those women isolated with abusive partners. It is crushing to know that women do not even feel safe in their house's four walls.
Spike in complaints – reasons & impact
Domestic violence has always been a major issue of concern, especially in India, where societies are bound by strong patriarchal mindsets. Men and women are not regarded as equals. Instead, men are taught of their superiority over a woman who gives birth to a plethora of problems that women have to go through, domestic violence.
But what all exactly forms a part of this term? As per the definition, it includes any sort of abuse or violence in an indoor/domestic setting, such as in marriage or cohabitation. It is a broad concept that usually involves violence by a spouse against the other spouse. However, it also includes violence against children or parents.
Globally, in a majority of cases, women are the victims of domestic violence, and it is one of the most underreported crimes against women. According to India's national family health survey- an exhaustive household government survey from 2015-16, around 33% of women have experienced violence, be it physical, sexual, or emotional, at their spouses' hands. The survey is a clear indication of how severe the nature of this problem is.
Needless to say, now that a majority of women are bound to stay inside their homes owing to the situation, the effect of trauma and assault becomes all the graver. Women already have truckloads of responsibilities and work over their head. An environment of abuse only adds up to their stress as well as anxiety levels. The COVID outbreak has only triggered the number of cases spiking to a whole new level amid the lockdown. According to the official data, the National Commission for Women (NCW) registered 2.5 times greater number of fresh cases of domestic violence in the nationwide lockdown.
Earlier, women used to have the time of the day, usually to themselves, as the men stayed busy at work. The time that had to be spent together was comparatively less. The more time that women have to spend at their homes with abusive partners, the higher is the probability of them being abused and harassed. Whenever a person has a job to do, it takes their mind off all the other things. Now that the abusers are stuck at home without a source of income and a family to raise, they tend to lose their temper over baseless things. Even the slightest of inconvenience sparks rage. They feel helpless and not in control of the circumstances and tend to take out all their frustration on their partner. The anger in them shoots up to a level where they could beat, harass, ill-treat, and abuse their wives/daughters. At times the beatings are so intense that women succumb to it.
Men in India suppose that they have a right to exercise control over the women of their house and think of them as their puppets. Because now, as a result of these constraints that the government has imposed in the form of a lockdown, men, in turn, take such control over their partner or children. This gives them the delusion of being powerful and in charge. Furthermore, the impact of this behavior has only intensified now. Not to forget, in some cases, the children themselves are witnesses to such crimes. The trauma and fear in their mind take over and renders them disturbed all their life.
A future full of worries - what could be done?
The surge in cases during the lockdown is fairly large but what scares us the most is that not even half of these women have sought help from outside. This means that women go through such terrifying ordeals every other day without raising the alarm.
Naturally, it is because of the social stigma of separation/divorce that prevents women from taking action against their partner. The hesitation holds greater weight as compared to all the humiliation that a woman has to go through. Moreover, the financial dependency is another key factor that stops women from coming out of an abusive relationship. They have nowhere to go and start afresh. Even their families are not supportive of them leaving their partner, especially where they even have children.
Before the lockdown, women had the chance to flee their abusive homes and live with their parents for some time to escape the violence. They could go and ask for help. But for those whose parents live far, even fleeing was no more an option. There already exists legislation to tackle the issue of domestic violence called The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. The Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure provide provisions that relate to domestic violence being a criminal offence and a woman's right to maintenance. Some NGOs initiate awareness and offer help through their 24x7 helpline. There is so much that has been done to help women come out of the vicious cycle of being abused. However, the current state of affairs could not have been predicted. The existing legislation and other measures could not prove to be conclusive in such a situation.
Perhaps, the government came up with robust plans and arrangements that promptly redressed the victims' grievances. It launched a WhatsApp helpline in the lockdown course to make it easier for women to contact for help. The Commission, too, constituted a team that would handle domestic violence complaints on a fast-track basis. The Women and Child Development Ministry have also made efforts by instructing One Stop Centres and Women Helplines to remain open throughout.
However, even the best of measures and practices cannot yield the desired results if we fail to identify the root cause of such a problem. Until and unless domestic violence's gravity is not understood by all, we cannot hope for a change. It has to be ensured that support and aid are made available to the victims even in lockdown time. The present situation should not be used as an excuse by the police or the government to ignore the other challenges that the pandemic has brought with it. We, as a nation, go through setbacks majorly because we lack enough funds to offer help. And what better way to arrange for funds than budgeting. Besides, the support that is to be provided to women who go through such abuse should be regarded as an essential service so that prompt action can be taken against it.
The only way to lend a hand in the time of crisis is by making sure the victims could be moved to better, safer places to live in away from all the abuse that they have been through and providing them financial aid, so they do not have to depend on anyone. Besides, punishing the perpetrators fiercely and not let law and order drown owing to the pandemic.
Women usually fail to understand the problem of domestic violence. They are raised in a way that they tend to justify such actions calling it a mistake or a consequence of stress/tension and brush up the whole subject ignoring the consequences.
While the lockdown has proved to be a blessing in disguise for some of us, there are people for whom it has made life like a living hell. Women live in constant fear of getting beaten and harassed. And keeping shut only acts as an encouragement to men. The window for women who experience violence to seek help has always been constricted. It has only narrowed further due to the lockdown. While we as a country are fighting the pandemic head-on, we should not forget that women and children's safety should still be a priority.
Domestic violence should not be condoned, and it would not be wrong to say that its victims' lives are as uncertain as to the lockdown. The harsh reality is that soon there would be a vaccine available against the virus, the lockdown would be lifted, and life would get back to normal, but will we ever find a cure to domestic violence? Only time will tell. The pandemic shall go away eventually, but domestic violence would not unless we make sure to cleanse and sanitize our mentality and put patriarchy to rest.
VIPS, IP University, New Delhi.
"What India's lockdown did to domestic abuse victims" - https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52846304 - last accessed on 16/08/20.
 "NCW records sharp spike in domestic violence amid lockdown" -https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ncw-records-sharp-spike-in-domestic-violence-amid-lockdown/article31835105.ece - last accessed on 16/08/20.