The National Commission for Women (NCW), which receives complaints of domestic violence from across the country, has recorded more than twofold rise in gender-based violence in the national Coronavirus lockdown period. The total complaints from women rose from 116 in the first week of March (March 2-8), to 257 in the final week (March 23-April 1).
“Domestic violence cases have doubled than what it was before the lockdown. The cases of domestic violence are high in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab,” says NCW chief Rekha Sharma. She says the main reason for the rise of domestic violence is that the men are at home and they are taking out their frustration on women and they refuse to participate in domestic work. Women are also confined within the four walls of the house and they cannot share their grief with anybody.
The victims are also scared of complaining to the police because they fear that harassment will increase. Sharma says, “Most of the complaints are coming via email. My team is working 24/7 and we are shifting the victims to hostels or help them to reach their parents' home.”
Job loss, salary cuts, an uncertain future arising out of the lockdown has everyone on edge. "I see my self-esteem being crushed every single day," says Sunanda Desai, a working woman from an upper-middle-class family in Mumbai. “I am questioned every single day for things not been done well. There is stress at my workplace and at home. I am shouted at by my husband, my in-laws and even my children. There are fights and violence in the house that I have never experienced before in my ten years of marriage,” she says.
Invisible Scars, an NGO working to help domestic violence victims, has also seen a spurt in complaints. In cases of physical domestic violence, depending upon the severity of the abuse, they guide the victims how to go about registering a complaint with the police. Its founder Ekta Viveck Verma says they encourage victims to speak to someone if they are hesitant to approach the police. This is done after understanding the details of the abuse, both past and present.
“Since the victim most likely lives with the abuser and is stuck with him 24/7 at this point, we have to be very careful. For one of our victims, we suggested asking her to get a written undertaking from her husband and in-laws that they won’t isolate her from her family and will not beat her,” she says.
Coronavirus has exposed us to our dependence on house help. Most families don't have live-in help and with the lockdown part-timers are unavailable. Says Varkha Chulani, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at Mumbai's Lilavati Hospital: “Not used to getting their hands dirty, many men are struggling to cope. They feel they are being bossed around, to do the dishes, wash their clothes. Their ego is getting bruised as men are unable to stand being told to help. Stereotypical ideologies exist - it’s the woman’s job to cook, clean, wash. It’s the man’s job to earn. So even though we seem to have progressed in paying lip service to be ‘liberal’, the true test is in the living. And this confinement is throwing up the ‘real’ mindsets of partners.”
'Mpower 1 on 1' is a newly launched helpline in Mumbai to report domestic abuse. They got a call this Sunday from a woman who was sounding anxious and breaking into sobs. She had a fight with her husband on some petty issues. It soon escalated and her husband beat her up badly. Feeling helpless and vulnerable, she couldn't go out because of the lockdown. Dr. Ambrish Dharmadhikari, psychiatrist and head of medical services at Mpower says his team counselled her on the phone and asked her to report to the police. "But the sad part is, now the police are busy enforcing the lockdown to curb the spread of Coronavirus," says Dharmadhikari.
The violence of domestic abuse is worse in the poorer section of the society. Psychologist Padma Rewari says her own domestic help has an abusive, alcoholic husband. Now going without alcohol and cooped up in a small room, he has got more violent. For victims like her, there are NGOs like Stree Mukti Sanghatan for help. “The women should approach free counselling and use the online facility for reporting the crime," says Rewari. "The victims of physical abuse may find it helpful to have a safety plan in case the violence escalates. This includes having a neighbour, friend or relative or shelter identified to go to in the event they need to leave the house immediately for safety," she adds. As the lockdown and limited movement outside the house appears to be a long drawn affair, the best recourse for victims of physical abuse is to report the crime and seek help.