Written by Rohitha Naraharisetty
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of the world grinding to a halt; with several countries and their states in a weeks-long lockdown in an attempt to strictly follow the practice of social distancing that is required to keep the virus from spreading. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly announced a twenty-one-day nationwide lockdown for India. At very short notice, citizens were asked to stay indoors at all times, save for emergencies and essentials. While states have been busy implementing the lockdown and organising relief and distribution of essentials in order to sustain it, the effects that the lockdown might have on several have been largely left unaddressed. Domestic violence is one such pressing concern that has not been given attention, even as reports indicate that there has been a rise in domestic violence cases in areas locked down all over the world.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) that was released by the Union Healthy Ministry, one in three women in India face domestic violence – physical, sexual, and emotional – in the home. Although the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDA) of 2005 exists, several feminist legal practitioners and scholars – such as Flavia Agnes – have noted that justice remains slow and the law gets misrepresented as getting used for filing “false cases”. The number is reported cases is far exceeded by the actual volume of cases in India; and with the lockdown in force, there are even fewer avenues to safely report domestic abuse without significant obstacles to doing so. Whilst having to share a confined space with their abusers, reports show that calls to domestic violence helplines in India have dropped. The National Commission for Women reported a rise in the number of complaints since the day of the ‘Janata’ curfew, especially online complaints. And with the police occupied with enforcing the lockdown, their apathy toward domestic violence cases has increased three-fold.
Despite the obvious correlation between lockdowns and domestic violence, there has still been no acknowledgement from the government on the same – it is hardly even considered at all. Even as information on the availability of grocery stores, health services and other day to day essentials are meticulously organised and circulated by the state and central governments, there is no mention anywhere of domestic violence helplines, nor is there any planning towards providing safe spaces for victims of domestic violence to stay during the lockdown. Travelling requires going through bureaucratic police permission procedures which makes it difficult to leave for a safer location, such as natal homes, on short notice. Public transport facilities have been stopped completely, leaving no choice but to use personal vehicles or to walk. The added mobility constraints to an already precarious situation closes the exit options that were previously available. Unlike calling for an ambulance, there is no number to call for someone to be picked up if they need to leave their house. These constraints in terms of redress coupled with the compulsion to remain in the home with abusers for an extended period of time makes the lockdown a terrifying and nearly fatal situation of victims across the country.
The supply of alcohol being stopped also affects households in which men consume excess and often commit domestic violence while drunk. Numerous studies have shown that alcohol consumption is a statistically significant risk factor in incidences of domestic or intimate partner violence. At present, disturbing reports on violent withdrawal symptoms emerge; in Kerala, for instance, reports show a spike in suicide attempts following the ban on alcohol, with the number of deaths due to alcohol withdrawal exceeding the number of COVID-19 related deaths in the state. One cannot then discount the fact that some of the men experiencing withdrawal symptoms may pose a bigger threat to the female members of the household than before, with no respite due to their continuous presence in the house. Where victims previously might have had a window of opportunity to escape when their abuser’s weren’t home and were away for work, there is now virtually none.
An ill sighted and extremely gender-blind approach to a global pandemic is bound to lead to masculinist responses that do very little to ensure the well-being of all people. The COVID-19 disaster is a health crisis not just because of the one strain of virus, but also because of the ripple effect it produces on people that are vulnerable to unrelated forms of harm that are now heightened under the lockdown, and domestic violence is only one such issue. The physical and emotional safety of victims of violence is as much a health issue as any other – and this too must be brought under the ambit of the response to the pandemic. Prime Minister Modi has likened the lockdown to a ‘Lakshman Rekha’ – a reference to the Ramayana epic in which Lakshmana draws a line around Sita’s hut in order to protect her while he is away hunting, one which wouldn’t allow others to enter but whose protective spell would break if she stepped outside. This rather dramatic posturing is loaded with gendered implications: the image of the woman whose place is in the home, and who would come to harm if she ever stepped outside of it. The home becomes intimately linked with femininity, and extending such an implication while unilaterally imposing a nationwide lockdown is irresponsible at best, and dangerous or even fatal at worst. As it often turns out, the outside is the space that many voluntarily seek in order to escape the home.