Vanitha’s (name changed) life took a turn for the worse during the lockdown period. The 38-year-old engineer’s husband started forcing her to have sex with him. Sometimes, he would force her even when their three children were present in their one-bedroom apartment.
The sexual assault continued for several days until she plucked up the courage to say no to her husband. However, it did not stop there. Whenever she refused to have sex with him, he would start hitting her or verbally abusing her. On one such instance, unable to bear the torture anymore, Vanitha dialled a helpline number announced by the Tamil Nadu government.
It is not just Vanitha, but hundreds of women have called the helpline numbers launched by the state government to report violence or abuse and seek advice from counsellors during the coronavirus lockdown period.
The special unit, set up by the Tamil Nadu police department to deal with crimes against women and children, has received 5,740 calls from women during the lockdown period. Of these, the unit has resolved 5,702 cases, where the couples were counselled. The team has also registered 38 cases so far against perpetrators of domestic violence.
According to a list released by the special unit, Chennai has recorded a total of 45 cases during the lockdown period till May 21. Of the 45 cases, the team received nine calls of distress from March 24 to 31, 19 calls in April and 17 calls from May 1 to 21.
The Central Zone in the state has recorded the highest number of calls since the lockdown started, at 1,915. The zone consists of Tiruchy (0), Perambalur (90), Ariyalur (67), Karur (84), Pudukottai (1,424), Thanjavur (211), Thiruvarur (20) and Nagapattinam (19).
The North Zone, consisting of Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Vellore, Thiruvannamalai, Vizhuppuram and Cuddalore, has received 1,201 calls.
The West Zone – Salem, Nammakal, Dharmapuri, Erode, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Krishnagiri and Nilgiris – has recorded 679 calls.
The South Zone – Madurai, Virudhunagar, Dindigul, Theni, Tirunelveli, Kanniyakumari, Thoothukudi, Sivagangai and Ramanathapuram – has recorded 1,364 calls.
Apart from the helpline numbers by the police department, the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women is also at the frontline in tackling abuse faced by women. The Commission has launched separate district-wise helpline numbers for women seeking counselling and reporting violence against them.
The helpline run by the Commission was started on April 22 and has been receiving about 50 calls every day.
“We receive 300 to 400 calls per day, and the number of calls increases every month. These women call us essentially for receiving counselling,” Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women Chairperson Dr Kannegi Packianathan told TNM.
Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women also works closely with NGOs to attend to these calls and help the women in need.
On an average day, helpline counsellors say they receive about 40-50 calls. “Many women call the helpline number to report instances of marital rape. They say they’re not interested in having a physical relationship with their husbands, or that they need to take care of their children, which the husband fails to understand. Sometimes, the husbands don’t have any sense of space or privacy, and force wives to have sex while their children are around. These are some of the instances that we have been handling,” a counsellor told TNM.
In most cases, the counsellors try to advise the caller’s husband. “Since the men are at home all the time and get bored, some of them constantly pressure their wives for sex. So we try to speak to those men and explain the consequences. We make them understand that consent is important even in a marriage. We tell them that if they continue to hit or force their wives into sex, that amounts to abuse. We explain that their attitude can even bring behavioural changes in their children,” the counsellor explained.
In terms of violence, the counsellors are also handling cases of domestic abuse and violent behaviour. In many instances, they relate the abusive behaviour among men to the withdrawal symptoms due to non-availability of alcohol.
“Cases of violent behaviour or physical abuse by men are reported mainly due to alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Whenever the men feel vexed due to the lack of alcohol, they beat their wives. Women need not bear this. So we divert some cases to the police to let them take action,” the counsellor said.
In the worst-case scenario, counsellors suggest one-stop centres, which were started to provide support to women who are subjected to domestic violence. For instance, a woman and her six-year-old child in Chennai were recently abandoned by her husband. “Since her husband couldn’t take care of her, we sent her and the child to a one-stop centre,” said the counsellor.
Per the data released by the unit, although the number of calls increased in the month of March and April, it started decreasing in May. “The violence against women, which were on the rise when the lockdown started, is reducing now due to the swift action of the police department,” claimed Additional Director General of Police Ravi.
“The police officers are taking immediate action and women police officers are also meticulously following the cases received through the helpline numbers. Besides, the relaxation of the lockdown has also helped in reducing such cases of violence,” he added.
However, according to a source in the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women, “Financial stress due to loss of jobs or debt and lack of access to alcohol are some of the factors that are contributing to domestic violence or abuse. Although the statistics show a dip in the number of calls in May, this cannot be attributed to the relaxation of the lockdown. Also, we cannot say that the abuse has reduced yet, because many households still face a cash crunch and there is still no access to liquor.”
According to Swarna Rajagopalan, the founding trustee of The Prajnya Trust, an NGO involved in research on human security and gender issues, violence against women should not be understood or monitored based on numbers.
“Domestic violence against women is a long-standing problem; it will not go up or come down. The reality is that this issue is endemic,” noted Swarna, who is also an Indian political scientist.
“Violence against women is an early warning indicator. Whenever the violence goes up, it indicates that there is an emergency in society. During any emergency situation such as tsunami, cyclone or the pandemic, violence against women goes up. Experts working in this field anticipate this and so the government, too, must act on this,” she said, adding that this problem will stay even if the coronavirus vanishes from our lives. “The idea that it is acceptable to be violent is far more deep-rooted than COVID-19 crisis.”
As part of the next course of action to curb violence against women, ADGP Ravi said, “We plan to make a list of potential offenders so that we can send female police personnel to the houses of the accused regularly and keep a check on the abuse.”
For information on the helpline numbers, click here.