Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) normally gets around 10 to 15 new calls from women in Tamil Nadu every week. These are usually victims of domestic abuse who face violence at the hands of their husbands, in-laws and sometimes, their own parents.
"But since the lockdown began, we are getting only 4-5 calls every week," says Swetha Shankar, Director, Client Services at PCVC. "The number of calls we are getting has definitely reduced and we feel this could be a direct result of having to be in close quarters with the perpetrators. Women may be unable to call and express their problems because their communication is monitored. But, all the women who do manage to place calls to us, have complained of escalating violence," she adds.
The lockdown may be able to prevent or slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, an unprecedented consequence of the same is women who face domestic violence becoming more vulnerable as they are compelled to be with the perpetrators behind four walls all day.
Locked in with the perpetrator
Swetha points out that usually, the perpetrator leaves the house for work or something else. It is short term relief for these women, which is now gone due to the lockdown. "There are cases where these women are told, 'If you cough, we will throw you out of the house'. There is nothing worse than feeling unsafe in your own home," she adds.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) recently took cognizance of the matter. In a tweet, the NCW said, “Women are facing the brunt of this upheaval in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak. There is an increase in number of domestic violence complaints and worse it is difficult for women to access institutional support at times like this.”
While it is already difficult for women to speak up and take action against domestic violence, things are even more difficult now. Telangana’s She Teams, for instance, say that they earlier used to receive 3-4 domestic violence complaints in the day. However, since the lockdown began, there are days when there isn’t a single complaint. The lockdown seems to have become a barrier for women coming out and complaining to the police station, as they might have to answer additional questions indoors and outdoors to get there.
Speaking to TNM, one of the She Teams personnel said that while they have counsellors available, they are now no longer calling the complainants or their husbands to avail counselling after a complaint is made, due to the lockdown: “Now husbands are not being called in unless and until it’s an emergency situation. We gauge if it is one depending on the victim’s requirement.”
How to deal with domestic violence at this time
Swetha points out that when it comes to domestic abuse, financial dependency and social stigma of seeking separation from the husband already limit the options for escape that women have.
"In some cases we have been able to intervene,” she says. “In one instance, about three days into the lockdown, a woman called us and explained that she cannot stay with her abusive husband till April 14. So, we contacted the local police and the husband was moved to his mother's house. We also ensured that the woman had enough money for groceries and other essentials.”
Women can also reach out to the toll free helpline number, 181, for domestic violence victims. Usually, after the helpline receives a call from a victim, she is directed to a Sakhi centre. They also provide counselling over the phone, and if needed, police officials are sent to the victim’s home directly for rescue. However, they have also not been receiving many calls since the lockdown, an executive managing the helpline told TNM.
In situations where it’s difficult for women to get help during the lockdown, social workers suggest that protecting oneself from violence should be given priority.
"Women have to deal tactically in order to protect themselves from their violent husbands. Try to mellow down the situation as far as possible by not reacting much. It does not mean they must only compromise or adjust. However, at this point, because the avenues to which they can reach out are low, protecting themselves should be the first priority for women. However, if things spiral out of control, they should never hesitate to dial 100,” says Pearl Choragudi, Head of Counseling at Operation PeaceMaker at My Choices Foundation, a non-profit that works against domestic violence and sex trafficking.
However, Swetha from PCVC points out that the burden cannot rest on the victim alone. In several cases, police tend to turn away women who do manage to come with complaints of domestic abuse, and the chances of this happening are even more now that the country is dealing with “bigger problems”.
"We need responsive systems in place and a stakeholder network that creates multiple avenues for victims to reach out. Yes, police resources are being used to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. But this does not mean you can turn away women who complain about domestic abuse. We need to have the necessary systems in place to help these women and provide immediate solutions," she says.
Online awareness and ‘bell bajao’ campaign
Civil society is trying to rise up to the situation now by moving their efforts online and over call. Some of the non-profits that TNM spoke to said that they are conducting online awareness programmes and are talking to complainants over calls after they receive cases complaints via helplines.
A representative from My Choices Foundation told TNM that the ‘bell bajao’ (ring the bell) campaign, which started in 2008 to combat domestic violence, can also be revived to tackle the problem during the lockdown. The message of the campaign was – if you suspect domestic violence is taking place in your neighbourhood, just go and ring the bell of the house on some pretext. You don’t have to break the social distancing protocols, but it may just make the abuser wary and prevent violence if he knows someone is watching. Social workers also say that where possible, victims should tell someone in their neighbourhood about what is happening with them in advance.
Some other things we can do as a society at this time is to check up over a phone call or text friends, family, employees and acquaintances who have shared what they experience at home. A friendly conversation and reassurance can go a long way. This Women’s Web article highlights some other ways in which you can help domestic violence survivors stuck with their abusers at home during self-isolation.
As per the Women’s Aid, a UK based organisation, here are some tips for those suffering violence at home. While some of these may be difficult to do in a lockdown, others can be followed:
Tell someone what is happening to you.
Keep any evidence you can of physical abuse.
Keep a journal of all violence, recording dates, events and threats made. Keep your journal in a safe place.
Ensure that there is sufficient credit/balance in your phone to reach out someone in emergency.
Pack an emergency bag with important documents, money and clothes and keep it somewhere safe.
Plan with your children and identity a safe place for them, like a room or a friend’s house. Reassure them that their job is to be safe and not to protect you.
Keep emergency numbers in your phone.
If you need to leave an abusive relationship go to a nearby police station.
It is not only Indian victims of domestic violence who have found themselves in a difficult spot due to the lockdown – the COVID-19 pandemic has created similar circumstances globally. The number of domestic violence complaints have spiked in several countries. In France, for instance, authorities have had to put up domestic violence victims in hotels as the complaints of violence have soared since the lockdown.