Other helplines are ‘simply not working right now’, said Sohini Bhattacharya of Breakthrough India, a women’s rights organisations that works to ending violence against women and children. “We are asking neighbours and bystanders to be alert and intervene if necessary.” (For a list of helplines currently operational, scroll to the end of the story.)
Helplines have either shut down altogether because staff cannot come to work during the lockdown or, those still in service, are coping as best as they can without protective gear and with the realization that there is little they can actually do under the lockdown. Perhaps most serious of all is a lack of government support.
“NGOs do not have the capacity to take on what is the government’s responsibility,” said Bhattacharya. “Even if you have people on the frontline, nobody is thinking about the safety of these workers.”
A Surge In Domestic Violence Cases
After confirming a spike in the number of crimes against women following the lockdown, the National Commission of Women’s (NCW) phone lines to women who might wish to lodge a complaint are ‘out-of-reach’, said an NCW employee, since the offices are shut.
“Women who wish to register complaints do it through one of several ways,” she explained. These include, physical visits to the NCW office, postal communication and phone calls as well as emails, social media and online complaints.
With the offices shut for the lockdown, the NCW is at present only able to access online complaints, emails and social media, the employee said.
But what was for the past week whispered amongst women’s groups now has been confirmed by the NCW: a rise in domestic violence cases following a lockdown announced to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The NCW received a total of 257 complaints online in the first nine days of the lockdown, from March 23 to April 1. Pre-lockdown, NCW received 116 online complaints in the seven days from March 2 to March 8.
The spurt holds even when you factor in the two additional days for which data are available post lockdown.
The complaints include harassment for dowry, police apathy and right to live with dignity.
Complaints relating to sexual crime are up, which ties in with National Crime Records Bureau findings in January 2020 that 94% of rapes are committed by perpetrators, including relatives and neighbours, known to their victims.
The seven days pre-lockdown saw two complaints of rape or attempts to rape. In the nine days post-lockdown this number shot up to 13.
Other sexual crimes that have registered a rise are sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism. Women also complained in increasing numbers about instances where they were being denied their right to exercise choice in marriage by their families.
The biggest jump has been in domestic violence complaints that have more than doubled, from 30 received between March 2-8 to 69 in the first nine days following the lock-down.
But the complaints could be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. “Not all women can access the online facility. Most do not have access to online services, or don’t know how to use them,” the NCW employee said.
Moreover, she added, with husbands at home 24×7, making a call for help just became that much more difficult.
A Global Pandemic
With one-fourth of the world’s population under lockdown due to measures to counter the spread of coronavirus, domestic abuse calls are up all over the world.
In Britain, reported BBC, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help.
In France, the government said it would put victims of domestic violence in hotel rooms and finance pop-up counseling centres at grocery stores following a surge of domestic violence cases ever since the country went into lockdown on March 19. France has witnessed a 36% increase in domestic violence reporting in recent weeks.
Following a spike in coronavirus-related family abuse in Australia, the government has announced a boost of A$150 million for telephone support services.
In Singapore, The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) women’s helpline saw a 33% increase in calls relating to family violence in February compared to the same period last year.
The reports of domestic violence across the globe led World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to call on countries to take measures to curb the menace of domestic violence. “We call on countries to include services for addressing domestic violence as an essential service that must continue during the COVOD-19 response,” he said.
The rise in domestic violence reporting also prompted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to make an emotional appeal for ‘peace at home – and in homes – around the world’. In a statement dated April 5, Guterres said the lockdown, essential to suppressing Covid-19, ‘can trap women with abusive partners’.
“In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled,” he stated. “Meanwhile, healthcare providers and police are overwhelmed and understaffed. Local support groups are paralysed or short of funds. Some domestic violence shelters are closed; others are full. I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for Covid-19.”
Finding A Way Forward
Now, with women stuck at home with their abusers, there has been a surge in violence. “There is a shortage of food and money. The household work burden is being unfairly shared. Add to this the unbelievable stress and insecurity and it seems self-evident that cases of domestic violence would be going up,” said Kalpana Viswanath of Safetipin, an NGO that supports safer cities.
Reduced mobility, confinement within the household and lack of social connectivity during the outbreak could, “compound the situation for women who experience or are at the risk of violence, within relationships,” reads a resource kit prepared by UN Women, UNFPA and WHO. “Women from marginalized groups including migrant communities may be at heightened risk of violence, as they face economic uncertainties, and food and health insecurity, as the full impact of this crisis unfolds over time.”
The first weeks of the government’s response to Covid-19 has been to spread awareness, provide health services and stop the spread of the virus. None of the 11 empowered committees set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as quick response teams so far – medical emergency management, isolation and quarantine, public grievances and so on – include gender and inclusion. “Unsurprisingly, gender and violence against women is not this government’s priority,” said an activist.
“We need to highlight some of the issues which might be faced by specially women and girls that need immediate attention,” stated a letter written on April 3 by Breakthrough India to Niti Aayog.
The suggestions include an urgent need to increase resources available to those NGOs that provide support and assistance to domestic violence survivors for shelter, counseling and legal aid. “We would also recommend that the government considers these as part of the essential services that remain open and are available to provide support to survivors of domestic violence,” the letter recommends.
UN Women’s suggestions to women who face violence include asking them to reach out to family, friends or frontline workers like ASHAs. “Remember this is a period for physical distancing with social solidarity, so do not disengage. Consider remaining connected with your well-wishers through phone or other means.”
One not-for-profit, Women Entrepreneurs For Transformation (WEFT) has launched an initiative under which women experiencing violence at home paint a red dot on the palms of their hand, enabling others to identify them and reach out for help.
If you’re facing violence at home:
All India Women’s Helpline: 1091
Emergency Response Support System: 112
Women’s Helpline: 181
Women Powerline (Uttar Pradesh): 1090
iCALL-Initiating Concern for All (pan India): 9372048501, 9920241248, 8369799513, Monday-Saturday 10 am-8 pm. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jagori (Delhi): 011-26692700, 8800996640
Shakti Shalini (Delhi): 24373737
Sneha (Mumbai): 9833052684, 9167535765
Swayam (Kolkata): 9830772814, Monday-Friday 10 am to 2 pm
Gramya (Hyderabad): 9440860271
Gauravi Sakhi (Madhya Pradesh): 18002332244
Red Dot: email@example.com
(compiled by UN Women, UNFPA and WHO; Breakthrough India)
Published in Article-14 on April 7, 2020