Even as domestic violence is a huge problem in India, such cases seem to be rising rather steeply during the ongoing lockdown imposed across the country to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. A National Commission for Women report has stated that within a week after the lockdown began on 24 March, a total of 257 complaints relating to crime against women, have been received by its Complaint and Investigation Cell.
That domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by COVID-19, is a cause for serious concern. More so because of restrictions imposed on the movement of general public due to the lockdown, the rights of the victims of domestic violence, trapped in their homes along with their abusers, are violated with impunity not only in India but across the world.
The nature of distress calls received in developed countries from victims of domestic violence clearly shows how intense psychological as well as physical mistreatment can get when people are kept literally confined days together within a reduced space. For some victims, conflicts just grew bigger and bigger and more and more frequent.
In the United Kingdom, at least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings have been reported between 23 March and 12 April during lockdown. While in China, the number of domestic violence cases reported had tripled in February, compared to the same period the previous year, the emergency helpline for domestic violence in Spain received 18% more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier. France has witnessed a 30% spike in domestic violence during lockdown with one victim posting on the social media that she could not have privacy even in the bathroom.
Several studies have shown that the coercive methods that domestic abusers use to control their spouse and children virtually bear an uncanny resemblance to those which kidnappers use to control hostages. Notably, perpetrators of domestic abuse appear to reinvent them.
Gender-based violence against women has been acknowledged worldwide as a violation of basic human rights. But many victims suffer silently due to many reasons. There have been news reports that during the lockdown women have been thrashed by their husbands for not providing spicy meals or serving it late. But educated husband abusing his wife physically and mentally especially during the lockdown when the woman is already stressed is simply appalling. While conversing with a friend during the lockdown, this writer was shocked to know how her neighbour, a medical professional, was being abused by her spouse. The victim coughed a couple of times and that led to her husband physically assaulting her. She was slapped profusely and has been banned from cooking or eating anything in the house. Apart from abusive relationship, she has been isolated from friends and family. Under strict surveillance there are restrictions on access to even basic necessities as food. She is unable to share her predicament even with her siblings as her incoming and outgoing mobile calls have been banned by her husband who has also taken away her charger. To top it all, she found all her professional books including her research papers thrown outside the main door waiting to be picked up by the garbage collector. The victim does not want to complain to the authorities and fears the situation may turn worse if her spouse comes to know about it.
So, domestic violence is much more than what can be imagined. It can be physical, sexual, psychological, and threat of physical or sexual violence against women and can also be dowry-related harassment. Apart from slapping, hitting, kicking and beating, women can also be subjected to severe forms of physical abuse. The most common sexual abuse that many women seem to endure includes forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion.
Psychologically women are abused, intimidated, constantly belittled and humiliated. Some are also kept isolated from their family and friends; not only their movements are monitoring but their privacy is intruded upon, yes, with utter disregard and with impunity. Most often domestic violence takes place behind closed doors and very often, many women suffer violence against them in silence for fear of adverse repercussions.
Although not bearing children and particularly not bearing a son seem to contributing to wife beating, some husbands are said to abuse their wives for one reason or another. Not all husbands are cruel, but many are. Is it due to a patriarchal mindset? Has it to do with alcoholism and extra-marital affairs? There have also been reported instances of some women registering false cases against their spouses.
Internationally, one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in their lifetime by a member of her own family. According to the ‘United Nation Population Fund Report’, around two-third of married Indian women are victims of domestic violence attacks and as many as 70 per cent of married women between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of beating, rape or forced sex. Overall, more than 55 percent of the women suffer from domestic violence.
Results of the National Family Health Survey, 2000 (NFHS-2) revealed that one in every five women in India had experienced domestic violence from the age of 15 onwards. Sixty-eight percent of the women surveyed disclosed that they needed permission from husbands or in-laws to go to the market. 76 percent had to seek consent of their husbands prior to visiting friends or relatives. Illiterate women experienced violence more than three times compared to women who were educated higher secondary or above.
NFHS-4 data released in January 2018, showed that thirty-three percent of ever-married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence. The most common type of spousal violence being physical violence (30%), followed by emotional violence (14%). Seven percent of ever-married women experienced spousal sexual violence. One-fourth of ever-married women who had experienced spousal physical or sexual violence reported experiencing physical injuries, including 8 percent who had eye injuries, sprains, dislocations, or burns and 5 percent who had deep wounds, broken bones, broken teeth, or any other serious injury.
That women experiencing domestic violence are prone to suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, somatic pain syndromes, phobias and panic disorder, at the society level such women have to be helped to overcome the trauma. Over a period of time, domestic violence can affect a woman’s productivity in all forms because when emotionally disturbed it will result in loss of efficiency at the work place if employed. Further, the effects of domestic violence on children can be quite traumatic. Witnessing a family member being threatened or beaten can shatter a young child’s sense of safety and security with long-term consequences for brain development and emotional well-being. Continued exposure to high levels of domestic violence can adversely impact a child’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Adults who witnessed domestic violence as children are more likely than others to have relationship difficulties and emotional problems.
Recognised as a criminal offence under Indian Penal Code 498-A, victims of domestic violence can seek remedy under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005. However, with the COVID-19 overstretching the activities of the regulatory authorities, there is an imperative need for the community and the non-governmental agencies to come to the rescue of victims of domestic violence.(Published on 20th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 17)