Dark Side of Lockdown: Domestic Violence and Child Abuse
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to many vulnerabilities. With home quarantine proving to be a successful strategy, and people finally catching up and practising it, we can conclude that home is the safest place to ensure sanitisation, hygiene and disinfection. But what if our home is where you are most unsafe? While some feel safer with home quarantine, there is one group of people who may suffer very differently and much severely from this social distancing—the survivors of domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
One out of three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, making domestic violence the most widespread but least reported human rights abuse according to the World Health Organization. With COVID-19, the risk of abuse has increased. Mounting data suggests that domestic violence is acting as an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. Now, with families in lockdown worldwide, hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis.
Confinement is fostering the tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries. And it is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a statement calling the violence against women and girls a shadow pandemic. In impoverished families, men are frustrated about how they will weather the tide of poverty. Men are frustrated sitting at home and are taking out that frustration on women.
The lockdown has definitely led to a spike in the number of instances of gender-based violence and child abuse the world over. There are marked rises in countries like Australia (over 300%) and France, which has reacted by making distress calls actionable and by providing a hotel as a shelter for women rescued from such violence. As it is in the non-lockdown world, the people’s targets vary. When seen through an intersectional lens, one can identify how multiple factors like caste, class, ability/disability, age, sexual orientation, gender expression work to increase vulnerability.
The numbers in India also speak for itself, although underreported. The Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days, an indication that the lockdown has turned into extended captivity not just for many women but also for children trapped with their abusers at home. Of the 3.07 lakh calls received by the ‘CHILDLINE 1098’ helpline for children in distress across the country between March 20-31, covering the first week of the lockdown, 30% were about protection against abuse and violence on children. National Commission of Women chairperson Rekha Sharma said domestic violence complaints have been increasing by the day since the nationwide lockdown was imposed with 69 complaints received just through email.
The number of calls reporting abuses is much lesser than the unreported ones. This underreporting is because of the unprecedented crisis and lockdown, fear of torture by in-laws if the husband is taken away by police and inability to go back to their parents or resorting to some NGO for help. The isolation has further shattered support networks, making it even more difficult for the victims to seek aid or escape. To add to it, there is a gender gap when it comes to technology and awareness.
In addition to physical violence, which is not present in every abusive relationship, common tools of abuse include isolation from friends, family and employment; constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behaviour; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities. Or, maybe otherwise enforcing patriarchy and no sharing of work burden. Online child sexual abuse is rising as countries close schools and impose various levels of lockdown to contain the new coronavirus pandemic.
The Supreme Court has recently regarded that since COVID-19 is intensifying in India, it is essential that urgent measures are taken on priority basis to prevent the spread of the virus to Child Care Institutions and has directed positive steps, which has to be taken by child welfare committees, Juvenile Justice Boards and Children Courts, Government amongst others. The court has acknowledged that violence, including sexual violence, may be exacerbated in the context of anxiety and stress produced by lockdown and fear of the disease. Further orders are required to be passed to ensure that the children otherwise who are being subjected to domestic and sexual violence are protected from the wrath of the frustration that possibly comes with the lockdown.
Print and electronic media can play a significant role here. TV can give announcements to raise awareness and sensitise people about the harmful effects of family abuse, as well as share information on how to contact the police and one-stop crisis centres via hotlines. The police force should be more responsive at the district and sub-district levels, as well as in the metropolitan areas. Government agencies must be careful not to dismiss complaints of abuse. Television channels can put information on scrolls. Rights-based organisations can raise awareness. These announcements should be in a language understandable to the general people. Telecommunication companies can send informative bulk SMS to its users. Religious leaders and even social media influencers can use digital platforms to talk about domestic violence. Social media posts mocking women or patronising angry men in isolation should be reported immediately. Therapists should give free of cost consultations on the cycle of domestic violence followed by identifying, challenging, and replacing self-blame with an understanding that the perpetrator is responsible for the assault. This is then followed by a written safety plan that details what actions will be taken to establish and maintain physical and emotional safety. All child lines and domestic violence should be activated and responded urgently. The Civil Society can bolster this effort. Women can support other women, and there is absolutely no need to internalise.
Addressing this issue, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik urged law enforcers to take rigid action against people involved in domestic violence. Following the CM’s order, Odisha Police announced that complainants need not go to police stations for lodging FIRs during the lockdown period. The police will arrive at the complainant’s location upon receiving a call and also lodge an FIR, if required. This will ease the process of reporting and secure women. Further, the National Commission for Women (NCW) has already activated a WhatsApp number which can be used to report cases of domestic abuse. The NCW’s WhatsApp number -7217735372 – in addition to the online complaint links and emails that are operational to register complaints.
During these hard times, we are slowly reviving a part of our psyche that has been asleep for quite some time—thinking about the greater good. Let us not leave anyone behind; whether they are the victims of coronavirus or survivors of domestic or child abuse, or anyone else who may become more vulnerable during this self-quarantine period.