We have noticed how COVID – 19 has exposed several vulnerabilities inherent in our society. However, home quarantine does mean that people live close to each other more than ever before. While this may have good benefits like increased time with the family, for several people, especially women and children in countries like India, the lockdown can mean a terrible fate. These are the survivors of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and those who are potential victims of such abuses. They may suffer different degrees of abuse and may be suffering irreversibly during this period.
According to devastating data uncovered by the WHO, physical or sexual violence is experienced by one in three women in this world in their lifetime. In fact, the WHO notes:
“..[O]verall, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. While there are many other forms of violence that women may be exposed to, this already represents a large proportion of the world’s women;
most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. In some regions, 38% of women have experienced intimate partner violence;..”
Take some time to think about that. Nearly 35% of women have experienced sexual or physical person at some point in their lives, nearly 30% have experienced such violence at the hands of their intimate partner, which in a society such as India, may well be the husband they are legally married to. In India, among married women, this data finds more traction as among women within the ages 15-49 who have experienced physical violence, 83% of the perpetrators are current husbands, while 7% are former husbands, a staggering number In case of unmarried women, the most common perpetrators include mothers/stepmothers (60%), fathers/stepfathers (32%) and brothers (26%)
Persons Committing Physical Violence
The COVID – 19 pandemic will confine these perpetrators in close quarters with victims or potential victims of physical and sexual violence. Being confined inside a family setup will mean less chances of reporting for fear of retribution, which will allow this opportunistic perpetrators to prevail and in some cases escape justice.
With more and more families in lockdown in India, abuse hotlines are lighting up everyday with new reports of domestic violence. While the government and its resources is caught up in fighting the pandemic, these social crimes continue to prevail, and will intensify the more the lockdown continues.
The UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka has called this violence again women which has intensified during COVID – 19 a “shadow pandemic”.24 Men being confined at home along with stress caused due to poverty, health and hunger are encouraging them to be more violent towards and take out their frustration on women, as potential people who could help are also confined indoors. Indoors, during COVID – 19, women are vulnerable and it is our duty to extend all the help that we can to them.
What is shocking is the kind and extent of spousal violence which is common in India. Among those reported, nearly 27% women have been slapped, 11% have their arm twisted or hair pulled, 9% punched or kicked, and 3-6% physically forced to perform intercourse or other sexual acts the woman did not want to do.
In addition to physical violence, which might not present in every abusive relationship, common tools of abuse also include social isolation whereby the victim is isolated and prevented from having any contact with friends, family and employment, the victim is under constant surveillance or has restrictions on access to basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitation.
Types of Spousal Violence (%)
Domestic violence and child abuse has seen a marked increase all around the world, including many developed countries. In India to, the numbers, even though they might be under-reported are shocking. The early data from the first phase of the lockdown as given by the National Commission of Women (“NCW”) suggests that the number of complaints received rose from 116 to 257 within the first and the last week of March, 2020.26 With respect to child abuse, within a span of 11 days, the Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 calls related to child abuse, most of them post the introduction of the countrywide lockdown.27 Even online sexual abuse is on the rise because of shutdown of educational institutions due to COVID – 19.
The number of calls reporting domestic or child abuse is much lesser than the unreported ones. This under- reporting has occurred because of the unprecedented crisis of COVID – 19 and the subsequent lockdown, fear of torture by in-laws and other family members if the husband/perpetrator is taken away by police, exacerbated by the inability to go back to their parents home or reaching out to some non-governmental or governmental support for help. Support networks are unable to function to their fullest because of the extremes of the lockdown, and victims often have no recourse.
Recognising the need to protect children from possible child abuse during the COVID – 19 pandemic, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has recently suo moto taken up the urgent need to prevent spread of the virus to child care institutions, children in need of care and protection, children in contact with the law in Observation Homes, and children in foster and kinship care.28 The court has directed several measures to be taken by the Children Courts, Juvenile Justice Board and the Government of India to ensure prevention of any form of abuse or violence against children.
Understandably, the lockdown has had severe repercussions when it comes to increase in domestic violence and child abuse. However, we can do more by disseminating and spreading awareness amongst people about what is happening behind closed doors during the lockdown. We can increase services which can directly address women and child abuse, provide an extremely strong message from government and law enforcement agencies that such violence will not be tolerated and strict action will be taken against perpetrators, while providing strong emotional support for those who have already fallen prey to any such violence or abuse.
Various agencies can be involved in spreading the message and means to contact the police or social workers, including print, television and social media, religious, spiritual and community leaders can share in their sermons, women supporting other women, and bringing acts of violence to the notice of authorities, even if their is a possibility of familial backlash or social stigma.
In Odisha, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik Ji has encourage law enforcement not to force victims to have to come out to police station to file First Information Reports (FIRs), but instead themselves go to the complainant and lodge an FIR if required.30 He further urged the police force to take rigid action against any perpetrator of domestic violence, and to identify serial offenders.31 The NCW has also provided a WhatsApp number in which cases of domestic abuse can be reported, in addition to its website and other methods of submitting complaints.32
These times are tough, but in many ways tougher for a lot of people we do not see on the surface. Migrants, migrant workers, child labourers, victims of domestic or sexual violence or child abuse are all facing really tough times dues to COVID – 19 and the lockdown. While the government and the health workers fight against the virus, these people have been really neglected. As citizens of this great country, we need to step up to show kindness to our many brothers and sisters who have had to suffer so much to return back to their native place, but also be strong against those who try to take undue advantage of the lockdown by preying on those weaker then them, indulging in domestic violence, child abuse or encourage children into labour.
Children are the future of this country and migrant workers are the backbone of this country. Together they form a crucial component of our great country. Coordinated efforts, including specific measures to alleviate the problems of migrant workers and special steps to improve access to education for children will go a long way in rebuilding in the aftermath of COVID – 19.
The pandemic has exposed chinks in India’s education system as well as its workforce and social policies. It is our duty to correct that and make the future better, at least in memory of those who have given their lives and suffered greatly because of our failure to take timely action.
With our cumulative strength, we can overcome any social evil. We have shown it in the past by eliminating various forms of societal abuses against women.
Philosophers and later courts have stood firm against these heinous acts against society. It is our duty to stand up against them too. Bring the offenders out to justice, disseminate awareness and sensitise people in any way we can, and show kindness and support wherever we are able to.