According to the official data of the National Commission for Women (NCW), domestic violence complaints have increased by 2.5 times since the nationwide lockdown began in India. Some of the researchers are referring to this as the next pandemic or shadow pandemic of India. In 2019, the commission received 607 cases between March to May, while in 2020, they registered 1,477 cases.
As per the data provided by an NGO named Swayam (based in Kolkata), there were 22 complaints on average per month before the lockdown, which increased to 57 complaints on average per month through emails and helplines. Beyond socio-economic factors: Pandemics like Covid-19, though affecting all sections of the population, showed an adverse impact on women—especially in developing countries like India—owing to their limited education, mobility, access to work opportunities outside the home and ownership as well as negligible control over resources such as land and finance.
Some of the reasons for physical as well as verbal abuse as reported are ‘not managing resources properly’, ‘not serving food on time’, and also ‘not being able to procure ration/relief material’. Also, physical force and abuse were common by male members of the family either because they felt stressed at being incapable of providing for their families due to loss of livelihood or because they habitually used alcohol or ganja (cannabis). According to NFHS-4 data, 71% of women whose husbands got drunk often encountered spousal violence—either physical or sexual. The situation has become worse during the lockdown.
Innovative steps: During normal situations, it is hard for the victim to leave the house. During the lockdown, this problem is doubled as the victim cannot seek help from friends or family. The lockdown has made the victims more vulnerable and exposed. All the countries are dealing with domestic violence issues in their own possible ways. In the case of Italy, an app named ‘YouPol’ was initiated by the government that allowed victims of domestic violence to seek help without talking on the phone.
The app enabled victims to send images and messages in real-time to the state police operators. Also, one could anonymously report if they didn’t want to reveal their personal information. In France, since pharmacies were allowed to stay open throughout the lockdown period, victims sought help from them. Pharmacists, in turn, would pass on the information to the police. Women used the code word ‘Mask 19’ if they felt insecure to ask for help openly. In countries like Spain, Portugal and the US, gender-based violence services were declared essential ones.
Information asymmetry: The number of violence cases against women is always a concern in India as they remain underreported. It is more difficult to reach for help and report cases in a country like India as just 46% women have access to their own mobile phones as a whole, while in rural areas, the percentage is only 37% (NFHS-4). Another major difficulty for not reporting the cases, especially in rural areas, is the lack of awareness on the part of the victim about her right to live with dignity and the process of seeking suitable help. This has got exacerbated during the lockdown.
Need for community resource persons: Globally, studies show that victims of domestic violence are using healthcare resources extensively. Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHA workers are also involved in frontline Covid prevention work. These women workers play an essential part in the health system of rural India. Sometimes, they are the first ones to come in contact with the victims of domestic violence while accessing health services.
They play an important role and even make a life-or-death difference for those vulnerable women who are not able to seek help due to the lack of access to mobile phones. Women’s mental, physical and reproductive health are negatively affected by domestic violence. Therefore, it is a requirement to bring more and more cases to light. The reduction in underreporting of cases can be initialised when there is the assurance of support. Given that the ASHA workers form a major part of the healthcare network at the village level, they can help the victims by responding quickly.
Also, when some women who reported through these workers get successful in seeking support, more women will come forward over time to report such cases and the stigma will reduce. Further, support from ASHA workers comes from different levels like health and sanitation committees of the village, auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs), anganwadi workers, supervisors from block and district level, healthcare officers, etc.
Therefore, being a community resource person, the responsibility to help domestic violence victims falls on these workers in some way. Additionally, the advantage of involving ASHA workers is that they are residents of the village and familiar with their daily affairs. When ASHA workers are trained in an effective way to identify and communicate with the victims of domestic violence, they can drive the change in society. Therefore, it is necessary that ASHA workers come forward and focus on women’s safety, sensitivity, privacy and confidentiality.
Research Fellow, Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Roorkee
Pratap C Mohanty
Professor, Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Roorkee
(Views expressed are from ongoing research and personal) (firstname.lastname@example.org)