Domestic violence during Covid-19 lockdown emerges as serious concern
In the second week of April, the Delhi Police recorded a “total event count” of 2,446 that pertained to the “event type: women”. Put simply, nearly 2,500 women in Delhi called emergency helpline numbers which triggers the Emergency Response Support System of the state police. Of these calls over 600 were classified as “women abuse”, 23 calls reported rape, while a majority — 1612 — pertained to domestic violence. One of these calls was about a 28-year-old woman from west Delhi’s Uttam Nagar.
The woman’s brother, based in Nepal, first got in touch with a New Delhi-based government licenced shelter home for women and transwomen survivors of abuse and violence. Shakti Shalini, based in Jangpura, rang the police helpline and a policeman was sent to investigate the matter. The 28-year-old mother of two toddlers had allegedly undergone sustained physical abuse by her husband and his family. Initially, the police sought to mediate between the two, and asked the woman to stay home during the lockdown. But the woman said the abuse had worsened after the husband came to know that a police complaint had been filed. On April 14, the police took her for a medical check up, recorded her bruises and transported her and her two children to Shakti Shalini’s shelter home.
“I was physically, mentally tortured for four years. Two days before [my brother called the shelter], my husband beat me up to an inch of my life. I begged him to spare me. He told me to get out of the house,” the survivor told HT.
Dolly Singh, the coordinator and counsellor at Shakti Shalini said the shelter home has received 25 calls since the beginning of the lockdown. In some of these cases, the police mediated between the women and their abusers, and asked them to stay put till the lockdown was over.
A Hindustan Times analysis of cases recorded across the country reveals two important aspects of the issue. One, some states have reported a decline in the number of domestic violence complaints, others have reported a spike in the calls being received by helplines. This indicates that the incidence of domestic violence during the lockdown depends upon the ability of victims to make complaints while they share domestic spaces with perpetrators. In some states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, the number of complaints received by state-run helplines has decreased. In Ghaziabad, which forms part of the National Capital Region, instances of domestic violence during the first phase of lockdown saw a decline of about 50% as compared to the pre-lockdown period in March, according to the data compiled by 18 police stations in urban and rural areas of the city. “There used to be around 400 complaints related to Domestic Violence every day from all parts of the state till last month and now, the number has come down to around 150-200,” Inspector General of Police (Women Safety) Telangana, Swati Lakra said.
However, in some other states the number of calls on domestic violence have, in fact, increased. The Punjab State Commission for Women (PSCW) has received at least 30 complaints everyday related to domestic violence since March 22. According to Manisha Gulati, chairperson of PSCW, prior to the lockdown, only a third of the calls they received pertained to domestic violence incidents. Even private helplines, such as that maintained by Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ iCall, has seen a spike in calls. “We are getting phone calls from Ghaziabad, Noida, Mumbai, Hyderabad and many other cities Everyday there are at least three calls,” coordinator Ruchi Sinha said.
The second aspect to this issue is that while there are several helplines and shelter homes available for women to call or live in — both state-run, and those maintained by non governmental organisations — the help that they can provide has been curtailed due to the lockdown. Women cannot travel to police stations, and social workers cannot reach them or arrange for their travel; the police are overburdened with Covid-19 duties, and visiting homes to investigate domestic disputes is often not considered a priority. What’s more, domestic violence cases are filed in lower courts as these are civil disputes and at present, courts are only open for emergency hearings, such as bail pleas.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) has received 250 domestic violence complaints between March 25 and April 22. “These were the numbers that could reach us. I am afraid the actual numbers would be higher. We’re trying to follow up on more cases. State bodies have also been asked to stay more alert,” said chairperson Rekha Sharma. Across India, only the most dire cases seem to be getting addressed.
Last week, Kerala State Women Commission member Shahid Kamal got a call from Chennai pleading for help. The caller told her that his sister, a resident of Idukki district in Kerala, and her daughter were hiding in a forest after the woman’s husband ejected them from their home. The caller said that the jungle had several wild animals. Kamal immediately alerted the Idukki police, and the matter was investigated. The husband was taken into custody. “In some cases a little counselling and advice will do. But cases like this need serious intervention. It is fact during lockdown, domestic violence cases have increased. But if you ask me, data will be [lesser],” she said.
Another counsellor said that parole granted to prisoners and under-trials — done in order to ease the pressure on overcrowded jails during the Covid-19 epidemic that requires strict social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus — has meant that several perpetrators of violence have returned home. In Kottayam, a family had approached the prisons department against the release of one of their male members from the jail on this account. The prisoner was released, but warned not to stay with his family.
In Malda district of West Bengal last week, 26-year-old Sona Mondol was allegedly strangled by her husband of five years. In another incident in the district, another woman was allegedly killed by her husband for protesting against his extra-marital affair. Both men have been booked. “There is hardly anything we can do at this moment. We have helped the victims to connect with the local police station, lawyers and local NGOs,” said Debaprasad Roychoudhury, an official of Association of Protection of Democratic Rights, a NGO.
Rituparna Borah, co-founder Delhi-based Queer Nazariya, a resource group for lesbian, bisexual women and transmen, said that the number of distress calls that they have received has increased, but unlike before where they could offer assistance in person — whether counselling or arranging for the queer person to leave their home if they needed to — the only help that they can offer at present is counselling over the telephone.
The courts have taken cognisance of this issue. On April 18, the Jammu & Kashmir high court passed an order taking suo moto cognizance of domestic violence cases during the lockdown, and offered a slew of directions including creating a special fund and designating informal safe spaces for women like grocery stores and pharmacies, where they could report domestic violence/abuse without alerting the perpetrators. The Karnataka high court too asked the state government about the helplines, and action taken on domestic violence complaints. The state responded to the court on April 25 stating that helplines, counsellors, shelter homes and protection officers were working “round the clock” to help victims of violence.
The Delhi high court recently directed the state and Centre to take measures to protect women from domestic violence, following a petition filed by an NGO. The Centre, Delhi government and the national and state commissions of women submitted status reports on the action taken against domestic violence, including spreading awareness about helpline numbers, shelter or one-stop homes as well as appointment of protection officers, which the court reviewed on April 25.
The Delhi government told the court that on April 12, it put in place a protocol to tackle cases of domestic violence during the lockdown: once a survivor reaches out to the helpline (181), the telecaller will take down her complaint and then forward her case to a counsellor who is required to establish a phone communication with her on account of the lockdown. The counsellor is empowered to conduct sessions with the woman and her spouse or family if required. However, in case the woman is a victim of sexual or physical assault, the telecaller is required to inform the police about the case, and assist in filing a First Information Report. The counsellor is further required to inform the protection officer — Delhi has 17 — to allow them to file an incidence report.
However, according to advocates Mithu Jain and her colleagues who filed the petition on behalf of All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Justice on April 15, the responses of both state and Centre offered no information in their respective status reports about victims who have been saved. “Is it their job to receive complaints alone? Where is the data to show that any action has been taken on these phone calls,” Jain asked.
(With inputs from Saurabh Chauhan, Aneesha Sareen, Ramesh Babu, Joydeep Thakur)