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The world is currently busy dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, a public health emergency which has put millions of people at risk of infection; almost 20 lakh people have contracted the infection globally and well over a lakh have died. The situation has put all affected nations - including India - on their toes with governments, scientists, healthcare workers and essential service providers working non-stop to arrest the spread of this highly contagious viral infection.

One of the most effective ways of containing this disease is to enforce a strictly regulated lockdown - a step which India has taken since 25 March 2020, and as of 14 April 2020, the lockdown has been extended to 3 May. While it’s expected that this step will help the Indian healthcare system deal with and contain the spread of COVID-19, there are some associated fallouts which need attention as well.

Domestic abuse and violence is one such grave issue which needs to be constantly monitored in all communities because it appears that, globally, abuse survivors are now locked in with their abusers in the house and unable to move out or reach out for help due to the lockdowns in place.

A rise in such domestic abuse and violence cases has been noted in countries like China, France and the UK, and this is a problem that a rising number of people in India are also facing. Within the first week of the Indian lockdown, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 257 complaint calls regarding offences against women from different parts of the country. Of these, 69 were related to domestic violence.

Dealing with this rise in domestic abuse and violence can be quite difficult, since not only are the police force and healthcare workers engaged in dealing with COVID-19 and enforcing the necessary lockdown, but also the fact that stepping away or escaping abusive homes is not an option for most survivors at this point. Since domestic abuse can have a long-term effect on the wellbeing of survivors, and domestic violence can cause deaths (both due to suicide, beatings and trauma), this issue is definitely one that authorities must take seriously with immediate effect.

Steps are being taken currently on different fronts to ensure the safety of those at risk of domestic abuse and violence. The NCW has launched a WhatsApp number - 7217735372 - in addition to already operational online complaint links to help women facing domestic violence only. Various non-governmental organisations, counsellors, therapists, etc are also working towards providing sufficient outreach to survivors and guiding them through the pandemic and the lockdown period.  

We talked to counsellors from four different non-governmental organizations across the country: Shakti Shalini (Delhi), Nazariya (Delhi), Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT, Mumbai) and the Nari Samta Munch (Pune). Here are all the actionable details the specialists and healthcare workers provided us with.

  1. Why is domestic abuse on the rise during the COVID-19 lockdown?
  2. Types of abuse that are being observed during the lockdown
  3. Who is at risk of domestic abuse during the lockdown?
  4. Women
  5. LGBTQ community
  6. Aged or elderly parents
  7. Children
  8. Men
  9. What can you do to reduce the risk of domestic abuse during the lockdown?
  10. Helpline numbers and resources for domestic abuse and violence

According to reports, NCW chief Rekha Sharma has revealed that domestic abuse and violence cases in India are high in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab - and these are just the cases that were reported. 

There’s a high likelihood of domestic abuse and violence cases never being reported due to personal fear, fear of escalated violence, stigma, loss of social status, etc. These fears are, of course, exacerbated during a public health emergency like COVID-19 and the lockdown period due to the assumption that the police and judiciary system is busy elsewhere and will not take immediate action against crimes. 

Being confined within homes for a long period of time can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, stress, panic attacks and cabin fever anyway, but if your relationship is already abusive, things can quickly escalate and become worse. Add to this fears of personal wellbeing, concerns about the family’s health, job loss, salary cuts, etc and the risk of domestic abuse and violence rising during the lockdown are quite high as well. 

Staying at home and the absence of household help for chores during the lockdown can also make men (and families) who prescribe stereotypical gender roles feel inadequate, and this can also lead to abuse and violence - which are typically tools used to reassert masculinity and power. 

The same situation poses a challenge to all the institutions and organisations which deal with domestic abuse and violence on a daily basis. A lockdown and a pandemic of this magnitude requires them to adapt quickly and create structures which can provide some relief to survivors. It’s equally the duty of all authorities to ensure that the lockdown does not provide a free rein to those who commit crimes of any sort, including domestic abuse and violence.

To deal with the rise in domestic abuse and violence, you should first understand that this form of abuse is not just physical. Like all types of abuse, domestic abuse too manifests in different forms. Our conversations with the counsellors who operate from different parts of the country revealed that the following types of domestic abuse are on the rise in India currently.

  • Physical abuse: Physical abuse is any type of physically aggressive behaviour, direct or indirect physically harmful behaviour, withholding access to physical needs (like food, sleep, healthcare access, etc) and the threat of physical abuse. 
  • Emotional abuse: Any behaviour which exploits the vulnerability, insecurity, character or characteristics of a person is known as emotional abuse. Continuous degradation, intimidation, manipulation, brainwashing or control of a person that can cause detriments to that individual  fall under this category of abuse.
  • Verbal abuse: The use of abusive language to intimidate, denigrate, embarrass or threaten an individual is known as verbal abuse. While not as directly harmful as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, verbal abuse can have both a long- and short-term effect on a victim. 
  • Sexual abuse: Forcing sex on another person or using sex in an exploitative way is known as sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can be both verbal and physical. It’s very important to remember that consent - or its lack - plays a huge role in sexual abuse. Equally important is the fact that consent given for a sexual activity before does not automatically suggest a free-forever pass or current consent for the same activity.

Traditionally, domestic abuse is assumed to refer to marital discord and issues related to heterosexual married couples. However, since society and families are much more nuanced than this traditional understanding, domestic abuse can happen in multiple scenarios and varieties within the household. The following are some groups of people who are more at risk of facing domestic abuse during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Women, especially married women, can be seen as more vulnerable. This is more possible in societies where women are supposed to adhere to gendered norms of patriarchy, where they do not get equal pay, or are made to believe that they are inferior to others. Violence against women is a huge concern in India, where domestic abuse can include physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse.

Working women are also not exempt, as Sangeeta Rege, Counsellor at CEHAT points out: “The expectation, of course, from women is that if you’re home - even if you work or don’t - we don’t care but you have to contribute towards the household chores that are happening.”

Communities which are already marginalised are having to deal with more frequent domestic abuse during the COVID-19 lockdown. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer population already faces stigma and abuse, especially if they live at home when their parents don’t accept their identity.

The transgender community also has an added economic burden, which has been increased during this public health emergency and the ensuing lockdown. “A lot of the people in the trans community already do not have jobs, and there are many who work for daily wages - especially transmen,” a peer counsellor at Nazariya revealed. “The lockdown and the following crisis might make them even more vulnerable.”

Aged or elderly parents staying at home with their middle-aged or younger children are also at risk of facing domestic abuse. “We have got cases where some mothers are reporting that the kids have grown up, they’re adults and they’re torturing us. They keep passing mean comments, and are abusing us emotionally and verbally,” says Monica, a co-coordinator and counsellor at Shakti Shalini’s Crisis Intervention and Counselling Centre.

Given that elderly people are at an increased risk of COVID-19 and need to be cared for during this period, an abusive home environment can be quite detrimental to their health.

Children who live in abusive homes are at an increased risk of being abused themselves. This abuse, if not physical or sexual, can be verbal and emotional too. Children are also unable to access helplines or express their feelings properly at an early age, so domestic abuse can have a long-term effect on a child’s development.

While it’s very important to focus on getting help to women facing domestic abuse, their children should not be neglected and they too should be given support during this time.

You might not believe this, especially in a country like India where, traditionally, women are considered to be inferior members of a household when compared to men, and face the bulk of abuse. But the fact is that men too can be at risk of domestic abuse and violence in certain parts or segments of the country. Counsellors at Shakti Shalini, Delhi, for example have a few such cases on hand as well. While domestic abuse against men might be a very small percentage in India, it should not be ignored.

The best thing to do when faced with domestic violence is to reach out to the police or authorities that can take the matter seriously and help with rehabilitation, therapy and other necessities. 

However, with the police also busy enforcing the lockdown at a national level, it might not seem like they have the bandwidth to provide you with timely aid. Add to this the fact that rehabilitation and movement might not be possible during the lockdown, and dealing with domestic abuse and violence might appear more difficult still.

Thankfully, support is available in all parts of the country with counsellors, therapists, crisis centres, etc still functioning via telecommunications, the internet, etc. Reaching out, though difficult, is possible - and in extreme cases, police intervention and safeguarding the survivor’s wellbeing is also being achieved. The following are some suggestions the counsellors we interviewed are giving to people facing domestic abuse and violence.

  • Assess the situation: Evaluate the situation at home and try to ascertain if it is too violent or manageable. If it’s too violent and unmanageable, there is no point delaying your asking for help as that can have serious repercussions for your physical wellbeing. If it seems manageable, then you can try the following suggestions.
  • Avoid triggers: If certain situations increase the chances of abuse and violence, it’s best to avoid these triggers as much as possible. Your focus should be on diffusing situations instead of going for any type of confrontation at this point. This can reduce the likelihood of triggers coming up.
  • Maintain physical distance: Try to avoid being in the same room or within physical reach of the perpetrator of abuse. If a separate room is not available, maintain a distance throughout the day by engaging yourself in activities away from the perpetrator.
  • Engage in non-physical activities: Whenever you share the same space as the perpetrator, engage in activities that draw your attention away from each other. Watching television together, for example, can be done without having to engage physically with each other. 
  • Reach out: Reach out to counsellors, peers and therapists in any case and keep them in the loop about your situation as well as how it’s developing. This will boost your confidence and ensure that you have a safety net as well as people to fall back on in an emergency.
  • Ask for help: If you see the situation at home devolving towards violence, do not delay at all. Call a helpline immediately and enlist the help of friends, family, professionals, etc as soon as possible. Yes, there’s a lockdown in place, but that does not mean that you have to suffer in silence.

The following are some helpline numbers you can call if you are facing domestic abuse or violence yourself, or know somebody who is in need of help:

National Commission for Women (NCW): 7217735372

Shakti Shalini, Delhi: 011-24373737

Nazariya, Delhi: 9818151707

Jagori, Delhi: 26692700

Nari Samta Munch, Pune: 9987720696

Swayam, Kolkata: 9830747030; 9830204393

Aali, Lucknow: 9415343437

Aali, Jharkhand: 9693853019

Aakansha Seva Sadan, Muzaffarpur: 9905443544

CEHAT, Mumbai: 9029073154

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References

  1. National Commission for Women [Internet] Government of India. New Delhi. India; Complaint & Investigation Cell
  2. Kaur, Ravneet and Garg, Suneela. Addressing Domestic Violence Against Women: An Unfinished Agenda. Indian J Community Med. 2008 Apr; 33(2): 73–76. PMID: 19967027
  3. Shakti Shalini [Internet] New Delhi. India; Shakti Shalini
  4. Kalokhe, Amita. et al. Domestic violence against women in India: A systematic review of a decade of quantitative studies. Glob Public Health. 2017 Apr; 12(4): 498–513. PMID: 26886155
  5. Mahapatro, Meerambika. et al. The Risk Factor of Domestic Violence in India. Indian J Community Med. 2012 Jul-Sep; 37(3): 153–157. PMID: 23112440
  6. Sharma, Indira. Violence against women: Where are the solutions?. Indian J Psychiatry. 2015 Apr-Jun; 57(2): 131–139. PMID: 26124518
  7. Nadda, Anuradha. et al. Study of Domestic Violence among Currently Married Females of Haryana, India. Indian J Psychol Med. 2018 Nov-Dec; 40(6): 534–539. PMID: 30533949
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