New Delhi: The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has placed women from abusive households in a tough situation. They suddenly find themselves locked in with those who abuse them, verbally, physically, or emotionally, and going out means risking infection.
In several countries, including the UK, Spain, and China, domestic abuse helplines have witnessed an increase in the number of calls since social distancing measures enforced by their governments kicked in.
In India, however, there’s a different trend at play. While the number of calls to domestic abuse helplines seems to have registered a decline, women’s rights activists and counsellors told ThePrint that victims were increasingly employing other means such as emails, even Twitter direct messages, to lodge complaints or seek guidance without tipping off their abusers.
Drop in number of calls
Of the four national helplines approached by ThePrint, three reported a stark drop in the number of calls from women in distress since the nationwide lockdown kicked in.
The Delhi-based Jagori and Shakti Shalini and Pune-based AKS Foundation — all NGOs running helplines that counsel women who face domestic abuse — said they were receiving fewer calls and emphasised that this was a cause for concern.
AKS Foundation said the volume of calls had fallen by 65 per cent — from an average of 15-20 calls per week, to 7 since 25 March.
Shakti Shalini used to receive an average of five calls a day, but the number is now down to 1-2. Jagori, among the oldest NGOs running a distress helpline for women facing domestic violence, was reluctant to share its weekly and daily data but told ThePrint that they saw a “more than 50 per cent drop” in the number of calls.
The only helpline that did not see a statistical decrease in calls was the central police women’s helpline (1091).
“From an average of 800-900 calls per day, we have now been getting around 1,100 to 1,200 calls from all over the country. But most of these are from people asking for food or rations, and few are from women in distress,” a senior police officer said, adding that abuse-related calls had dropped.
AKS Foundation director Barkha Bajaj said a big reason behind the drop in calls “at this point in time is because women are not getting the opportunity to call”.
“Usually, we receive calls when abusers are away from home, but now women are trapped in their homes with their abusers all day, without any privacy,” she added. “It doesn’t at all mean abuse has stopped. This could, in fact, lead to a rise in abuse.”
Jagori director Jaya Velankar said the callers who approached them fell into two categories — new callers and recurring clients. “The drop is even steeper among new callers,” she added.
“Compared to the West and other countries, women in India live in joint families where access to privacy is further limited by cramped living spaces,” she said. “That leaves very little wiggle room for women to call us. They often don’t want to be seen or heard by anyone when making a complaint.”
Another explanation counsellors offer is that, until the pandemic lasts, women are prioritising survival, their own and their families’, over personal safety.
Women reach out to helplines for a variety of reasons: To air their grievances, seek legal recourse, demand intervention, and to know their rights, among others. While the lockdown may be holding women back from approaching these helplines, they are finding other ways to express distress.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) said they had been receiving a volley of emails and Twitter direct messages since 25 March — both unconventional channels of complaint in the usual course.
“We have received almost 70 complaints since 24 March, all through email and Twitter. This is higher than the usual number of complaints we get,” NCW chair Rekha Sharma said.
“What is important to note is that, on a normal basis, complaints via post account for more than 65 per cent of the total complaints. Therefore, there are a lot more cases of domestic abuse that are not being reported.”
Women are taking to “less visible” forms of complaining to avoid being found out by family members, Dr Bharti Sharma, a counsellor with Shakti Shalini and former chairperson of a Child Welfare Committee in Delhi, said.
“Instead of calling and walking into offices and police stations, women are texting and emailing so they can maintain their composure in front of family members who might be monitoring them closely,” she said.
Like her central counterpart, Punjab State Women Commission chief Manisha Gulati also noted a rise in the number of complaints over the past week, all through email.
While she normally receives 3-4 complaints on a weekly basis — most through the post — Gulati claimed she had received 14 emails from women in distress since 25 March.
“I am fairly certain that the number of cases of domestic violence would be increasing during this period and that women are being harassed more. However, the avenues for them to register their complaints are also fewer,” Gulati said.
Women were likely not making calls, she added, because of fear or because their phones might have been taken away by an abuser.
The complaints, Sharma and Gulati said, didn’t detail physical violence alone — there was much emotional abuse too.
“One woman from Mohali said in her complaint that her husband was constantly telling her that she was like coronavirus in his life, and kept threatening that he would kick her out of the house,” Sharma added.
Disrupted by disasters
Several studies from across the globe have shown that “intimate partner violence” and domestic abuse go up in the aftermath of a calamity. The World Health Organization (WHO) says disasters “disrupt the physical and social environments” that would normally keep the violence contained — such as shelter, a stable routine, and violence prevention systems.
“Now, everyone has holidays except the women of the house. And now that everybody is in the house and locked up, it gives men more avenues to release their frustration,” said Sharma.
Unlike France, which has announced that it will put up survivors of domestic abuse in hotels free of cost during the quarantine period, India has not yet come up with any special protective measures. Sharma said she was in talks with psychiatrists to launch a social media campaign that promotes ways to take care of mental health. She added that she had also called up police chiefs across states and told them to give calls from women and their complaints top priority.
But those running helplines and NGOs for women say this is not enough.
“The government ought to consider coming up with a standard operating procedure that helps women who face violence, so they have some recourse and access to sexual health services. In situations like this, police are overworked,” said Velankar.
“Rescuing and helping women in distress must be considered an essential service — not just when pandemics break out, but when riots and natural disasters occur too,” she added. “NGOs, clinics, and women’s centres must have a role to play.”
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