Houses, for most of us, were a safe haven during the lockdown, preventing and protecting us from the deadly coronavirus. But amongst us exist a section of society that became more vulnerable.
Home confinement has shown a radical upsurge in cases of domestic violence across the globe, with a 25% rise in reported cases within the first week of the lockdown in Britain, and a twofold surge in cases reported in India.
A United Kingdom based women’s organization has defined domestic abuse as ‘an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer. It is very common. In the vast majority of cases it is experienced by women and is perpetrated by men.’
Due to its severe impact on the victim’s mental and/or physical health, experts also define domestic abuse as ‘intimate-terrorism’. In the current scenario, this fight against intimate terrorism has taken the form of a war, where it is the need of the hour for every global citizen and organization to understand and retaliate against it systematically.
The fundamental question – Why?
The answer lies in the deeply ingrained societal norms of gender roles, where some males find it perfectly normal and convenient to take out their distress verbally or physically on women and children in the family.
The apparent perception is that because the male is the bread winner of the family, or simply by the virtue of being masculine, he has ownership and entitlement over other members of the family.
This is not the first time, as Marianne Hester, a Bristol University sociologist studying abusive relationships observes, that domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as Christmas and summer vacations.
In today’s time, people are battling different mental health issues caused by job and financial insecurity or simply by the anxiety of being ‘trapped’ for such a long and indefinite duration. This has led to the ‘stronger’ taking his frustration out on the ‘weaker’ more, and more frequently. As on the victim’s part, the situation is especially difficult because not only are they confined with their assaulters for a prolonged duration, but also have little access to help from outside.
Police and other agencies around the world are not prioritizing this issue enough and shelter homes are reluctant to bring in more people in order to maintain social distancing. NGO’s and legal help too is limited due to lack of funds and a lockdown imposed.
In order to explain this better, Judith Lewis Herman, a renowned trauma expert at Harvard University Medical School, says that his findings have proven that the coercive methods domestic abusers use to control their partners and children ‘bears an uncanny resemblance’ to kidnappers who control hostages and the repressive regimes that try to break the will of political prisoners.
Instances from around the world
Excerpts of complaints as reported from around the world are extremely disturbing.
“I’m calling you from the ration shop as I’m scared to talk from home. My husband lost his factory job a month ago and is always in the house. He beats me in front of the kids, doesn’t help around [the house] and flings the liquor bottle at me if I try to reason things with him. I’m trapped in my own house. Please help!” – New Delhi, India
“During the epidemic, we were unable to go outside, and our conflicts just grew bigger and bigger and more and more frequent.” – Anhui province, China
“My dad has been name-calling and yelling at my little sister all evening...It's much worse now that we're so much together” - Atria, Netherlands
How governments are dealing with the issue
United Nations has shown pro-active interest in trying to come up with solutions. Secretary General Mr. Antonio Guterres in his speech on 6th April 2020, called on governments around the world to provide emergency measures to the victims in form of shelters, helpline numbers, online consultation and mental health support network.
Following these guidelines, many countries like France, Australia, Italy and others have allocated funds to provide and rescue victims of domestic abuse. For instance, Canada has allocated $50 million to support and run shelter homes.
Italy, in its approach to combat the fall in reporting, has launched an app where victims can connect with suitable governmental authorities through emails, SMS’s and text, and the country is also working towards making vacant hotel rooms available as make-shift shelters to accommodate more people.
Australia on the other hand has formulated a ‘COVID-19 Family and Domestic Violence Task Force’ in collaboration with the Department of Communities and its Police force in order to reach out to a greater number of victims.
What can India do?
In my limited knowledge, Indian government may implement a few short-term models to immediately address domestic abuse during the lockdown/pandemic.
Firstly, declare shelter services an essential, as also suggested by the United Nations. To fulfil the requirement at hand, we can also follow the Italian model of converting hotels into temporary shelters.
Secondly, strengthen and encourage the victim protection network through robust digital platforms and phone calls. Available hotline and helpline numbers can be shared in the community effectively through digital and physical promotions.
Thirdly, partner with non-governmental organizations (including self-help groups), to fulfil the need of manpower. Community outreach is the need of the hour.
Fourthly, bring back successful campaigns like Bell Bajao Andolan to increase community participation in the cause and surveillance on abusers.
In the long term, ‘gender based violence’ and the needs of the ‘dependent’ and ‘abused’ must be included in disaster preparedness and disaster recovery plans. Effort towards sensitising the community, the police forces and helping remove the stigma attached to domestic abuse would go a long way.
The need of the hour is indeed to fight this ‘shadow pandemic’, as described by UN Women, but we must not forego the long term vision of addressing the cause of the issue, which lies at the education level. Schools have an important role to play in it. The road is long but the journey must begin now.