by Suvarna Dubey (Lawyer, New Delhi)
“If we are to fight discrimination and injustice against women we must start from the home for if a woman cannot be safe in her own house then she cannot be expected to feel safe anywhere.” - Aysha Taryam
With the incipience of 2020, we began facing a global crisis called the Covid-19 pandemic. As of 6 September 2020, the pandemic has affected almost 2.7 crore people worldwide and claimed 8.8 lakh lives. In order to contain the spread of this virus, several governments around the world imposed lockdowns, shut down business activities, and confined families within the vicinity of their houses. However, as the virus proliferated, women living in abusive households found themselves trapped with their partners which led to a frightening surge in the number of domestic violence instances. The pandemic affected the low-income strata of the society in the worst manner leaving affected persons frustrated with no continuous source of income and consequently food, exacerbating the occurrences of abuse.
A sharp rise in domestic violence complaints
Domestic violence refers to a pattern of abusive behavior which may include physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, or economic abuse in a relationship, inflicted by one partner on the other. According to a report of the World Health Organization, about 30% of the women globally have faced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their intimate partners.
Within the first 3 months from the outbreak of coronavirus, countries like France, Argentina, Cyprus, Singapore, USA, UK, Canada, Spain and Germany saw a 25% to 35% increase in the number of reported cases of domestic violence.[i] Between March and May 2020, India recorded the maximum number of domestic violence complaints filed in the past 10 years, with most victims residing in pandemic affected red zones. What makes this even more alarming is that 86% of victims in India do not seek any help which likely means that the actual number is much higher than what we fathom. The United Nations Population Fund has in its press release dated 28 April, 2020 projected that additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence will be seen for every three months if the lockdown continues worldwide.[ii]
The global fight against domestic violence
On 7 April 2020, the European Parliament issued a statement saying, “We won’t leave Europe's women alone”, urging all European Union members to come up with ways to provide necessary help to the victims of domestic violence.[iii] Countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Norway and Germany have shown support to code-word campaigns. An example of this is Spain’s ‘Mask-19’ campaign where a woman who is being subjected to domestic violence can ask a pharmacist for a “mask-19” to signal that she needs help. These code words are different in different countries. This strategy has proven to be somewhat successful in the past six months but is still seen with apprehension by many women’s rights organizations since there have not been any major statistical win(s).
Governments around the world have been taking different initiatives to deal with the harrowing situation. The French government has initiated its plan to open pop-up counselling centers and make available living facilities to victims. Italy has launched a mobile application on which victims can ask for help without having to call or talk to anyone. The Australian government has introduced a $92 million support package for the victims of domestic violence due to the spread of COVID-19. The Malaysian government started the ‘Talian Kasih’ hotline to provide immediate help to women and children. In India, the High Court of Delhi directed the government to develop appropriate measures for the effective implementation of the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005[iv] and the Women and Child Development Department has also come through with a 24x7 helpline to provide assistance to victims.
Our present, and the way forward…
The problem of domestic violence has been even more acute this year. Despite measures, countries have not been able to control the problem satisfactorily. The number of unreported cases is much more than the reported ones. The reasons behind this include :
inability of victims to contact outside help;
reluctance of women in reaching out for help since this help would involved trouble for their partners;
concerns for their safety and/or that of their children.
It is important to run educational advertisements on television, radio, and the internet to spread awareness about protection from intimate partner abuse. The mindset of women must be changed to help them understand that abuse is not their fault and getting help is the right thing to do. Eliminating fear from their minds will empower them to look for ways to reach out. More accessible helplines, providing immediate aid, better support and trauma centers in terms of numbers and infrastructure, actional and educational information publication, and living facilities for victims are the need of the hour. It is important to make punishments for perpetrators much more stringent, which will serve as a deterrent.
The corona virus will take time to leave our midst and, therefore, ameliorating the existing schemes is essential. This world cannot exist without its women and it is about time that we make the world a safer place for them.
[iv] All India Council of Human Rights Liberties and Social Justice v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) 2973 of 2020, Delhi High Court, decided on April 24, 2020 http://southasiajournal.net/covid-19-indias-response-to-domestic-violence-needs-rethinking/#_edn24