Nilakshi Srivastava, a student at the National Law Institute University in Bhopal investigates India’s domestic violence statistics, which have risen during the Covid-19 lockdown.
It is a known fact that in India women are at the lowest rung of the patriarchal, hierarchical society. Data supporting this can be found in the country’s last census which shows that its child sex ratio is highly skewed with only 908 girls per 1,000 boys. In addition, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), one in three child brides are found in India and the average literacy rate of rural women is a staggering 20 per cent.
Looking at more detailed statistics, the India Human Development Survey conducted on 41,554 Muslim households in 1,503 villages and 971 urban neighbourhoods revealed that 89 per cent of Muslim women practice veiling and the rate of enrolment in higher education was a meagre 23.6 per cent. The figures for Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes women are also not very encouraging. The indirect analysis of the Nation Crime Record Bureau suggests these specific groups suffer the most from sex-based crimes.
Along with these terrifying statistics, the menace of domestic violence is also a sad reality. The exponential rise in the numbers of worldwide domestic violence cases during the Covid-19 pandemic has been addressed by the UN secretary-general António Guterres and it is being recognised as a shadow pandemic by UN Women, the global champion for gender equality.
India is no exception. The National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body established by the 1990 National Commission for Women Act, registered 587 cases between 23 March and 16 April, up from 396 cases between 27 February and 22 March.
How has the lockdown propelled the situation?
Home is a sanctuary for most but for some the countrywide lockdown turned it into a torture chamber. Disconnection from social support and reduced intervention from neighbours and the public provided wider opportunity for abuse of women.
Complaints to NCW during lockdown were received through WhatsApp, emails and calls. This is highly problematic as there is a huge gender gap in India when it comes to access to mobile phones and the internet, with only 43 per cent of women owning a phone compared to 80 per cent of men. A recent UNICEF report found that only 29 per cent of Indian women have access to the internet.
With the perpetrator always at home, there is no safe window in which the victim can seek help therefore numerous incidents have gone unreported. Added to this is the isolation from family support networks, and restricted access to police and hospitals.
The problem of gender inequality
One factor which is a significant contributor is the gender unequal domestic labour. On an average a woman in India spends up to 353 minutes a day on household work compared to the 52 minutes spent by men. This is not the end of the story as according to a study in the past, the impact of losing jobs is many times larger for women than for men and this would be a condition post Covid-19, further increasing women’s vulnerability.
Mentality behind abuse
According to a survey by the Indian Psychiatry Society, within a week of the start of the lockdown, the number of reported cases of mental illness in India had risen by 20 per cent and the situation is going to get worse.
This American Psychological Association study suggests that the destructive effects of unemployment, lost income, and economic hardship on marital conflict, parenting quality, and child wellbeing have negative effects on mental health. One of the many consequences of Covid-19 have been job losses leading to troubled mental health.
Additionally, alcoholism is recognised as a key factor in intimate partner abuse. The shutting down of liquor shops in India led to withdrawal and the subsequent abundance of availability when they reopened worsened the situation.
The laws in India related to domestic violence
Numerous international instruments recognise violence against women as a violation of basic human rights. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (under Article 5), the World Conference on Human Rights held at Vienna commonly known as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,1993, recognising the elimination of violence against women as a human right obligation.
Most importantly, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) which was adopted when in 1992, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee in its General Recommendation No 19, asserted that violence against women is a form of discrimination, directed towards a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. India also needs to abide by these human rights instruments and ensure the same for its female population.
Public Interest Litigations (PILs) is a popular recourse in India used by activists to advance human rights and highlight issues of gross injustices. Countless PILs have been filed in high courts across the nation including in Delhi and Tamil Nadu. They aim to highlight the issue of domestic violence during lockdown and seek guidelines. One common relief sought is the appointment of more protection officers to ensure the safety of victims.
The 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act is the primary legislation recognising physical, mental, emotional, verbal, or sexual violence against women. It contains provisions for the appointment of protection officers and also shelter homes which can be essential under the Covid-19 conditions. Furthermore, the option of lodging a criminal complaint under Sec 498A of the Indian Penal Code of 1880 is always available.
Remedies to the rescue
Rather than spotlighting women as victims, they should be portrayed as agents capable of changing their own lives. NGOs and counsellors play a pivotal role in
spreading awareness and creating a social support mechanism and positive sensitisation through the media.
One innovative method is that adopted by the SHEROES App for Women developed by a female lawyer herself. It hosts chats, a helpline and regular online sessions with mental health counsellors. Another is a successful online campaign against domestic violence initiated by the Sneha NGO, which is supported and promoted by Bollywood actors.
The government must assure its people that the health, economic, mental and social aspects of the pandemic will be dealt with. Its policy framework should include the provision of temporary shelters for women and families away from abusers.
Nilakshi Srivastava is a student at the National Law Institute University in Bhopal, India, and an intern with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, an independent legal thinktank.