Locked in: What the COVID-19 Pandemic Spells for Survivors of Domestic Violence

The authors reflect on how COVID-19 has affected the issue of domestic violence against women in Kerala, and argue that it is imperative to include domestic violence-related services as part of the gamut of “essential services” to mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic and its responses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore another crisis triggered by the lockdown—that of increasing cases of domestic violence against women locked in abusive homes and circumstances. Different parts of the world have reported a spurt in the cases of domestic violence during the period of lockdown. A large number of cases have been reported in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, and several other western nations (Shivakumar 2020). While domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in China, in Brazil, it is estimated to have increased by 40%–50% (Harrison et al 2020). 

Worse still, most women face difficulties in reporting violence, due to being trapped in the home with their abusers. It is highly likely, therefore, that the numbers are even higher than reported, and one will only know the real scenario after the lockdown. Countries such as Italy, Germany, Brazil, and Greece have started helplines for women to call, but have received more email and text messages rather than calls. Under circumstances where women cannot leave the house or experience privacy, it is essential that all communication channels remain open. In a dramatic instance, during previous fieldwork with women subjected to violence, one of the participants told the first author that when she was going through abuse, she had to escape into the toilet to make a distress call to the police. Others often ran away from their homes when the violence became unbearable; sometimes, neighbours protected them. In the current scenario, however, no neighbour can see a woman’s distress, and no one else can help. Women and children suffer silently inside their houses.
 
Given the added tensions brought on by pandemic-related fear and stress, women often find themselves on the receiving end of violence. According to an article in The Guardian, in Hubei province in China, 90% of the causes of domestic violence that occurred during the lockdown period in 2020 were described by officials as being related to COVID-19 (Harrison et al 2020). The situation in India is not different. In India, many families are frustrated due to poverty, and frustrated men move against women, said Anuradha Kapoor, who is the director of Swayam, a Kolkata-based non-profit that works on sexual and domestic violence (Kumar 2020). According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 30% of women in the age group of 15–49 in India face domestic violence at least once in their lives (Asianet News 2020). Given that in 90% of the cases, the perpetrators are known to the survivors (News18 2020), it is reasonable to assume that women in India would suffer more during the lockdown period. During the first week of the lockdown period, the National Commission for Women received 58 domestic violence complaints. Since January, they have received 861 domestic violence cases already (Bose 2020). Clearly, the lockdown has brought on a surge in reporting of domestic violence cases.
 
The Situation in Kerala

Kerala is one of the states in India that has been able to successfully flatten the curve with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. While other states in India, as well as other countries in the world, have been trying to learn from Kerala’s success in managing the pandemic (Faleiro 2020; Kurian 2020), the state continues to experience a crisis of violence against women. In Kerala, while the rates of all other crimes have gone down during the lockdown period, crimes against women have continued to be reported, including domestic violence cases (Sentinel 2020). 

During the first week of the lockdown, liquor shops were shut in Kerala, leading to another crisis parallel to the pandemic crisis. During the period, from 23 March to 31 March 2020, nine men committed suicide due to the unavailability of liquor. This extreme situation led the government to take a decision to permit people to avail restricted quantities of alcohol by obtaining a doctor’s prescription (Varma 2020). The combined frustration arising from the lockdown situation as well as the impact of alcohol withdrawal symptoms would be expected to result in increased violence against women.

Another effect of the lockdown is that those accredited social health activists (ASHAs) who used to make home visits in domestic violence-related cases are now unable to do so as they are occupied with coronavirus-related healthcare duties, which have been prioritised. This raises the question as to whether it is permissible to prioritise the COVID-19 situation at the expense of other important health and social issues. Already there are concerns that vital public health services, such as immunisations, maternal health services, and treatment for chronic illness, are being severely disrupted;  in this context, “unessential” services related to domestic violence are bound to suffer even more (Sen 2020). 

Clearly, this drives home the key point that effective responses to the COVID-19 situation also need to consider the social costs of the measures taken to contain the virus in order to ensure that the lockdown (and other measures) do not result in even more distress than the pandemic. We are currently witnessing a clear illustration of a point that public health practitioners and researchers have long been making: that “community health” and “social medicine” are primarily about the “community” and the “social.” A lockdown as extreme and stringent as that implemented in India, then, needs to consider its potential impact on other gender-related dimensions, domestic violence being just one of them. As Kumar et al (2020) put it, “Reaching out to people facing domestic violence and in distress needs to be classified as an ‘essential service’ by the government.”

Voices from the Field

In our recent conversation with an ASHA who had been making home visits until she recently got involved in COVID-19-related work, she said that they had not received any cases of domestic violence so far. Yet, given the lockdown situation, she added, even if women had been abused, they would find it very difficult to report it, in the presence of their husbands or in-laws (Seema [name changed], personal interaction).

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and agencies are providing services for domestic violence issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the staff are staying in the shelter home with affected women. A staff member of an NGO Sthreevedi (name changed) said that they had received 15 cases till 1 May. However, due to the lack of availability of staff because of other concerns, they are unable to provide the kind of support they would like to. The founder of Sthreevedi informed that despite receiving several phone calls, they were unable to intercede as they were completely shut down during the lockdown. In such difficult circumstances, they helped women in distress by putting them in touch with the one stop centre (OSC)[i] or with Snehitha,[ii] the latter of which is equipped with tele-counselling for the survivor.

A counsellor from Snehitha said that, on an average, they received five to six cases every day. They are working with 82 community development society (CDS) members, and have made a vigilant group (with five members). This group visits the houses from where they have received cases. The counsellor said that sometimes they have to create a legitimate fear in the male spouse to stop the violence. The counsellor added, “Three cases were severe with heavy beatings from their husband, and with visible injuries on their body, so we have shifted these people to the one-stop center’s shelter homes.” An OSC counsellor said that financial crises and alcohol overuse lead to violence. As a step towards mitigating domestic abuse, the organisation is contacting affected women over the phone every day to enquire about their welfare and, at the same time, to induce a sense of fear in their spouses.

The district protection office (DPO) is also taking measures of utmost vigilance during this period. One DPO counsellor said that, “After the lockdown, we have received only one severe case. We have shifted her to a government shelter home. Usually, during the vacation period of April and May, we get more cases. Because during the vacation, all the family members are spending time together inside and outside of the house. We are providing tele counselling now. We have called their husbands or in-laws over the phone and given them awareness about domestic violence. I feel that compared to other states, Kerala has received fewer cases.” When we spoke to a counsellor from an OSC, she reported that they were also receiving complaints. If the situation was extreme, they shifted the survivor to a shelter home, and if police intervention was required, they arranged for the police to visit the affected person’s house. Tele-counselling and follow up is continuing.

The Kerala Women’s Commission recently reported receiving many complaints from women who are survivors of men’s violence, especially due to the lack of availability of alcohol. The women’s commission has sought to address the situation by offering telephone counselling to whoever needs help (Asianet News 2020). They have also liaised with the nearest police station of the woman’s residence. According to a news report, a member of the KWC Shahida Kamal said that she had resolved many issues through phone calls (Asianet News 2020). The National Women’s Commission and Government of Kerala have also introduced WhatsApp numbers and a toll-free number to help people report domestic-violence issues. However, it is questionable how many women can access help through phone calls, with the abuser sitting inside the house. Police patrolling is established everywhere to ensure social distancing, and this may also sound an alert in cases of noticeable violence. One police constable said that he had received a few cases in the station as well. In one case, a woman faced with domestic violence decided to leave for her natal house. She informed the police, and the pink police[iii] arranged for the conveyance. However, for many women, being able to visit a police station for help is difficult, if not impossible, during this period.

What do we make from all these observations? Senior advocate and women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover said that the lockdown can save women from viruses but not from violence (Hindu 2020). Women are not safe anywhere, neither in public, nor in private spaces. The world is in appreciation for Kerala’s healthcare system, which is efficient, well-managed, and is able to deal with COVID-19 cases well. This has resulted in the “Kerala Model of Development” and a public health system renowned throughout the country. However, women's safety and violence against women needs more attention and priority in order to create as a successful “Kerala Model of Safety” as well. The only way that this can be done in the current context is by conceptualising domestic violence-related services as part of essential services.

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