The COVID-19 pandemic, as other public emergencies and disasters, has led to a spike in gender-based violence. The increase is partly a result of women being forced into their homes with their perpetrators. Restrictions on movement imply that networks of support can no longer be utilised, including taking shelter at maternal homes or with friends. As a result, the United Nations Population Fund predicts a 20% rise in gender-based violence cases globally in 2020.
Madhubala, coordinator at Jagori, a New Delhi-based women’s right organisation that runs four crisis centres across the city, argued that “women take on a large share of caring responsibilities as everyone starts staying at home. This is also related to domestic abuse. Violence is not just physical, it also includes mental trauma.”
Furthermore, Madhubala explained, “Our men and boys do not take any of the responsibilities at home. And income also flatlined, which created problems for women running the household. The impact of this falls on women – their nutrition will fall due to shortage of food, as whatever is available will go to children and the husband before the woman.”
The reason is that “this is due to the patriarchal nature of our society. A majority of women in India are already anaemic and malnutritioned and this will become worse through the lockdown. This is also a part of violence inflicted on women and girls,” Madhubala added.
Response mechanisms to violence have been weakened because of the closure of crisis-response services and diversion of resources to deal with the pandemic. Government authorities and non-profit organisations in India and elsewhere have been using digital tools to reach out to survivors, given the absence of physical services. While these helpline numbers existed before the pandemic, specific helplines are also being instituted by government bodies to receive complaints during lockdown. Such initiatives are very welcome in ensuring that women are able to access some form of support through the pandemic.
Response mechanisms to violence have been weakened because of the closure of crisis-response services and diversion of resources to deal with the pandemic.
Over 52 helplines are currently running in the country, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The National Commission of Women (NCW) has started using a WhatsApp number, 7217735372, to receive complaints of domestic violence through the lockdown. This adds to existing online forms, emails and communication through Facebook and Twitter.
Helpline numbers are available for round-the-clock counselling services (for less serious cases), rescue missions (for serious cases) and for the provision of shelter homes. Thousands of women have been using these services to seek help, and there are successful cases of intervention. However, these measures may not be sufficient given the barriers to reporting that have resulted in gross underreporting. Lack of access to technology and resources act as primary barriers in addition to intensified restrictions on movement.
System-level challenges with helplines
Crisis response systems were not prepared to remotely provide services to survivors to the extent demanded by the lockdowns. Amita Pitre, Lead Specialist of Gender Justice at Oxfam India, explained that their first step after the lockdown was to create a ready reference of helplines and numbers of counsellors nationally and where Oxfam India works, and undertake two rounds of verification to ensure that they were functional. This exercise was complicated by the sheer number of helplines – ranging from 7-8 in some states, to 30-35 in others. She discussed the difficulties of publicising helplines and raising awareness in the absence of a single national helpline number. The massive exercise of compilation and verification was taken up by civil society in a decentralised fashion. Awareness building for helplines was undertaken at a micro level by civil society organisations (CSOs) rather than through mass media campaigns on television, radio and print media, said Madhubala from Jagori.
Another concern was of capacity building among those responding to calls from survivors. Pitre clarified that most counsellors were trained for in-person visits, not remote counselling. With limited options for services to be provided, some counsellors were forced to ask women to visit them once the lockdown was over. She said that “only the immediate issues could be resolved – anxiety, listening to survivors’ problems, calming them down and assuring them that violence is not their fault. The more complex issues, such as informing them about their rights and where they can access resources, were more difficult.”
Awareness building for helplines was undertaken at a micro level by civil society organisations rather than through mass media campaigns on television, radio and print media.
Some organisations also leveraged digital tools to undertake assessments and plan their response to increasing cases. For instance, the team at My Choices Foundation, a non-profit based in Hyderabad working to empower survivors of domestic abuse, felt that they could communicate much better with survivors using technology. Pearl Choragudi from My Choices Foundation said, “Our work was uninterrupted during this time of lockdown because we were able to reach out to our clients due to the customised software, PeaceTracker, developed by Quantium. While we had to shut our operations abruptly due to the nationwide lockdown, the PeaceTracker gave us access to our clients,” Choragudi explained.
What this means, according to Choragudi, is that “while the lockdown resulted in a spike in cases of domestic violence, the counsellors were able to reach out to all our existing clients and support them through telephonic counselling and other necessary interventions like police, medical help, temporary custody, etc.”
They could schedule over 1,080 sessions, which was made possible with access to the database provided by PeaceTracker. Through messaging platforms like WhatsApp, they were able to get information and evidence such as pictures, videos and voice recordings, which helped them understand the situation and take appropriate steps to protect the survivors.
Who is falling through the cracks?
Grappling with the digital divide
Madhubala pointed out that “to call and text on a WhatsApp number, to have access to the internet, to recharge phones – these are luxuries. Women who have access to the internet are those who are educated, are in the organised sector and have been exposed to technology in their lifetime.”
Madhubala further added, “Most families that are low income tend to have basic phones, which are controlled by the men and boys in the house. Women tend to use those phones when their relatives are calling, etc. Most women do not have personal phones in low income families in the unorganised sector.”
As explained by the Chairperson of the NCW, even though the number of complaints have doubled since the imposition of the lockdown, most have been received over email. The most popular medium of reporting complaints under normal circumstances for the NCW is via post and physical visits, neither of which are functional throughout the lockdown.
The closure of these means of lodging complaints implies that those who cannot use phones, email or social media will most likely be entirely excluded from their purview. This could be over half of the population of women in India. As of 2018, only 45% women in India own mobile phones, as compared to 76% of men. In fact, India has one of the highest gender gaps in technology in the world. The gap is stronger in rural areas than urban, and among low income groups, but persists across all of these categories.
The closure of these means of lodging complaints implies that those who cannot use phones, email or social media will most likely be entirely excluded from their purview. This could be over half of the population of women in India.
In India, 47% of women are “phone borrowers”, that is, they use phones owned by their family or friends. Of these, 52% report borrowing the phone from their husband, who is most often the perpetrator of violence. Further, there is a significant gender gap in digital skills – women may not be able to use phones to file a complaint even if they can get their hands on one. According to a survey in 2015-2016, a little over 60% of women in India have ever made a phone call, and 15% have sent an SMS.
Across South Asia, sociocultural gender norms have a significant role to play in women’s access to phones. Women are prevented from gaining such access by authoritative figures in their lives – husbands, parents and in-laws. The GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020 found that for women, the largest barrier after affordability, literacy and relevance is “family does not approve”. No such barrier exists for men and boys.
Socioeconomic barriers to reporting
Even after women acquire access to phones, a fundamental problem that is often ignored is the context they are placed in, or the level of agency they can exercise. Research has found that restrictions to technology have a greater impact on married women who are caregivers at home, as opposed to unmarried women who undertake paid work outside the home. This is in part because women entering public spaces are considered safer when the family has the means to contact them, while no such requirement exists for women inside the home. Phone usage can also raise questions about the “purity” or character of a woman before marriage, and appear as a distraction from care responsibilities after marriage.
During the time of lockdown, it is evident that survivors are stuck in confined spaces with their abusers. This would mean that the abuser has total control over the space with very few avenues to external support for survivors. The ability of the survivor to “isolate” or seek privacy could be threatened, especially during times when the intensity of violence is likely to escalate. Pitre explained, “When women do have phones, there is the whole question of privacy. People don’t think women need to have their own space to talk. The whole environment is one of control – no one is going out of the house so you’re always under someone’s supervision.”
Pitre added that “people can always hear what you’re saying; you may have to go to the bathroom to talk. That’s what we’ve been coming to know from different sources. With regards to WhatsApp messages, someone may be reading your messages, surveilling your phone.”
“When women do have phones, there is the whole question of privacy. People don’t think women need to have their own space to talk. The whole environment is one of control – no one is going out of the house so you’re always under someone’s supervision.”
An account by My Choices Foundation describes how most survivors of domestic abuse do not have privacy. In order to complain or reach out, they have to step out of their homes or try to give missed calls to the Foundation. There were many instances when, upon calling the survivor back, the abuser picked up and responded by saying that “everything is fine” to prevent further contact between the field worker and survivor.
Constant monitoring also means that women’s use of phones is surveilled – their use of certain apps such as social media platforms is constrained, as well as the level of contact they maintain with friends. Reports have shown that abusers usually know their victims’ phone passwords in case of smartphones, allowing them to easily surveil them. The team at My Choices Foundation also recounted instances where abusers had broken into women’s phones or installed software to track their movements.
In addition, as Madhubala explained, “the other issue is money – people don’t have money to buy food, sanitary pads and other essentials, so it is very difficult for women to recharge their phones.” Women with resource constraints are also those more likely to be at the receiving end of violence in the first place. Women that are economically dependent on their families or partners, including widows and those with physical or mental impairments, are more likely to suffer violence than those with relative financial independence.
Women are also less likely to be financially included and have access to banks. There have even been recorded instances of abusers depriving their partners in various ways – for instance, a case where a woman had her ration card stolen by her husband to deprive her of basic resources. Thus, financial dependence, the lack of resources and lack of liquidity are significant obstacles in digitally accessing support. The fact that helplines, even the ones offered by government bodies, are not toll free implies that survivors must recharge phones before seeking help.
The fact that helplines, even the ones offered by government bodies, are not toll free implies that survivors must recharge phones before seeking help.
There are many sociocultural factors behind why survivors may not seek help immediately, even if they have the resources to do so. The cycle of abuse is often normalised, creating a culture that encourages violent behaviour. Extreme aggression, violence and toxic masculinity are normalised in intimate relationships, especially marital relationships. An empirical study on domestic violence found that 65% of men believe that women should tolerate violence to keep families together. There is a deep-seated cultural understanding that men should be allowed to teach their wives “a lesson” as long as the woman is “deserving” of such violence. Women may also internalise such gender norms and patterns of abuse, and refuse to complain against their abusers.
The segregation of space into public and private also propagates the narrative that violence inside the home should be tolerated without intervention from those in a position to do so, such as neighbours. The harms of this false dichotomy between the private and the public to women have also been acknowledged in the Supreme Court judgement affirming the Right to Privacy in India.
Quality and Quantity of Services
Madhubala discussed several issues that women have raised over calls, not all of which can be resolved through remote support: “When they call, they don’t ask us to lodge complaints. They tell us about their condition and ask us what their options are, what they can do. Women are also afraid that if they complain right now, they will be thrown out of their house and lose even the roof over their heads.”
The situation is further complicated because “currently shelter homes are also shut, and women are afraid of being exposed to the disease.”
According to Madhubala, “Finally, women are also resigned to their fate, and are not willing to complain. We give such women tips on what to do when they’re facing violence; we tell them to come onto the street immediately if they are facing violence. We couldn’t direct them to services because these were all shut.”
Ultimately, Madhubala explained that “when these women went to the police to complain, they were told that if they leave their homes they will be in trouble for breaking curfew. The police is not responsive at all, they keep trying to avoid lodging First Information Reports and just ask the couple to resolve the matter internally. So in the absence of any support at all, women are more likely to stay at home with their abuser than be out on the streets.”
Further, police forces across the country are heavily overburdened, often putting domestic cases on the back burner. In states like Punjab, where there are over 30 complaints received each day, private helpline numbers like iCall all receive approximately three complaints daily. Service providers, including non-profit organisations and government bodies, are also overburdened as they deal with the increase in complaints and facilitate immediate responses, file criminal complaints and provide psychological counselling – all of which are restricted due to the national lockdown. The sudden announcement of the lockdown has implied that shelters are inadequately prepared, travel to such shelters may be difficult for survivors, and safety and security within homes may be poor.
Service providers, including non-profit organisations and government bodies, are also overburdened as they deal with the increase in complaints and facilitate immediate responses, file criminal complaints and provide psychological counselling – all of which are restricted due to the national lockdown.
In a Public Interest Litigation filed by All India Council of Human Rights, it was pointed out that only 17 Protection Officers in Delhi have been appointed to deal with domestic violence. Furthermore, no mass campaigning has been undertaken or no efforts taken for outreach. Helpline numbers have only been published in two English newspapers, The Pioneer and the Indian Express. The only remedies provided to survivors are available online and hence are of no use to most women. The petition asked for immediate remedy for all the above concerns.
There is a clear necessity to maintain a good quality and quantity of these services so that women who are in need can easily and effectively access the remedies. A failure on behalf of the service provider discourages women to initiate complaints in the first place.
The way forward
Madhubala explained that rising domestic violence will continue to remain a concern even as the country opens up, as women in the informal economy will be forced to drop out of the labour force and take on additional care work at home.
It has become apparent that the bodies of women and girls who are being battered have not been a priority for this government. Outside of a handful of government bodies, women’s rights NGOs, shelters and crisis centres continue to face barriers in resuming physical services. Several NGOs appealed to the government to include domestic abuse rescue as part of their “essentials” list. There needs to be structural support and exceptions carved out for women’s rights organisations to function, including in containment zones.
Another concern is to provide adequate protections for counsellors. Without adequate protective equipment, frontline workers are also placed at risk, as was the case when a counsellor and driver working with the NCW were quarantined after coming into contact with a COVID-19 positive woman during a rescue. This highlights the need to protect frontline workers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and training on social distancing even during rescue missions.
NGOs also recommend starting an aggressive statewide and nationwide campaign to raise awareness on domestic violence needs, alongside the launch of a single, national, toll-free number that can be well publicised.
In addition to digital initiatives, there are multiple citizen-led initiatives that are addressing these issues through innovative in-person, community-level campaigns. For example, the North East Network has roped in Accredited Social Health Activists (frontline workers in the Indian primary healthcare system), who already have wide networks and are continuing frontline work on the ground, to reach out to women and identify those facing abuse.
In addition to digital initiatives, there are multiple citizen-led initiatives that are addressing these issues through innovative in-person, community-level campaigns.
My Choices Foundation also has a PeaceMaker system, in which one person from within the community is trained to identify and support domestic violence survivors. These PeaceMakers are given a two-week training to identify and counsel survivors and facilitate access to services. Using this system, they contacted all survivors who had ever contacted them, to check-in and ensure they were aware of ongoing support.
In case you’re seeking help, this is a list of helplines across India compiled by the NCW.