"Significant numbers of the world's population are routinely subject to torture, starvation, terrorism, humiliation, mutilation, and even murder simply because they are female. Crimes such as these against any group other than women would be recognized as a civil and political emergency as well as a gross violation of the victim's humanity." – Charlotte Bunch
Viral diseases are among the world's leading causes of morbidity and mortality. The 2019 outbreak of COVID 19 in Wuhan, China has in no time spread globally. Our nation is facing a strange time battling the mushrooming pandemic. The government has imposed a nationwide lockdown and mandated strict observance of social distancing. However, one of the backlashing impacts of the stay-at-home orders is the surge in Violence against women and girls (VAWG) specifically the looming cases Domestic Violence (DV). India, however, is not the only country. VAWG is a universal issue, with great impact on victims/survivors, their families, and communities. According to the World Health Organization, one in every three women across the globe experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
In this time of crisis, DV cases have seen a blunt upheaval across the globe. Such an increase is, however, not a new trend, instead, women tend to be at greater risks during such health disasters and pandemics like the Ebola outbreak or The Great Depression. The reason for this heightened violent and compulsive controlling behaviours is the economic hardships that people face in general along with cramped and confined living conditions. As Phumzile has stated, "a shadow pandemic is growing crimes against women" , DV has become both a public health and human rights crisis. According to the UN Women report, Lebanon, Malaysia and China have witnessed a 2-fold and a threefold increase respectively. Alongside increased reports, greater complexity of violence is observed. Australia had shockingly revealed a 40 percent rise with 70 percent increased severity. Argentina, France, Cyprus, and Singapore too have registered a significant rise in helpline requests. This, however, presents one side of the coin, wherein the upsurge is visible. There exists yet another constantly looming fear on the other side. It pertains to poverty-ridden countries or where the outbreak has reached its zenith. In these places' the requests have seen a sharp dip. Italy, for example, has reported 55 percent fewer calls. North France saw similar decline.
India has overlooked the problem of DV since time immemorial with the state condoning it as a "private" matter. According to reports, from 2001- 2012, 45-50 percent of all crimes categorized as being specifically "against women" was "cruelty by husband or his relative". Moreover, according to the Crime in India Report 2018, a woman is subjected to DV every 4.4 minutes. DV though is not committed against women only, but it has been the most ubiquitous constant in women's lives. Also referred to as "intimate terrorism", it is one of the most blatant expressions of patriarchy. Women are often caught in the "sticky floor and the glass ceiling". The primary reason is the prevalence of cultural and religious orthodoxy and social norms which have the rooted tendency of "keeping women in their place". These underpinnings have led to division in gender roles and power dynamics. Interestingly though, it has taken a pandemic of this variety to finally end the eerie silence over the issue. The NCW reported that between the beginning of March to the start of April, a total of 310 grievances of DV along with 885 complaints for other forms of violence against women are reported.
Through the course of this article, I have dealt with DV amidst the outbreak of COVID 19. I start by putting forth the steps taken by the government to prevent DV alongside pandemic. I then try to analyse whether these steps are in balance with "Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005" and determine challenges that lie specific to our country. I had towards the end concluded by providing for a redressal mechanism, based on action taken up by NGOs and the international community, that will prove out to be effective in our country, if implemented with care, and help assuage the crisis.
2- Steps taken up by the government to prevent DV:
Looking at the continuous rise in the cases of DV, the government has taken up certain steps in order to reach out victims. The NCW has launched a special WhatsApp helpline number and has started to accept complaints via email. Some states have come up with their own initiatives. For instance- UP police have launched an initiative "suppress corona, not your voice", wherein women are encouraged to contact police officers and ask for rescue. The Odisha state commission for Women has also launched its own WhatsApp helpline number. The women and child development department of the Delhi government has ensured the availability of 24*7 helpline and rescue services. Tamil Nadu government has allowed the movement of appointed protection officers. However, looking at the statistical rising in cases of DV, clearly, the measures taken up are not enough to handle the arising shadow pandemic.
3- Analysis of government measures in Context of DV Act,2005:
In this section, I will examine how the legal framework in place: "Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005" which lays out the minimum threshold to which the government should have adhered while devising strategies has not been adhered to.
First and foremost, the inability of the state to address the concern of women even at the time of a pandemic is a violation of the FR to Life guaranteed under article 21. In the Francis Coralie Mullin v Union Territory Administration, the apex court recognized the right to be free from physical violence. Further, in Ahmedabad municipal corporation v Nawab khan Gulab Khan's case, it guaranteed right against sexual and emotional abuse.
Coming to the act, Section 11 of the DV Act mentions obligations on the part of government for regular publicity of issues of DV through the use of media or print to raise awareness in the society. However, leaving behind the normal circumstances, not once in his address to the nation since lockdown, PM has talked about the plight of these women. Moreover, Section 6 of the DV act provides for the establishment of shelter homes in each district by the state government. Here the government has either remarkably failed or the work has been carried out incognito to which none is aware. Similar is the fate met out to Section 8 and 9 of the Act which provides for appointing protection officers. The negligence is further evident if we look at the list of essential goods that lack even sanitary napkins- a regular essential. This is in direct contradiction of Section 7 which mandates medical facilities. Furthermore, Section 17 of the act talks about shared household which is in line with the Chameli Singh case. However, as held by the apex court in the case of S.R. Batra & Another Vs. Smt. Taruna Batra, the definition of shared household under Section 2(s) of the DV Act is not very happily worded. On the face of it, it meant that a woman if evicted from the house has the right to seek monetary compensation and safe shelter along with free legal aid. This is however a narrow concept. It is limited to house owned or taken on rent by husband either solely or jointly by the family of which husband is a part. Clearly, the government in its attempt to flatten the COVID19 curve has overlooked women's physical and mental health. This is further a violation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. It even violates Article 51 (A) e of the constitution.
What is even more tragic is the restricted access to law enforcement. The chairman of NCW urged women to contact police or reach out to commission but as per available data, women have always felt uncomfortable reporting to police. Even if they do, such reports are constantly ignored or delayed. For instance, a case from UP was reported wherein a girl approached the police but the personnel refused to rescue the victim and she was left with the accused. Moreover, the number of cases that are reported is not in proportions to actual incidents happening. This is because of the lack of access to technology in remote and rural areas. According to studies, about 57% of the women in India still do not have access to phones, how could they then use helpline services.
In the absence of a comprehensive plan from the government, however, several NGOs have come forward. But they themselves face a host of problems. They are unable to move beyond web counselling or telephonic conversations. Due to lack of transport facilities and protective gear it is difficult to rescue victims. Some shelter homes have even refused to intake women.
4- Way forward: Learning from initiatives by NGOs and Foreign Countries
In this section, based on the successful initiatives taken by NGOs and the international community, I provide possible solutions the government can implement for safeguarding women.
Many NGOs have taken the lead to look at the issue of DV. NGO Swayam has started reaching out to women in distress areas via their contacts with communities. Another NGO Shakti Shalini has started a 24 hours helpline. Vishaka, an NGO based in Rajasthan has planned out a strategy to reach out to migrant women. Stree Mukti Sanghatana has been working to cater to working-class women. Nazariya organization for trans people, have started to organize weekly counselling sessions. NGO Women's Entrepreneurs for Transformation launched the Red Dot initiative which requires victims to draw a red dot on their palm to alert people. NGO Breakthrough has come up with several initiatives like "StreeLink", "Community radio in UP" along with reviving its 'Bell Bajao' campaign. CORO India has started sharing information regarding help for DV via information stickers placed above food packets.
Countries across the globe have brought about innovative plans to prevent gender-based violence alongside pandemic. For instance- the Canadian government has announced an aid packed of $50 million along with deeming domestic violence shelters as essential services. Australia, France, and the UK too have separately allocated funds. Countries including France, Spain, and other Caribbean countries have started providing alternative accommodation to those who cannot be adjusted in shelter homes. South Africa has taken up steps to provide medical facilities to women. China has launched its Online Awareness campaign, namely "#antidomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic". Spain has designated the code word "Mask-19" to signal police about domestic violence. UK gov has launched an app called "bright sky" to provide support and information to survivors along with enlisting delivery drivers and postal workers to look for suspected cases of DV. Countries have even set up a virtual justice system by having DV survivor teleconference into a court proceeding.
Indeed, looking at the incessant mushrooming of cases across the country, there exists a need for country wide lockdown. But the need is also for implementation of planned strategies to judiciously integrate arising cases of DV with pandemic. Notable then firstly, the government should widen the ambit of essential service along with allocation of funds for setting up alternative shelter homes. Secondly, the emergency warning systems must be set up ensuring women could reach out without alerting abusers. Thirdly, action regarding the protection of sexual and reproductive health of women should be taken up. Fourthly, to reach out to women without access to phone and internet, trained volunteers and frontline health workers must be stationed to work with panchayats and SHGs jointly to ensure safety. Fifthly and most importantly, as also remarked by Antonio Guterres, the government should appeal for a 'ceasefire' on DV by stating its detrimental long-term effects.
Views Are Personal Only.
(Author is 2nd Semester B.A. LL.B.(Hons.) Student At Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.)