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COVID-19, Lockdowns And Rising Incidences Of Domestic Abuse

LIVELAW NEWS NETWORK
26 May 2020 6:55 AM GMT
COVID-19, Lockdowns And Rising Incidences Of Domestic Abuse
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The Covid-19 pandemic, which had its' origins in the Hubei province of China has now spread across the globe with the World Health Organisation deeming it as a pandemic. As the numbers of infected people continue to rise at an alarming pace, governments across the globe are faced with an unprecedented situation. Guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation and researches by the American Medical Association after observing and analysing the situation across the globe have come to a singular universal conclusion that the only way to prevent the novel virus from spreading are social distancing measures. According to the research, it was observed that the gas cloud from a cough or sneeze may help virus particles travel up to 8 meters. Associate professor Lydia Bourouiba, MIT warned that droplet of all sizes can travel 23 to 27 feet, or 7-8 meters, carrying the pathogen[1]. In such a situation, the only way to prevent people from getting infected was to impose mass lockdowns. While strict enforcement of the lockdown may have had an impact on the spread of the disease, it has also brought to the fore new issues never seen before, issues that intertwine the complex functioning of a human mind, its' implications and legal and regulatory mechanisms to deal with the same.

Under the constitution of India it is the duty of the State under Article 47, to raise the level of nutrition, standard of living and to improve public health of the people.[2] On the other hand, it is also the duty of state to provide safety and security for the citizens. The Prime Minister of India on 24th March, 2020 took a bold step towards protection of the health and security of the people and imposed a complete lockdown across the nation.

While the lockdown has had an impact on slowing the number of cases it has also led to rising incidences of crimes against women and children across the globe like rape, attempt to rape, domestic violence, harassment etc. With little to no recourse to legal mechanisms for seeking protection in the current situation, a wide majority of the population today is in a grave danger. As it is cases of domestic abuse are not widely reported, especially in Indian societies where the male entities dominate the household and familial values are tied to the honour and dignity of women. The present situation has raised pertinent issues as to the way crimes against women are dealt with as the society goes through a phase of extreme turmoil.

Offences against Women during Lockdown

While it may take a very long span of time to change the patriarchal ideas and notions that the Indian society as a whole refuses to let go, efforts have been made in the direction through various campaigns and awareness camps organised by the National Commission for women, the National Human Rights Commission and NGOs. However, there has been no substantial decrease in the number of offences against women with women being harassed in matrimonial homes, workspaces and even on the streets. Recently, when the Prime Minister of India imposed lockdown across the nation, the number of offences against women have grown at an alarming rate.And this is the case throughout the globe with the situation being described as the 'Shadow

Pandemic' by UN Women with various countries like France, Argentina, Singapore, United States all reporting rise in incidences.[3]

In India, in the last week of March 2020, the National Commission for Women received around 250 complaints related to offences against women, out of which 69 complaints related to domestic violence, 77 complaints related to 'Right to Live with dignity' and 13 cases related to Rape and attempt to commit Rape.[4]

According to the comparative data release by the National Commission for Women[5], the following table shows the increase in the number of online complaints from the first week of March, 2020 to the last week of March, 2020:-

Number of Complaints in the first week of March,2020

Number of Complaints in the last week of March,2020

Complaint related to Right to live with Dignity

35

77

Complaint against domestic Violence

30

69

Complaint against Rape and attempt to rape

2

13

Total complaints related to crimes against women

116

257

From the above data it is clear that women are facing more brutalities during the lockdown and the situation is exacerbated due to the inability to approach the state instrumentalities or administration for redressal of their grievances. The data is worrying since it is not usual for women to report incidences to the National Commission for Women at the first instance.[6] This only leaves to our imagination as to the number of complaints being received by the police, the data for which has not been made available to us. While incidents such as harassment of a female doctor in Surat, Gujarat as she returned home from the hospital[7] or the rape of a 16 year old in

Dhumka district of Jharkhand[8]as she was returning home due to the closure of hostels during lockdown are incidents that took place on the streets thus lending them an iota of visibility, the same cannot be said for the countless incidents that are taking place within the confines of private spaces and cannot be reported. The inability to report could be due to a number of factors, for instance, the perpetrator being at home at all times, lack of access to means of communication, an atmosphere of fear at home, etc.

Right to Abortion during Lockdown

While domestic abuse may take many forms, sexual abuses are even more worrying during the present times, since a lot of such cases might lead to unwanted pregnancies. While generally women may have the option of accessing safe abortion options, the same is not available during the present situation. In India, while the government has declared abortion services to fall within the 20 categories of medical services being considered as essential, there is no clarity as to whether abortion services can be accessed by women or not. There is still a question as to how a pregnant woman seeking abortion is to travel to a hospital. This is especially pertinent in cases where the pregnancy is a result of sexual abuse within the home, and the victim is being denied access to medical services. For instance, a 19 year old woman in Mumbai who had been raped found that she was pregnant, right when the country was going into lockdown. She was only able to get timely access to abortion services due to the intervention of Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT).[9]

The worrying factor is that despite the Right to Abortion being enshrined under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in the year 1971, India still witnesses ten deaths due to unsafe abortions every day, with half the number of total abortions being performed in insanitary conditions, according to India's health ministry.[10] A major reason may be the inability to access medical facilities, or in a majority of cases ignorance of the law. With the current lockdown rendering pregnant women even more vulnerable, the number of women resorting to unsafe methods is likely to go up drastically. The present version of India's Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act allows women to get an abortion upto a period of twelve weeks with an approval of a registered medical practitioner, and in cases of the period of pregnancy between twelve to twenty weeks, by the approval of two registered medical practitioners. The medical practitioner/s should form an opinion, in good faith that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the life of the woman or involve physical or mental injury, or the child to be born might have severe mental or physical handicaps. The time limit under the legislation also raises a question as to whether the time period for allowing pregnancies could be extended where a woman has been unable to seek access to the services due to the lockdown.

The situation around the world is similar. In the United States, the lockdown and the increasing number of cases have led to the reopening of ideological debates revolving around the question as to whether abortions are to be considered essential or not. The situation has fed fuel to anti-abortion activists who are advocating for refusal of such services during the period of lockdown. The United States Supreme Court is now set to hear an appeal against Texas's inclusion of abortion services in 'non-emergency' medical services during covid-19.[11] The same court that legalised abortions as part of a woman's constitutionally enshrined right would now have to rule on whether the same right can be taken away during a global crisis or pandemic.

The inability of women to access basic medical services for abortion would ultimately cost the state in terms of providing extra protection to women in labour and new born babies who might be more vulnerable to attack by the virus. It will also have a concomitant burden on the healthcare services who will have to provide basic care to this vulnerable group.

Analysis

While the state administration particularly the police[12] and health care workers[13] are engaged in a relentless battle to halt the spread of the virus, there are various other issues that are going unnoticed. Domestic Abuse is quite possibly, the most widespread form of violence against women and children during the present crisis. The current pandemic has posed certain pertinent questions as to the efficacy of our legal regime, particularly those that exist to protect women and children. Instances of domestic violence generally remain hidden from the public eye even during normal times, with most cases going unnoticed. The gravity of the crimes as well as the inability to report the same may go up during times of crisis such as the present one. It is therefore pertinent that our legal regulations incorporate provisions for relief during the times of extreme exigency. Presently, our Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 does not include any exceptions to the time period prescribed for availing the abortion services. On March 2, 2020 the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 was introduced in the Lok Sabha which proposes to raise the upper time limit from 20 weeks to 24 weeks. However, introducing certain exceptions to the legally prescribed time limit might provide far better relief to women unable to access medical abortion services. This needs an urgent re-look by the authorities, as once the lockdown is relaxed, there is a possibility that abortion clinics and medical practitioners will be flooded with requests for abortion from women who might have already bypassed the time limit. Inability to gain access to such services due to the expiry of time period might lead such women to avail illegal and harmful options thereby endangering her health as well as the unborn child's health.The apex court must also step in to formulate norms for the access to abortion services for women in these trying times. The same could be achieved by setting up a dedicated helpline number, police protection and special ambulance services for pregnant women.

In such circumstances, it is the duty of the Central Government and various State Governments to provide toll free helpline numbers and shelter homes for those women who are being abused in their homes and provide them safety and stability. While the provision for shelter homes has been provided under Section 6 of the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, the same only comes into play either when an incident has been reported by the aggrieved person or when she approaches the person in charge of a shelter home. It is therefore, of utmost importance that shelter homes and domestic abuse helpline services be added to the list of essential services. Similarly, while section 7 of the Domestic Violence Act allows women to avail medical facilities, the same needs to be listed as an essential medical service in the present situation. A petition has also been moved in the Delhi High Court seeking appointment of nodal officers, facilities for counselling of women and children, and relaxation of lockdown so that these crimes can be better reported.[14] Women may also seek protection by moving under Section 18 of the Domestic Violence Act that empowers a magistrate to pass a protection order after hearing the aggrieved person and the respondent. This hearing may be done through video conferencing in the present time as the apex court has also directed that matters under family law that are ready for hearing, may be heard through video conferencing.

However, access to legal authorities or medical services can only be made possible when the victim is able to pass on information as to the crime as well as her whereabouts. This can only be made possible by mobilising primary means of communication. The National Commission for Women has provided a ray of hope to distressed women and launched a Whatsapp number to report cases of domestic violence.[15] Various states in India also accept SMS and email for registering an FIR.[16] The same approach might be adopted by other states in the current situation. The Government could also take assistance from various NGOs established in different parts of the country to provide legal assistance or aid, shelter homes and proper security to the victims. Local organisations may be better equipped at identifying victims and providing timely assistance.

The current crisis is an all hands on deck type of situation that is going to require maximum coordination and sincere efforts by all authorities. As more and more issues come to the fore, the burden on these authorities are only going to increase. Resultantly, it is also important to mobilise all grass root level organisations working across India to identify victims of abuse, ensure that the information reaches the authorities and thereafter coordinate with them to provide speedy relief to the victims.



Mr. Ankit Khera & Ms. Sayantika Ganguly are Advocates, Litigation Team at AKS Partners Author's views are personal.




1] Research published in Journal of American Institute of Medical by Associate professor Lydia Bourouiba,https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2763852.

[2] The Constitution of India, 1950.

[3] UN Women, 'Infographic: The Shadow Pandemic- Violence against Women and Girls and Covid-19', available at:https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/multimedia/2020/4/infographic-covid19-violence-against-women-and-girls.

[4] RTI Cell of National Commission for women http://ncwapps.nic.in/frmRTICell_ComplaintDetails.aspx.

[5]Jagriti Chandra, 'National Commission for Women records a rise in complaints since the start of lockdown' available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/national-commission-for-women-records-a-rise-in-complaints-since-the-start-of-lockdown/article31241492.ece

[6] Ashwini Deshpande, 'In locked down India, women fight coronavirus and domestic violence', available at:https://qz.com/india/1838351/indias-coronavirus-lockdown-leads-to-more-violence-against-women/.

[8] Pawas Kumar, 'Dumka: 16-Year-Old Girl Asks Help To Reach Home Amid Lockdown, Raped by 10 including Friend In Jungle' https://www.newsnation.in/crime/news/dumka-16-year-old-girl-gang-rape-in-jharkhand-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-257163.html

[9]Roli Srivastava, 'Abortion in a Lockdown: India says 'yes' but women wonder how', available at: https://in.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-india-abortion/abortion-in-a-lockdown-india-says-yes-but-women-wonder-how-idINL8N2BV4TN

[10]'How to get Abortion in Lockdown? Despite it being Listed as Essential Service, women face challenges' available at: https://www.news18.com/news/india/how-to-get-abortion-in-lockdown-despite-it-being-listed-as-essential-service-women-face-challenges-2580885.html

[11]The Hindu Business Line, 'US Supreme Court to hear appeal on abortion during virus crisis', available at: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/us-supreme-court-to-hear-appeal-on-abortion-during-virus-crisis/article31321899.ece

[12] Entry 2 of List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India.

[13] Entry 1 of the List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India.

[14] Aditi Singh, 'Petition moved before Delhi High Court concerning the increase in domestic violence, child abuse cases during covid 19 lockdown', available at: https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/petition-moved-before-delhi-high-court-concerning-the-increase-in-domestic-violence-cases-during-covid19-lockdown.

[15]National Commission for Women, http://ncw.nic.in/.

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