The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 defines ‘domestic violence’ as physical, verbal, emotional, sexual and financial abuse against a woman by her partner or family members residing in a joint family. While the word ‘home’ resonates with safety, security, comfort and warmth for many, victims of domestic violence endure varying levels of pain and suffering at their homes. Data from the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 shows that 31.1% of the ever-married Indian women aged between 15 and 49 years experienced spousal violence.
Pandemics such as ongoing COVID-19 have significantly impacted individuals, families and countries. The lockdown issued in India for the current pandemic has worsened the situation for Indian women. National Commission for Women (NCW) data showed that domestic violence complaints doubled after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in India. Caged in violent homes, the women are being placed in the situation where it is difficult to seek help or support from the outside world. Exposure and opportunity for abuse increases as there is no one to intervene to protect women.
The pandemic outbreak by itself has been correlated with irritability, anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, or boredom in individuals. The drastic change in circumstances arising out of the pandemic could trigger or worsen the existing violence in the house. From economic vulnerability causing livelihood issues such as job losses, prolonged unemployment, reduced income, debts, and food insecurity to an increase in the amount of substance use (such as alcohol use) all coupled with social isolation could be a factor resulting in the perpetuation of violence.
The menace of domestic violence is not a new one, in an affirmative way to address and redress this, way back in year 2005, the legislature passed the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Whilst the implementation of this law has not been without its own set of challenges and setbacks, we have seen courts of our country come up with insightful interpretations of the provisions to provide recourse for victims. During the lockdown, when the courts were not fully functional, there were some interesting judgements which paved the ways for urgent measures to address the pandemic of domestic violence. Few are highlighted below:
The Delhi High court, on a petition filed by an NGO, directed the government to deliberate on measures to ensure effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 in the wake of increasing number of cases. The state in its reply said that it has put a protocol in place where a survivor once calls the helpline, the tele caller will take the complaint and will forward it to the counselor who will establish phone communication with the survivor during the lockdown.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court took suo moto cognizance and offered slew directions that include the creation of special funds and designating informal spaces for women such as grocery stores and pharmacies where women could report abuse without alerting the perpetrator.
The Karnataka High Court asked the state government about the helplines and action taken on domestic violence complaints. The state in its reply stated that helplines, counselors, shelter homes and protection officers are working round the clock to help victims of violence.
There are various stakeholders under the law, which include protection officers, service providers and commission of women to provide immediate, medical, logistical, protection and even psychological assistance to survivors.
During the pandemic, almost all state governments have started helpline numbers and activated various reach out initiatives , couple of interesting include, In Tamil Nadu, protection officers appointed under the Domestic Violence Act 2005 are allowed to move during the lockdown and some women in dangerous situations are being rescued and have been moved to shelter homes. In Uttar Pradesh, the state government has initiated a special helpline for victims of domestic abuse under the title `Suppress Corona, not your voice’.
The National Commission for Women launched a special WhatsApp helpline number: +91 7217735372, which will act as an exclusive helpline for domestic violence complaints during the period of lockdown. This will be in addition to the emails, online complaints links, and helpline numbers (Women in Distress -1091 & Women Helpline Domestic Abuse- 181) which are already functioning. The chairperson of The National Commission for Women also claimed that ASHA and Anganwadi and other frontline health workers are counseling against domestic violence and women can report to these workers in case they are facing abuse.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has collaborated with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences to provide psychological support to women facing domestic violence through the helpline number: 080–4611007. Moreover, helpline number 112 is also available as an emergency response support system to provide immediate rescue and support to women in distress.
Whilst the abovementioned orders by various High Courts and steps taken by State Governments are commendable; to combat this menace, a multi-dimensional approach is required at the national level to address the grave situation of domestic violence.
– Vaishali Jain, Advocate & Associate