When lockdown restrictions were at their strictest, the state women and child development (WCD) department’s helpline recorded a surge in the number of callers on its helpline for domestic violence. Between April and September, the helpline (181) received 26,164, of which 6,590 were reporting domestic violence. Experts say this is just a fraction of the actual situation as an estimated 86% of women who experience intimate partner violence do not report it or seek help, according to the National Family Health Survey.
Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic created situations in which there was more domestic abuse and the lockdown made it harder for victims and survivors to get away from their abusers or report the crime. Lawyer and co-founder of the not-for-profit women’s rights organisation Majlis, Flavia Agnes said, “In India, men often beat up their wives to take their frustrations out. During the lockdown, when men lost their jobs and got stuck inside four walls, they started abusing their wives. As police were focused on Covid duty and courts were closed, nothing could be done about it,” she said, adding that cases of sexual abuse also saw a spike but few of these were placed on official record.
In April, the WCD helpline (181) received an average of 180 calls daily, reporting domestic violence. By September, when some relaxations were introduced, the daily average of calls regarding domestic violence had dropped to 95.
Data from the National Commission of Women shows that between March 25 and May 31, 1,477 complaints of domestic violence were reported across the country, which is a higher number than the complaints received in the corresponding period in the past 10 years.
Since the lockdown, 7,055 cases of domestic violence have been filed at various police stations across Maharashtra.
The surge in intimate partner violence has been attributed to the psychological stress felt by many during the lockdown, particularly those who have suffered job losses and economic hardship. Sneha, a Marathwada-based non-government organisation (NGO) for women’s rights, has counselled more than 700 women survivors of domestic violence during the lockdown. Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Sagar Mundada said, “We are receiving relapsed cases of domestic violence. After repetitive counselling, several men have stopped hurting their wives. But in the lockdown, their anxiety triggered their habit of beating up their wives.”
Experts pointed out that the recorded cases of violence against women are not reflective of the on-ground situation because these crimes are underreported. Even in pre-pandemic scenarios, the National Family Health Survey (2015-2016) estimated that 86% of women who experienced violence at home did not report it or seek help. During the lockdown, reporting these crimes became even more difficult than in other times. State WCD secretary IA Kundan said, “We have observed that many women who were victims of domestic violence couldn’t approach police stations due to the lockdown. Also, many women didn’t even get the opportunity to call at the helpline in the presence of family members.”
For construction worker Aditi Salvi, 34, the lockdown meant no work, which in turn forced her to leave Mumbai and return to Latur in April, with her two children and husband, who is also a construction worker. Soon after, Salvi was subjected to violence at home. “I was being blamed for the pandemic and my husband along with my mother-in-law started beating me up. Due to lack of money, I stopped recharging my phone and therefore couldn’t get a chance to call the police. One day, I ran away and took shelter in my neighbour’s house who finally called 181,” Salvi told HT.
Salvi has chosen not to file an official police complaint, but had she wanted to, the process could have been daunting. Sudhir Mishra, a coordinator at Sneha, said that often, police refused to register domestic violence cases because they were overwhelmed by their Covid-related duties. “They didn’t have the time to look into domestic violence cases. This led to women continuing to live under the same roof with their abusive families, who subjected them to repeated violence,” said Mishra.
HD Yashod, commissioner, WCD, said,“We have 34 senior protection officers at district level and 358 junior protection officers at taluka level who are working full time in prevention of domestic violence and relief services.”
Of the 6,590 calls that the WCD’s helpline received regarding domestic violence, 3,448 received general family counselling; 363 were given medical care; 1,973 received psychological counselling; and 532 were sent to short-term shelter facilities. In an effort to provide support to survivors, all 37 one-stop crisis centres were functional during the lockdown period. “To prevent and address cases of domestic violence, we also started the ‘Mala Bolayache Aahe’ helpline. Round the clock, we coordinated with police control rooms across districts and shared contact numbers of protection officers and social workers across the state,” said Kundan.
Women helpline records 16K Covid-19 related calls
Since April, the state’s WCD helpline has received more than 26,000 calls, of which 61.8% were related to Covid-19. In April and May, the helpline recorded the most calls, averaging 500 daily. On some days, the helpline received over 1,000 calls, most of which were queries about Covid-19.
“In the initial days of the lockdown, we got calls seeking ration or queries about hospitals. Many also called asking about symptoms of Covid-19 and what steps to follow,” said state WCD secretary IA Kundan. “We directed the women to the concerned departments according to their needs. We simultaneously coordinated with police and NGOs to help the callers,” said Kundan.