Surviving a ‘shadow’ pandemic: Domestic abuse in the time of Covid-19

Girija Godbole (2020)

Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay. 29 April 2020

How many of us can even imagine living 24×7 under the same roof as one’s abuser, with the constant fear of what he (in rare cases she) might do next to hurt you?  How would it feel if even just coughing resulted in merciless beatings, or being thrown out of the house on suspicion of having Covid-19 symptoms, or one’s partner constantly subjected one to verbal abuse for no reason, or starved one, or did not let one even use the toilet? Home isolation, however crucial to the fight against the pandemic, is giving still more power to the abuser. It has also shattered support networks, making it far more difficult for victims to get help or escape.

Across the world, a surge in incidents of domestic violence is being reported since lock downs were implemented. From Brazil to Germany, Italy to China, activists and survivors are already seeing a steep rise in abuse cases (Graham-Harrison et al., 2020). In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW), which receives complaints of domestic violence from across the country, has recorded more than twofold rise in gender-based violence in the lockdown period (The Economic Times, 2020a). UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka has called this rise in violence against women and girls a ‘shadow’ pandemic (UN Women, 2020).

Several studies indicate a positive relationship between exposure to extreme events and rates of interpersonal violence (Jeltsen, 2020). During such events, domestic violence often increases, as perpetrators have more access to their families and can get away with it easily as support services break down. There may not be physical violence in every abusive relationship, but other common modes of abuse include isolation from friends and family, constant surveillance, strict rules for behaviour, and restrictions on access to basic necessities such as food and sanitary facilities (ibid). Though isolation is one of the effective ways to contain the current epidemic, it may also be a deadly trap for the victims of domestic abuse. Over 92,000 SOS calls to The Childline India helpline asking for protection from abuse may be a grim indication that not just women, but many children are also trapped with their abusers at home. (The Economic Times, 2020b). Swarna Rajagopalan, (personal communication, 7 April, 2020) the director of the Chennai based Prajnya Trust, warns that incidents of incest, rape and child sexual abuse are also likely to be on the rise.

According to Mukund Kirdat (personal communication, 8 April, 2020), founding member of the feminist men’s group Purush Uvach in Pune, within our highly patriarchal society, men are often trapped in their mardangi (machismo). Under normal circumstances they get enough opportunities to display it; however, during this unprecedented scenario of a lockdown, they may be struggling to cope. Many men, especially those employed in the unorganised sector, also stand to lose their jobs, which puts them at the risk of losing their ‘traditional’ role as breadwinner. Women and children seem to be the easy target to vent out these fears and frustrations. Sarubai Waghmare, (personal communication, 16 April, 2020) an active member of Kagad Kach Patra Kashtari Panchayat (a waste pickers’ union), reiterates this with her firsthand observation of the families living in her informal settlement in Pune. “When a hungry child asks their mother for food, and she in turn asks her husband to buy some, he resorts to violence as he is now out of work, and is ashamed of not being able to provide for his family.” Sangita Thosar, (personal communication, 16 April, 2020) Assistant Professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, remarks that the absence of domestic help, especially in the middle classes, has increased the workload for women. If they ask the men to help out, sometimes the male ego gets hurt and the result may be mental or physical abuse.

Impacts and Extent of Domestic Violence

Research suggests that the influence of abuse can persist long after the violence has stopped. The more severe the abuse, the greater its impact on a person’s physical and mental health, and the impact over time of different types and multiple episodes of abuse appears to be cumulative (Heise and Garcia, 2002).

Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35 per cent) women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime (WHO, 2017). In India, where men are perceived to be socially superior and tend to have the right to assert power over women, it is not surprising that cultural norms permitting the use of physical violence as an acceptable way to resolve conflict in a relationship are still prevalent. A culture of silence surrounding domestic violence means that women seldom speak about it unless it becomes unbearable. One of the myths prevalent about domestic violence is that it is greater among poorer sections of society. However, evidence shows that even rich and middle-class women are not spared from it. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16) indicates that 30 per cent women in India in the age group of 15-49 have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. About 31 per cent of married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their spouses.

After a sustained campaign by women’s groups for two decades, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was finally enacted in 2005. This Act defines domestic violence in line with international law to include physical, emotional/verbal, sexual, and economic violence (Agnes, 2019). Provisions under this Act, such as helplines, shelters and legal assistance for battered women are miserably inadequate even at the best of times, and it is extremely difficult for women to speak up openly even under the most supportive conditions. With the sudden lockdown, when women find themselves isolated and vulnerable, their options to seek help seem virtually non-existent (Deshpande, 2020).

According to Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of the National Commission for Women, women are not approaching the police because they think that if the husband is taken away by the police, the in-laws may torture her. They also fear that their husband will torture them even more once he is out of the police station, particularly since she cannot even move out. With the lockdown, the earlier option of going to one’s parents’ home is also not available. Reaching out to the police is also difficult due to the lockdown (The Economic Times, 2020b).

Curbing Domestic Violence During Lockdown

In view of this surge in cases of domestic violence, António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, has appealed to all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for Covid-19, and to increase investment in online services and civil society organizations, and declare shelters as essential services (UN News, 2020).

As cases of abuse soared during the first week of lockdown, the French government announced that they would pay for hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence and open pop-up counselling centres. In Spain, victims are told to head to drugstores to seek help using the  codeword ‘mask 19’ if they cannot talk openly. A prosecutor in Trento, Italy, has ruled that in situations of domestic violence the abuser must leave the family home and not the victim (Graham- Harrison et al., 2020).

The response of the Indian government so far has been dismal. Many women’s organisations have demanded that reaching women in distress needs to be classified as an ‘essential service’. The administration and law enforcement agencies need to recognise the gravity of the problem and sympathise with women. So far none of the Prime Minister’s addresses to the nation or press briefings have raised the issue of domestic violence. Preeti Karmarkar (personal communication, 9 April, 2020) of Pune based Nari Samta Manch suggests that the government should add the safety of women to their messages in announcements on the pandemic. Exceptions to this are a full page advertisement by the Uttar Pradesh Police Department that says ‘Suppress corona, not your voice’ (Bose, 2020) and an announcement by Rachakonda Police Commissionerate in Hyderabad that all cases of domestic violence will be taken up at first priority (personal communication, 16 April, 2020).

According to Rajgopalan (personal communication, 7 April, 2020), creating good, safe shelters and improving helpline services is crucial. At a more individual level, Kirdat (personal communication, 8 April, 2020) of Purush Uvach, appeals to men to break the ‘traditional’ image and to get physically involved in household chores, which may also help them to channel the anxiety of future uncertainties and fight the temptation to resort to violence at the slightest provocation. In Sarubai’s opinion (personal communication, 16 April, 2020), assured free supply of food grains or reasonable monetary assistance by the State to needy families who have lost their source of income will ease the burden and help in reducing the violence.

Well-funded and robust support services for domestic violence survivors, including psychological care and economic resources, are crucial. However, interventions cannot be limited only to dealing with abuse. As has been discussed, while lockdown may escalate already existing incidents of violence, it may also result in new incidents. The causes of gender-based and sexual violence must be disrupted by fighting the framework of patriarchal values.


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