Kolkata-based women’s rights activist Anuradha Kapoor speaks with a mix of compassion and passion. She founded the women’s rights organisation Swayam 25 years ago and it now covers the entire state of West Bengal. “Domestic abuse has gone up at least 20-30 per cent since the lockdown,” she says bluntly, doing some mental calculation of the figures collected through her NGO’s representatives spread across the state in the wake of the national lockdown imposed by the Centre on March 24. She emphasises that the final tally from the urban centres are inconclusive because unlike in the villages and other areas, where people know what happens in their neighbourhood and report them to her, harassment of women in city clusters go unobserved and unreported.
The 21-day lockdown to fight the Covid-19 pandemic was done with a purpose: to flatten the coronavirus curve and not to overwhelm the hospital system. But it has heightened familial discord and incidents of domestic violence because the victim and the perpetrator are forced to spend more time together indoors. Some other reasons are obvious, says Dr Rachna Khanna Singh, head of department of holistic medicine and psychology at Artemis Hospital, Gurugram. “When it comes to families with both men and women working, or even in those where only one of the partners is an earning member, relationship issues are usually under control because of transactional interaction. But being under one roof all the time and the absence of house helps mean that their levels of interaction have risen, and so have frustration levels of all kinds,” she says, adding that she is flooded with patients that include children and in-laws who complain of toxic home atmosphere. Recently, one of her patients, a young man, attempted suicide because he could not stand the pressure of having to remain normal despite a deeply strained relationship with his wife. “We are not talking about people from lower social strata, but from middle- and upper middle-class backgrounds. Among the working class, violence is far more severe,” says Singh. Poonam Jungare of the Pune-based Nari Samata Manch also told Open that the ongoing lockdown has resulted in a rise in domestic abuse. “But I will wait for the real numbers to come in before I make further comments,” she avers.
For her part, Kapoor says her team had to rescue a young woman from her abusive husband after he mercilessly beat her up on three consecutive days over frivolous grounds. “Luckily, she had a friend’s home in the city to go to. The reason for beating can be anything from the water she served was not cold enough to having no reason at all,” notes Kapoor, highlighting the consequences of power and control of one person over the other in a family.
While the rest of the world is busy not to infect themselves of contagion, life becomes hell for those at the receiving end in the confines of a home. The situation is worse―perhaps the worst―in India. According to a 2019 survey by OECD’s Gender, Institutions and Development Database, the female-to-male ratio of average time spent on unpaid domestic, care and volunteer work in India is among the worst in the world, with women spending up to 10 times more hours on such work as compared with men.
A woman Open spoke to in Mumbai, who lives in Bandra (East) and is employed in the IT sector, has found her marital situation at its most hellish peak in her 10-year marriage. “Ever since the lockdown has begun, life has become nightmarish for me with my husband and in-laws digging up old issues, abusing my parents and demeaning me every second they are awake in the house. I am humiliated in front of my children. It is very difficult to work from home. Although there is no physical violence, emotional violence is forcing me to the brink. I am in touch with some helplines for counselling. I sleep in a separate room and so manage to call them at night. Thanks to their encouragement, I have started to question those who hurt me with their nasty comments,” she says, adding that her husband’s overt disrespect and scorn distress her the most. “Earlier, most of the family used to eat out, except for breakfast, and now I have to cook for all of them and nobody shares the burden of home chores,” she adds.
Kapoor says that not all women are lucky enough to have access to phones. “And even if they have one, they can’t speak to us [in the presence of others]. Some others have not been able to fill airtime and so can’t reach out for help,” she says.
Help itself can be a subjective term in such complex, private situations since reaching out to outsiders is not as simple as it sounds, and may only provide short-term reprieve. Many reasons hold women back from lodging a police complaint: from an underlying fear of repercussion, guilt of destabilising family structures, to the resulting social stigma. In any case, with the police being snowed in by the task of enforcing quarantine, the overworked authorities are not able to address many domestic grievances as would have been possible in normal times.
Despite such difficulties that women face amidst this unprecedented health crisis to stand up for their rights, there are some who manage to make the call. The National Commission for Women (NCW) has received over 250 complaints of offences against women since the countrywide lockdown (March 23rd to April 1st) out of which 69 were cases of domestic violence, which it said has been increasing since then. After the NCW data came out, its chairperson Rekha Sharma said what most women’s rights groups have cautioned against: that the number of cases of domestic violence must be much higher but the women are scared to complain due to the constant presence of their abuser at home. The corresponding figure in the first week of last month (from March 2nd-8th) was 116. Open’s attempts to speak with women in Chandigarh, Lucknow and Patna were met with resistance. Victims identified by various women rights groups flatly denied any domestic abuse. Ironically, domestic violence is highest in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Haryana. “The victims naturally fear for their lives in some of these places,” a director of a women’s helpline in Chandigarh said on condition of anonymity since she did not want to endanger the victims her NGO is associated with. “We are in the 21st century but men in these households live in the Dark Ages of deeply entrenched patriarchy and mistreat women endlessly,” she says, noting that “it is no wonder that rapes are seen as a man’s right in some of these districts and states despite the heroic work done by various activists”. Some of the helplines that Open reached out to include Nazariya, Shakti Shalini, Jagoori, Nari Samta Manch, Aali, Cehat and others. While some of them responded promptly, others either did not respond or requested anonymity.
Janaki (named changed), who works in a tony south Delhi neighbourhood as a cook and housekeeper, says that her only solace from regular domestic abuse was to escape to the kothi (mansion) where she worked. “At least, I was out of the house for six or seven hours a day,” says the 32-year-old mother of two school-going children, whose daily-wager husband is prone to drinking alcohol and beating her up to compensate for his frequent loss of jobs. Her employers have sent her on a paid leave until the lockdown ends, but even the assurance of a paycheck at the end of the month doesn’t relieve her from the dismal situation she now finds herself in, locked in at home with her abuser for 24 hours a day. She calls up her employer every few days: “Can I come to work for a few hours? The work must have piled up, don’t you need me? I’ll wear a mask,” she implores them.
While the lockdown is being seen by those in functional families as a time to help one another, build bonds and as an opportunity for a creative sabbatical, those in dysfunctional families across social categories are seeing old relationship scars and bitter truths swept under the carpet itching and swelling again. Kapoor of Swayam hastens to add that the list of perpetrators she knows includes flourishing lawyers, doctors, politicians, industrialists and well-known faces with cheerful public personas.
Sangeeta Rege of the Mumbai-headquartered Cehat, short for Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, which was set up in 2000 to link the health sector and domestic violence, says her team accepts the limitations for women to reach out to them during the lockdown. Which is why they are doing it the other way around, in a kind of a ‘Muhammad must go to the mountain’ initiative. Cehat is in possession of what they call ‘safe’ phone numbers of vulnerable women and know the time they can have a chat with them. Without ruffling feathers of others at home, they make a courtesy call, exchange pleasantries and in between, make an offer of help which would elicit a yes or no answer. The organisation is also worried about the abortion rights of women since many clinics are closed temporarily. Cehat, which sees hospitals as the first port of call for women in distress, works closely with local bodies and police in Mumbai. They also offer legal aid to women who reach hospitals and disclose the hardships at home. This Cehat model has been replicated in Haryana, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, and so on. “We offer technical expertise to them,” says Rege, emphasising that their ‘crisis centres’ handle extreme cases that include rape, homicides, suicides, burning, and so on.
This trend in the rise of domestic violence is a global phenomenon. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently asked governments to handle it as a key part of the fight against Covid-19. “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest,” he stated, terming the surge in such violence as “horrifying”. Certainly, Indian women are not the lone victims of their men’s mean ways and perverse instincts. Yet, considering that patriarchal norms run abysmally deep in this country, perhaps much more than any other in the democratic world, it is a woeful entrapment for our women in the worst of times.