[By Aashi Shah. The author is a student of Pravin Gandhi College of Law .]
While the world came to a halt due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, several women had to battle two pandemics at a time. The unanticipated lockdown made it difficult for women to escape households with violent environments. Furthermore, economic losses acted as a catalyst to the increasing violence against women.
Additionally, the pandemic resulted in the breakdown of societal infrastructure including health, transport, food, sanitation, legal, security, and other governance structures. This has a causal effect on women getting exposed to more gender-based and domestic violence.
The author, through this article, explains how domestic violence results in a gross violation of fundamental rights. By the same token, the article elaborates on the steps taken by the authorities during the pandemic to curb the intensifying domestic violence and suggests additional steps for the same.
AN ADDITIONAL PANDEMIC FOR WOMEN
The United Nations Chief calls for domestic violence ‘ceasefire’ amid the ‘horrifying global surge’ in the cases of domestic violence globally and urged nation-states to take adequate measures for the safety of women and girls.
Even before the pandemic, one-third of women in India were victims of domestic violence as reported by Nation Family Health Survey of 2015-2016. According to research, it is seen that during times of economic hardships, abusive and violent behaviour often increases. Lack of means to report cases, increasing financial losses, confinement, and weak institutionalised responses have amplified the levels of domestic violence.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) registered a more than twofold rise in gender-based violence ever since the lockdown. The number of cases during this period has been the highest in the past 10 years. Most of these cases were reported through the NCW WhatsApp helpline number, however, 67% of women in India do not have internet access. Moreover, many cases have gone unreported due to the constant presence of the perpetrator in the house.
Furthermore, in low-income households, husbands tend to be more abusive and channelize their frustration on women. Women who are financially dependent on their husbands suffered more. Given the impact of Covid-19 on domestic violence, policies and strategies need to be implemented to mitigate the adverse effects on women, aggravated by the economic and social settings.
RESPONSE OF THE AUTHORITIES
Role of the Judiciary
At this time of distress, it became an imperative duty of the Executive and the Judiciary to implement the laws efficiently and take into account the case of non-compliance. An important judgment was passed by the Supreme Court of India in 2020 while deciding the case of Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja,[i] regarding the statutory right of the wife to reside in the matrimonial house without getting evicted as most wives are dependent solely on the house of her spouse or his family. This right is derived from section 17 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. The act is a legislature piece that defines domestic violence and provides remedies to a survivor of domestic violence. The Judiciary has ruled pivotal and more liberal judgments while deciding cases under this Act.
The division bench of the Delhi High Court in All India Council of Human Rights Liberties v. Union of India,[ii] directed the Central government and the Government of Delhi to convene a high-level meeting to take expeditious steps to protect the victims of domestic violence and suggested the appointment of temporary protection officers. Similarly, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir took suo-moto cognisance in In Re: Court on Its Own Motion v. Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh through Secretaries, Social Welfare Department, ordered measures to improve online telecommunication, establishing a fund for the victims and corresponding interim orders.
Measures taken by the States
Due to the urgent need of police authorities on the frontline during the pandemic, the sufferers of domestic violence may have been side-lined. There has been a three times increase in police-apathy to the victims of domestic violence.
The quickest mode of communication has been initiated with the launch of the WhatsApp helpline number by the National Commission for Women (NCW). Moreover, the NCW also announced a Crisis Intervention Centre (CIC) in the event of critical cases.
An initiative named “Suppress Corona, NOT your Voice – Dial 112” was launched by the Uttar Pradesh Police for women to not shy away from the crime. The Zilla Parishad of Pune also quarantined abusive husbands to protect the wives from further violence.
Several states took such requisite steps however, the soaring cases needed an institutionalised, speedier, and robust response.
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE
Domestic Violence Act, 2005
Time and again, the Supreme Court has reiterated that domestic violence leads to the abuse of fundamental rights of the victim. In Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi, the Supreme Court held that everyone has the right to be free from violence.[iii]
However, there has been a lack of duty by the Centre and the State to enforce the sections in accordance with the Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Agencies starting from the local levels must implement the law constructively.
Section 8 and section 9 of the Act requires the States to appoint Protection Officers to provide legal aid to the victim, shelter home, medical examination, etc. However, not all States have been prompt in appointing Protection Officers which in result hinders the prevention or reporting of domestic violence.
Breaking the stigmas surrounding domestic violence
The roots of a patriarchal society are so deep in the Indian culture that women tend to neglect their sufferings to save the “reputation of the family”. This has resulted in less reporting of cases of domestic violence. Therefore, it is necessary to break these shackles of patriarchy and take a more humane approach.
It is the duty of every Indian citizen “to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women” according to Article 51-A of the Constitution of India. Thus, more awareness should be spread towards the issue of domestic violence and it should be sensitized in a way that victims feel safe to report their crime.
It has been argued vehemently that due to the lockdown restrictions women were unable to report the crime, therefore, the roles of neighbours, community members, and other bystanders become more vital.[iv] An effective way for this could be building capacities among first responders.
Need for more inclusivity
Often women who come from the LGBTQI community, Dalits, Muslims, and other minority sections of the society have been neglected by the local police, state administration, and central government. This makes it ardently vital for more inclusivity in the statutory laws and policies announced by the State.
A feminist and intersectional approach is required to ensure that survivors do not take domestic violence as a private affair. It becomes indispensable for the community to realise that different women experience a different form of domestic violence. Therefore, a feminist and intersectional approach can broaden the understanding of how women with disabilities, women at lower strata of the economy, illiterate women, transgender women, women living with joint families, migrating women, and women living in other forms of arrangements face a rather grave form of violence.
The pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for law enforcing agencies, governmental and non-governmental organisations, and the society at large to join hands together to fight this evil consequence of patriarchy.
[i] Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja, (2021) 1 SCC 414.
[ii] All India Council of Human Rights Liberties v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine Del 537.
[iii] Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi, (1981) 1 SCC 608.
[iv] Katz J, Moore J. Bystander Vol. 28, Issue 6, JENNIFER KATZ ET. AL., VIOLENCE AND VICTIMS (2013).