For many women during the pandemic, the call to “Stay Home, Stay Safe” was a cruel joke. In a phenomenon that has now been widely reported on, cases of domestic violence skyrocketed during the months of lockdown, as victims were often locked in with abusers. To call attention to this disturbing surge, the United Nations (UN) will focus heavily on it during the Sixteen Days’ Campaign after 25 November, the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. But how will campaigns such as these, conducted from on high, affect ground realities? To understand that, we have to first get to the crux of the issue.
According to the UN, domestic violence refers to “physical, sexual, and psychological violence occurring in the family.” This includes practices ranging from spousal violence to dowry harassment.
Many of these acts often do not have any punishment for them in the rulebook. In India, for example, marital rape is not officially considered a crime. Calls for it to be included in the books have been shot down under various pretexts.
To be clear, India already had a wide-spread domestic violence problem. But as the Indian government imposed successive and draconian lockdowns, most abusers, who would typically be at work, spent even more time with their victims.
Further, the economic and other stresses engendered by the lockdown exacerbated the issue, appearing in the form of problematic behaviour on the part of the abusers.
There is also the concern that even the increase in numbers might not convey the scale of the issue. Because of the stay-at-home orders issued by the government, privacy was essentially non-existent for victims of abuse, which means many of them did not have any means to report such abuse.
To throw light on this issue, the UN will focus heavily on the uptick in domestic violence during this year’s Sixteen Days’ Campaign. The Sixteen Days’ Campaign, for those who don’t know, is a period of activism from 25 November to 10 December — celebrated as International Human Rights Day — to raise awareness about various forms of gender-based violence, etc.
Yet, spreading awareness of the issue is not enough. What is needed is a multi-pronged strategy to combat it. This cannot be achieved by any one stakeholder: a coalition of State actors, NGOs, and members of civil society must ensure that survivors are granted redress in whichever way possible.
Aks Foundation, for example, has been working with survivors of domestic violence throughout the Covid pandemic. The crisis helpline has been running 24×7 throughout, offering help to survivors. As the lockdown wanes and waxes, depending on the virus, it is essential that like-minded organisations keep up the effort — and consign domestic violence to the dustbin of history.