Vedant Jain, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun
In declaring the nationwide lockdown from 24th March the government failed to address several concerns where there was a need to develop a strategy to deal with the upcoming administrative situation and one among various vital issues was the issue of domestic violence and offences related to women in India. The term domestic violence has been defined in many countries to refer to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), but also include elder abuse or abuse of any member of the household. According to WHO, one in every three women in the world experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. It has been proved in many situations that abuse of such kind increases during a health emergency and also in the epidemic, the same has happened across India in the last one and half months.
During the mandatory lockdown, social distancing norms and uncertain economic conditions lead to an increase in the cases of domestic violence. In the United States, United Kingdom, China, Brazil, Australia and many other countries the cases are on the rise and the same pattern can be seen in India. The issue becomes grave as India ranks as 4th worst country for gender equality and rights related to the women. After the lockdown, the National Commission of Women had received an increased number of complaints related to domestic violence largely through email and a dedicated WhatsApp number and not a single complaint through the post. National Commission for Women (as of April 17) said that it had reported 587 cases of domestic violence between March 23rd –April 16th – a significant surge from the 396 complaints they had received in the previous 25 days. Several other women's rights organisations also received various complains regarding the violence against women.
The significant increase in the cases of domestic violence can be attributed to various socio-economic factors such as unemployment, financial crises, particularly the daily wage labourers who are facing a shortage of wages, stressed, these factors are also responsible for the cases of domestic violence as we have seen whenever there is an increase in the poverty then there is a rise in the crime, as a crime in the society has in many cases direct link with the financial condition and standard of life of the perpetrator. The lockdown has caused a tremendous amount of social, mental, emotional and financial stress among the various sections of the society, though it is not an excuse for this horrifying crime, it surely plays an important factor in understanding the psychological behaviour while dealing with the crime. The most common remedy which is provided is that the victim is shifted to shelter home away from the aggressor but not the other way around, the aggressor should be separated from the family and not the victim. Domestic violence does not include the acts of gender inequality and unequal distribution of resources within the household as these are the other ways in which exploitation of women takes place.
The flaw in the Domestic Violence Act is that it does not provide a remedy to the old-in-Laws where they are being mistreated by their daughter-in-law, as you see Section 2 (a), it defines the aggrieved person as any woman who is or has been in a domestic relationship with the respondent and who has alleged to have been subjected to any act of domestic violence by the respondent. Section 2(q) defines "respondent" as any adult male person who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the aggrieved person and against whom the aggrieved person has sought any relief under this Act. The ultimate aim of the act is to protect any women from abuse within the household but it does not provide the provision where mother-in-law or any other female relative that can file a complaint against daughter-in-law, as domestic violence can also take place against elderly women. However, the Delhi High Court in 2011 judgement in case of Kusum Lata Sharma v. State & Ors., where it was held that mother-in-law being "aggrieved person" could file a complaint against daughter-in-law as Respondent. Another shortcoming is that in the case of D. Velusamy v. D. Patchaiammal while addressing the issue of the live-in relationship the court observed that the if the man has a 'Keep' whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purposes or as a servant it would not come under the relationship like marriage. The Court further observed that “No doubt the view we are taking would exclude many women who have had a live-in relationship from the benefit of the 2005 Act, but then it is not for this Court to legislate or amend the law. Parliament has used the expression ‘relationship like marriage’ and not ‘live-in relationship’. The Court in the grab of interpretation cannot change the language of the statute ”. These types of cases are not reported and the women who are economically dependent on men at this time are being abused economically. Therefore the provision should be amended to comprehensively satisfy the objective of the act.
In India theory of battered women is not legally recognised but Madras High court has recognised the “Nallathangal Syndrome” in which women coerced to commit suicide or have to kill their children because of economic abuse or psychological, verbal and physical violence. In some cases like in rural areas, they are ingrained with the traditional socialization process which makes them hide the violence and sustain their relationship.
The actual number of cases might be under-reported as the complaints are lodged through email and WhatsApp which only literate, upper class and women who are aware of their rights but the real problem lies in the rural and slum areas where the illiteracy and ignorance play a major role in exploitation and violence against women. This also further increases the concerns. This is because the women are locked with their abuser and do not get the access to a mobile phone or space and time, with limited access to financial resources and restricted social network or even the courage when she could call for help. In other words, all options of escape for the former from their situation of despair are impaired . Thus, the intensity of the impediments she would normally face has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the lockdown . This highlights that irrespective of the socio-economic conditions the victim could be anywhere and everywhere.
Young girls are also the victims of COVID19 as many families are seeing this as an opportunity to marry them off as minors. Chairperson Antony Sebastian of Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights has highlighted the recent spike in such cases in the state. With the police and authorities concentrated on implementing the lockdown, families are using it as an occasion. The situation is miserable as many girls who try to prevent marriages are facing physical violence in their houses and are unable to reach the police or NGOs due to the lockdown.
In a crisis like COVID19, the shortage of food may occur due to less commercial activities, so the women and daughters are the first victims to these problems, also the question on healthcare remains the same as it imposes an extra economic burden on the family to think about women healthcare. Restricted access to sexual and reproductive health is another issue at gender-based violence. The WHO has already said that "the health impacts of violence, particularly intimate partner/domestic violence, on women and their children are significant. Violence against women can result in injuries and serious physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies". As article 51 (e) of the Indian constitution states that to promote harmony and the spirit of the 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 as the good citizen of this country you have to fulfil your duty, we have to equally be aware of our duty, as we are aware of our Fundamental rights. Thus, the basic structure of the constitution of our country permits equality of status and thus negates the gender bias. The dignity of women is of utmost importance whatever maybe the situation in the country.
International conventions such as Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women has been ratified by 174 states and is recognised as one of the major International Human rights treaties. The general recommendation no. 19 adopted by the convention notes that “Gender-based Violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general International Law or under the human right convention is discrimination”.
The Vienna conference in 1993 on human rights which expressly recognised that the rights of women are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of human rights, the Vienna declaration also declared that the “Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual exploitation including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking are incompatible with the dignity and worth of a human person and must be eliminated”.
Beijing declaration and the platform for action (1995) observed that the violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of equality, development and peace, the platforms call for the government to take action to address the several critical areas of concern among them is the violence against women. Women rights are part of the human rights spectrum.
Indeed the exploitation of women in the country shows another pandemic but the government has to develop a policy framework around the current socio-economic crisis and inform the relevance to the citizens. There should be an approach towards preventive measures such as counselling which is a very effective way to solve this mental, social, economic and emotional crisis ongoing in many households. Professional counsellors, trained mediators, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists or anyone for that matter who could help must come forward towards helping those in need. This could be achieved through phone, Whatsapp, video-conferencing or even through mass media. Police at this time may not be as effective in solving this situation due to other engagements they are involved in.
The government needs to give monetary benefit to the NGOs rather than to entirely relying on the Asha workers on whom the burden of the community welfare is already very high, the government should allow the workers of the NGOs to travel without being stopped by the police, by providing guidelines and proper procedures, as the Act provides the registration of the non- governmental organisation as service providers for assisting the aggrieved person for her medical examination, obtaining safe shelter and legal aid. Some other measures that can be taken up are appointing protection officers for the protection of women under the domestic violence act. If protection officers cannot be appointed then temporary officers may be appointed during a lockdown. Punitive measures may not be useful at this hour to effectively handle this shadow pandemic.
The COVID19 lockdown may have highlighted the inadequacy in the current anti-domestic violence laws because unless the traditional mindset of the patriarchal society is not changed the laws cannot do anything to stop this crime. It is important to impart ideas of gender equality, respect between partners and modern feministic values to stop this abuse against the women. Eliminating the discrimination and violence against women is also one of the goals of SDG 5 which are scheduled to be achieved by 2030. In flattening the curve of COVID19, the mental and physical health of women took a hard hit and suffered collateral damage. In response to coronavirus, the government should have also looked at the domestic violence repercussions.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, No. 45, Act of Parliament, 2005 (India).
Kusum Lata Sharma v. State & Ors., Crl.M.C. No. 725 of 2011.
D. Velusamy v. D. Patchaiammal, (2010) 10 SCC 469.
Simi Mehta et al., Addressing Domestic Violence: A forgotten agenda while locking India down, Observer Research Foundation (Apr. 8, 2020), https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/addressing-domestic-violence-a-forgotten-agenda-while-locking-india-down-64301/.
INDIA CONST. art. 51, cl. (e).
Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, World Conference on Human Rights, 1993.
The Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995.