Roman philosopher Cicero famously remarked, “Inter arma enim silent lēgēs” meaning “In times of war, the law falls silent”.
Ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has witnessed a sudden hike in the cases of domestic violence. This has been an unintended yet scathing consequence of the containment measures taken to ensure the safety and well-being of citizens from the possible spread of COVID-19. This nationwide lockdown has thus not only exacerbated the existing patriarchal setup and misogynistic landscape but has also produced a new set of challenges to victims of domestic abuse. The following article intends to delineate the current legal context with respect to domestic violence and COVID-19, and further suggest measures and reforms that the executive and judiciary can adopt to combat the same.
The Domestic Panorama
The National Commission of Women (‘NCW’) has observed a recent spurt in the cases of domestic violence in the nation, having received 587 such complaints between March 23 and April 16. As the police are overburdened with enforcing lockdown guidelines, abusers continue to subvert and distort gender dynamics.
Such a sudden surge can be attributed to the escalating economic and employment incertitude, the dearth of social interaction, unavailability of alcohol, additional domestic workload for women due to infestation, and lockdown restrictions that have hindered victims from reaching out to authorities for help. Further, there is a constant fear of contracting the virus by going outside, which also deters victims from reaching out to their family and friends.
In these testing times, violence driven by mounting psychological issues is likely to remain persistent even after the lockdown as the economy struggles to recuperate and there is looming uncertainty regarding job security and income, which has dire consequences with respect to domestic violence. Unemployment, particularly for men, can lead to reduced control over financial stability and thus aggravate the tendency to exercise more dominance over their spouses. On the other hand, job and financial security for females act as a safeguard against domestic abuse as their income provides economic stability to the family – thus unemployment of women takes away this safeguard and makes them prone to the abuse. Not only this, but the plight of employment also affects their financial independence and self-empowered status (See; Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett, and Sara MacLanahan, ‘Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession’ (2016) Demography 471-505).
The Role of Judiciary so far
With respect to India, Section (3) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, (hereinafter PWDVA) defines the act of domestic violence as the one which involves any act, omission or commission resulting in abuse through physical, sexual, economic, verbal and emotional means.
Recently, a PIL has been filed in Delhi HC seeking the intervention of the judiciary to ensure proper implementation of the provisions of the PWDVA in light of COVID-19. The plea also states if the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 can be coupled with PWDVA for providing adequate support and assistance to victims of domestic violence. The court, as a matter of fact, has taken cognizance of such a huge rise in the number of domestic abuse cases and has even directed the central government, state governments, and other relevant authorities to convene a high-level meeting for deliberations on what other measures can be taken to control the instances of indoor crimes.
On a similar note, the J&K HC has taken suo moto cognizance of the rise in the cases of domestic abuse and issued some directions to the authorities by particularly referring to Section 11(a) of PWDVA, which talks about giving vast publicity to the provisions of the legislation for safeguarding the rights of women who are victims of domestic violence. The HC observed that every catastrophe inordinately affects the female section of society, and while COVID-19 has an immense repercussion on economies and societies worldwide, the adverse socio-economic ramifications are disproportionately worse for women and girls. The Court, as a matter of fact, suggested for policy reform in order to combat the issue of domestic violence, as it directed the government to declare a dedicated fund to cope up with rising domestic violence as part of the COVID-19 action plan.
The Global Viewpoint
The World Health Organisation (‘WHO’) in its recently released report, stated that Europe has seen a 60% rise in the phone calls for filing domestic abuse cases. Further, the United Nations Population Fund (‘UNFPA’) termed the present situation as ‘calamitous’ and predicted that there would be around thirty-one million more cases of domestic abuse across the globe, if restrictions extend by another six months.
However, various countries across the globe have acted with alacrity in acknowledging this escalation, as countries like France, Spain, Canada, and Malaysia have devised numerous proactive regimes to combat this issue. The sudden surge in cases of abuse has led Canada to open rehabilitation shelters for the victims; while countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Norway have come up with a unique campaign called, Mascarilla-19 (Mask-19). Under this ‘Mask-19’ campaign, a victim needs to reach out to the nearest pharmacy and ask for a mask. Meanwhile, the chemist would take down her name and whereabouts, and would inform the authorities about the same. Considering the intensity of the issue, the Government of Italy has also launched a mobile app which entitles the victim to reach out to authorities without having a telephonic conversation with them, thus keeping the complaint confidential.
The United Nations has also acknowledged the escalation of domestic abuse by calling it a ‘shadow pandemic’; a pandemic which is persisting in the garb of COVID-19 pandemic. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has urged all the member states to consider the prohibition and remedy for abuses against women an important aspect in their national action plans to constrain the spread of the virus, and also recommended some proactive measures that can be taken to ameliorate the state of affairs.
Potential Solutions via Policy Reforms
Based on the approach taken by the High Courts on the issue, the Supreme Court of India, as the highest court of law, can play a significant part in re-empowering the basic human rights granted by the Constitution and international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified by India. These obligations may not be legally shunned even in times of a disaster, and in fact, impose an obligation upon the states to take remedial steps regarding the collateral consequences of pandemic control measures.
The Apex Court, as a pre-emptive measure, can also set up a high-level committee comprising judges for deliberating upon the feasibility of reforms in the existing domestic violence justice system to make it more efficient and robust, and the recommendations of this committee can be sent to the government as a suggestion from the court.
Further, reaching out to victims needs to be included within the purview of essential services. A specific regulation regarding women needs to be incorporated in the National Plan developed under the National Disaster Management Act which will ensure special assistance to the victims of domestic abuse in times like these. The government also needs to allocate a dedicated fund to deal with the instances of domestic violence as a part of the Covid-19 action plan.
Moreover, as per a recent report released by the standing committee on HRD, the budgetary allocation for mechanisms pertaining to the safety of women and girls under the ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ was underutilized and a mere 36% of the total fund has been used across ministries since 2013. While the fund has been dedicated to measures that ensure safety for women in public places, the current scenario warrants a considerable allocation to address the issue of domestic violence at the national level. The state has overlooked the exigency to formally consolidate ‘domestic abuse and its repercussions on mental health’ into the public health preparedness and national action plans being developed to address the health emergency.
A Need of the Hour
There is a need for increased awareness regarding access to online/call-in legal and counseling mechanisms so as to ensure discreet filing of complaints. Besides this, guidelines should be issued to police to refrain from intimidating the victims by any means and register complaints with utmost sincerity, given the sensitive nature of the issue. Further, the Indian Government should follow the strategy adopted by countries like Canada and France as the situation warrants an immediate declaration of safe places (places like empty schools, colleges, and hotels) as accessible shelter homes for women who are forced to vacate their houses due to violence. These shelter homes, apart from protecting the affected women, will also act as facilitators in improving the reliance of victims on the government machinery.
Further, NCW and SCWs together can collaborate with local NGOs and self-help groups (SHGs) at the district level itself. With respect to cases that were registered to them pre-lockdown, they can play an important role in tracking the current status of those cases via phone calls, emails, or by enquiring family members and friends about the victims. Besides this, a public health representative can be appointed at a ward level in rural areas to act as the first source of contact for victims.
The Way Forward
The ongoing pandemic has not only escalated the instances of domestic violence but also produced ample impediments in both filing of complaints by victims and providing necessary support to them. There is an urgent need to strengthen existing frameworks to address the instances of domestic violence, as well as to formulate new measures to deal with this shadow pandemic. However, there would undoubtedly be a significant difference in the measures taken during this period and in normal circumstances. So, it is important to assure that the recourse taken will cater to women across all levels of society, irrespective of their educational qualifications, access to technology, or the place of residence. What requires to be acknowledged is that dealing with the abusers and perpetrators is as important as fighting a sinister virus.
(This post has been authored by Adarsh Kumar and Yashendra, first year law students at National Law University, Delhi)
Cite as: Adarsh Kumar and Yashendra, ‘Domestic Violence: An Unseen Crisis during Covid-19 pandemic’ (The Contemporary Law Forum, 03 August 2020) <https://tclf.in/2020/08/03/domestic-violence:-an-unseen-crisis-during-covid-19-pandemic> date of access.