Pandemics, such as the current SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) outbreak, have a huge effect on people, families, and nations. People must live with the infection’s effects as well as the precautionary steps taken to control it, such as isolation, social distancing, and movement restrictions. Domestic violence (DV) is a form of gender-based violence that occurs in the home and often includes the spouse or partner, as well as other family members. DV has raised a significant obstacle for frontline mental health providers as a result of the ongoing pandemic and the resulting lockdown. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Women registered a rise in violence against women and children. However, due to limitations in both receiving assistance and monitoring, determining the point prevalence is difficult. Professionals have reported difficulties in assessment, service delivery, and connecting women to suitable services, while women have reported difficulty in finding support. This article investigates the processes underlying DV during COVID-19, as well as its manifestations, challenges in offering assistance during the pandemic, and guidelines for health practitioners and mental health service providers. It also addresses data collection and research issues, as well as guidance for different stakeholders on how to deal with DV in future pandemics.
Keywords: COVID-19, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, pandemic, women
What is domestic violence?
“The 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act broadens the scope of domestic violence to include any act (omission or commission) that damages, injures, or endangers a woman’s physical or mental well-being, including physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, or economic assault”.
The interventions introduced to tackle the CO¬VID-19 pandemic altered the everyday lives of all. Domestic violence victims were held closed in abusive marriages, with increased risk of violence, as communities had to shut down practices, industries, and facilities, and populations were limited to isolation at home. Domestic violence is a broad term that refers to a variety of types of abuse in a close or dependent family relationship, including physical, psychological, mental, sexual, and financial abuse.
One in every three women in the world is subjected to physical or sexual assault, the majority of which is perpetrated by an intimate partner. Human rights violations include violence against women and children. At least once in their lives, an estimated 736 million women—nearly one in every three—have been victims of intimate partner abuse, non-partner sexual violence, or both (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older). Sexual abuse is not included in this statistic. The rates of depression, anxiety disorders, unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV are higher in women who have undergone violence compared to women who have not, as well as many other health issues that can last long after the violence has ended. Present or former husbands or intimate partners are the most common perpetrators of violence against women. Intimate partner abuse has affected more than 640 million women aged 15 and up (26 per cent of women aged 15 and older). Almost one in every four teenage girls aged 15 to 19 (24%) who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse by an intimate partner or spouse. In the previous 12 months, sixteen percent of young women aged 15 to 24 had witnessed this abuse. In 2018, one in every seven women reported having been physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner or husband in the previous 12 months (13 per cent of women aged 15 to 49). The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised risk factors for violence against women, is not reflected in these figures..
Who can file a complaint under the domestic violence law and against whom?
A woman can file a domestic violence complaint if she is or has been in a domestic relationship with the respondent. A “domestic relationship” is described by the law as a relationship between two people who have lived together in a common household at one time and are linked by blood, marriage, a relationship in the nature of marriage (including live-in relationships), adoption, or are family members. When they are in a marriage or a relationship in the nature of a marriage, a complaint of domestic violence can be filed against not only the husband or male partner, but also a relative of the husband or male partner.
Barriers to reporting amidst a pandemic
The series of COVID-19 lockdowns in India diminished the opportunities of reporting of domestic violence cases. Here’s why:
- Restricted movement: Women were rendered immobile by the lockout, which prevented them from fleeing to safer areas in the event of crime or rape. Women’s privacy was eroded as men and women cohabitated for longer periods of time, and incidents of abuse increased.
- Handicapped mediums of communication: The NCW’s Whatsapp number had a limited reach because only 38% of Indian women own phones and even fewer have internet access, making this platform inaccessible to the majority of women in the country.
- Reduced contact with the natal family: The victim’s natal family is normally the first point of contact. They are not only necessary for assisting the victim in filing a lawsuit, but they also make filing complaints with the police easier. Victims found it impossible to reach their first responder due to the perpetrator’s relentless presence, which discouraged them from reporting to institutionalized networks.
- Lack of formal support: During the lockdown, the machinery established under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was not identified as an important service. Hence, the protection officers were not able to visit households of victims, NGOs were not able to have physical interactions with them and the police officers being at the frontline in our effort to tackle COVID-19 were overstretched to help victims effectively.
The domestic violence phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic
Domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to follow previous pandemic trends, in which social isolation, economic insecurity, loss of income, and related stress and family tensions were all linked to an increased risk of violence.
However, since there is a legal requirement for imprisonment at home in the current pandemic, the incidence of domestic abuse could be higher than in other disaster situations.
Domestic abuse has risen as a result of the pandemic, according to reports from around the world. In April 2020, the WHO observed a 60% rise in emergency calls from women experiencing intimate partner abuse in European member states as compared to the same timeframe the previous year. France reported a 30% increase in cases of domestic violence since March. Germany and Spain also recorded increases in domestic violence reports and need for emergency shelter. In contrast, an 8.6% decrease in complaints of domestic violence was registered in Portugal between January and September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and a similar trend was observed in Italy.
The pandemic revealed many flaws in the system, emphasising the need for a strong system that efficiently deals with domestic abuse. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called on countries to account for domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lockdown policies and to pay particular attention to the needs of this community of survivors.
For many, the pandemic has been a turbulent period, and the confusion and unpredictability of the situation has resulted in a rise in domestic violence incidents. Domestic violence during the pandemic was dubbed the “Shadow Pandemic,” and it revealed a lack of sufficient infrastructure and preparedness, despite a substantial body of evidence suggesting a causal link between a large-scale life-changing occurrence like a pandemic, economic crisis, or natural disasters and a rise in domestic violence.
Due to under-reported cases and victims’ under-utilization of social services, documenting the early impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on domestic violence has been difficult. The need to comprehend the occurrence of domestic violence during this pandemic is growing and urgent. Evidence like this is crucial for developing successful strategies for preventing abuse and assisting victims. The NOVA National School of Public Health, in partnership with Ghent University, initiated the research project “Violence in Intimate Relationships in Times of COVID-19: Gender Inequalities and (New) Contours of Domestic Violence?” in response to a lack of data on domestic violence in pandemic situations. The aim of this project was to better understand the effect of lockdowns on domestic violence and to shed light on how victims sought support during this crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we investigated the prevalence of domestic abuse, related causes, and aid seeking.
Domestic violence has escalated globally, fueled by mandatory stay-at-home laws, physical separation, economic uncertainty, and anxieties brought about by the pandemic. Domestic abuse and intimate partner violence have risen in countries around the world, including China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Tunisia, France, Australia, and others. India, a nation notorious for gender-based violence (and, according to public opinion, the fourth worst country for gender equality), is seeing similar patterns.
Emergencies exacerbate domestic violence:
We know that women are more vulnerable during crises, like health disasters like pandemics. We also know that during periods of economic distress, aggressive, abusive, impulsive, compulsive, and manipulating behavior and violence directed at cohabiting partners and romantic partners increases. Since the Great Depression, this has been extensively researched, with landmark studies (such as feminist scholar Mirra Komarovsky’s The Unemployed Man and His Family) demonstrating the negative effects of unemployment, lost income, and economic distress on marital discord, parenting efficiency, and child well-being.
Women whose livelihoods have been impacted by the crisis could now be in financial difficulty, which is one of the obstacles to escaping a violent household. Women who may have been putting money together to quit may now have to spend it elsewhere.
The lockdown affects the situation further:
The National Commission of Women (NCW) noted an increase in the number of domestic violence complaints received by email within a few days of the lockdown in India. Since the majority of complaints come from women who send their complaints by mail and may not be able to access the internet, the NCW chairperson claims the true number is likely to be higher. The NCW received 310 complaints of domestic violence and 885 complaints of other forms of violence against women between the beginning of March and April 5th, many of which are domestic in nature, such as bigamy, polygamy, dowry deaths, and dowry abuse.
The number of cases reported is unlikely to reflect the real increase in domestic abuse. This is due to the fact that people who are locked up with their perpetrators do not have access to a phone or the room and time to call for help. The majority of options for seeking support or physically removing themselves from their conditions are severely restricted.
Being locked in a room with violent or deceptive people can result in increased threats, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, embarrassment, intimidation, and controlling behaviour. A lockdown increases the ability to isolate an individual from family and friends, track their activities, and limit access to financial services, job opportunities, education, and medical care. These behaviours frequently have long-term consequences for people and can have a direct impact on their mental health and well-being.
Domestic abuse perpetrators’ grip has tightened in India during the pandemic. Victims of abuse are cut off from their usual support networks, making it impossible for them to seek help. The Prime Minister of India announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020, in order to stop the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. The National Commission on Women (NCW) registered a 100 percent increase in domestic violence reports within a fortnight. The NCW then introduced a national Whatsapp number to provide an alternative way for women to report domestic violence.
The Indian government’s response to the pandemic was sluggish and reactive. The imposition of mandatory stay-at-home orders came as a shock to many survivors, isolating them socially. During the lockout, India’s National Commission for Women (NCW) registered a significant rise in cases. Between the 25th of March and the 31st of May 2020, the NCW received approximately 1,477 reports of domestic abuse. The NCW Whatsapp helpline received about 727 of these complaints. During this time, the number of cases was at its peak in ten years.
Although the transition to tech-based solutions was obvious and easy, it raises the question of what survivors who do not have access to technology or comparable resources do in such situations. In India, where only 35% of women have access to technology, thinking of an alternative, a more equitable approach becomes more relevant.
The emphasis on a centralised framework for dealing with domestic abuse cases, which includes the courts, government departments, and law enforcement, makes access to justice more difficult and strained. The government failed to develop a coherent national strategy that would address the needs of a diverse population. NGOs and other organisations petitioned the government and courts to take urgent and immediate action to address the situation. In response to a petition filed before it, the Delhi High Court ordered the various state-bodies involved in providing assistance to survivors to convene a meeting at the highest level to discuss appropriate ways to enforce the Act and the petitioners’ suggestions in light of the increase in cases. The respondents in their reaction detailed the numerous steps that were already put into place such as the 181 hotline that was run 24/7, communication with the child protection committees, among others. While the Court praised the actions taken, it recommended that the Act be fully enforced, with personnel being properly educated, and that the recruitment of temporary security officers be considered.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court also took suo motu cognizance of the case and released a series of interim orders. Creating a dedicated fund to counter domestic violence within the territories, expanding online telecommunication facilities, and designating structured spaces within public spheres such as supermarkets and pharmacies where women can feel safe reporting domestic violence are only a few of the steps being considered. Similarly, the High Courts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have given stringent orders to ensure that adequate measures against domestic violence are taken.
- During lockdowns, Protection Officers available and/or accessible?
Women are finding it more difficult to get treatment for domestic violence because of lockdown restrictions, the difficulty of being confined with their abuser, and financial constraints. A number of social workers and attorneys have expressed concern about the limited access to security officers, and have recommended that their jobs, as well as counselling and crisis centres, be declared critical services. While hearing a petition seeking protection for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, the Delhi High Court ordered the concerned authorities to consider appointing temporary protection officers to resolve the shadow pandemic before permanent appointments are made. Other states, such as Orissa and Tamil Nadu, have implemented a ‘phone-up service,’ in which concerned agencies and social welfare workers are directed to check on or contact women who have previously reported domestic abuse.
- What other steps have been implemented to combat domestic violence when the city is on lockdown?
The Ministry of Women and Child Development has acknowledged the need for a rapid response mechanism to assist victims of domestic violence during the lockdown, according to the Central Government’s submissions. It has held special webinars to educate helpline staff about how to provide psychological and legal counselling, and it has guided district collectors/district magistrates to provide logistical assistance to helpline personnel and to create duty rosters for concerned officers so that they can assist affected victims.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has ordered all courts in Ladakh and J&K to treat domestic violence cases as ‘urgent,’ and has recommended that the government designate some pharmacies or grocery stores as safe spaces for women, expand the availability of tele/online legal and counselling facilities, and launch awareness campaigns to increase public awareness of government actions.
- Special resources available to victims of domestic violence during lockdown:
The National Commission for Women has launched a special WhatsApp helpline number: +91 7217735372, which will serve as an exclusive helpline for domestic violence complaints during the time of lockdown, in response to a recent increase in the frequency and severity of domestic violence complaints. This will be in addition to the existing email addresses, online complaint links, and helpline numbers (Women Helpline (All India) Women in Distress -1091; Women Helpline Domestic Abuse -181; Police- 100).
Domestic abuse is a heinous crime that necessitates swift and decisive action. While women are the most common victims of domestic violence, men may also be victims. To end domestic abuse, it is critical to eliminate gender discrimination and the practise of treating husbands as superior to wives. Women should be taught about equality and empowered to fight for their own rights when they are violated. Laws should be made gender-neutral to accommodate all genders, including men, so that men are able to speak out about the crimes committed against them by their partners. Laws against domestic violence must be enforced to their utmost so that the victims of domestic violence can be safe from the evil which requires to be put at a halt at the earliest.
Finally, when designing crisis care standards, regulatory authorities should address social determinants of health. The effect of IPV on patients is influenced by privilege, finances, and resource availability.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought attention to a number of emerging public health issues, including domestic abuse. Clinicians, public health leaders, and lawmakers must discuss the layers of socioeconomic inequities in our societies and the ways in which they impact people’s access to care as state laws loosen and people continue to live a new version of usual. When another public health crisis strikes, the pandemic has shown how much work remains to be done to ensure that people who have been abused continue to have access to protection, refuge, and medical treatment.
 World Health Organization, on behalf of the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence against Women Estimation and Data (2021).
 World Health Organization, on behalf of the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence against Women Estimation and Data (2021).
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 Portugal. Ministério da Administração Interna. Polícia de Segurança Pública. Comunicado de Imprensa: Violência doméstica: 24 de outubro de 2020. Lisboa: PSP; 2020. Available from: https://www.psp.pt/Pages/comunicados-imprensa.aspx [cited 2020-12-10].
Author: PRIYA SHARMA, School of law, UPES Dehradun.