This article is an attempt to looks at the spike in domestic violence cases in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It first explores the backdrop of domestic violence in terms of abuse in terms of gender power equations, and the aggravated conditions caused by the lockdown. In addition to more well-documented heterosexual occurrences, our lenses have also been trained on LGBTQ relationships. Next, it delves into existing curbs and measures across countries to identify and limit this abuse and the relative success of such solutions with potential lacunae. Finally, we structure socio-cultural mechanisms that address the root of this major shadow pandemic and provide a three-pronged solution that, in our opinion, shall work best in resolving the crisis and provide the abused with appropriate support and resources.
An ironic twist of fate occurred when nature relegated its numero uno species to the confines of shelters, our way of life inexplicably shattered by an unseen adversary. The most advanced life-form has been brought to its knees by an organism “at the edge of life”. More than one-third of our population is now confined indoors to curb the high transmission rates. Home – usually a safe sanctuary is also a place where abusers can warp the dynamics of power in the often complete absence of outside supervision or scrutiny. Thus, this knee-jerk reaction to flatten the infection curve and aid our overburdened health care systems has also trapped people in their homes with their abusers, isolated from the people and the resources that could help them. In this context, domestic violence is an umbrella term that encompasses intimate partner violence – which is borne by persons worldwide from partners or ex-partners.
Violence at home – power and control in gender equations
With the outbreak of COVID-19 contagion worldwide, many countries have imposed lockdown to curb the spreading of the virus. As a result, families are confined to small living spaces with the enhanced fear of issues related to health, money and security, thereby leading to a spike in the number of domestic violence cases against women. Broadly there are three reasons for this rise in the number of instances:
First, people lose control of their lives during such extraordinary conditions and thus, to exert and regain their power, the perpetrators abuse their partner or family members. Measures of social distancing and isolation have been adopted to prevent the spread of infection, which cause an adverse impact on the victims of domestic violence. Since they are mandatorily isolated together with the perpetrators, they do not have access to external aids which may help in averting violence. In Italy and France, after the lockdown, there was a drop in calls for help initially as women found it difficult to access external resources for escaping the violence. In Japan, an increasing number of cases highlight the need for shelter homes and relief centres. It has been reported that a fall in income would make people more abusive, and thus, the Ministry of Health support centres must remain open during the pandemic.
Second, the upcoming world recession aggravates financial dependence of women on their abusive partners and makes it more challenging to walk out of the relationship. The global cost of violence against women and girls is estimated to be around US$ 1.5 trillion. The economic impact of COVID-19 is leading to an increase in unemployment, financial strains, and insecurity which has further escalated the rate of domestic violence. It has also become difficult for social workers to help the sufferers due to lack of availability of financial resources.
Third, the lack of social and moral support from family, friends and acquaintances due to lockdown makes victims lose hope and forces them to live with their abusers. In the United States, it was reported by the National Domestic Violence Hotline that abusers are using COVID-19 as a means of isolating victims from their social and familial circles. Further, they withhold medical assistance and financial resources while threatening victims of throwing them on the streets. Furthermore, it has become difficult for victims to seek help from medical professionals regarding physical abuse as they fear that reaching out for assistance might lead them to contract the virus. Moreover, the doctors being the frontline warriors prioritise COVID-19 patients over them. In the United States, there have been physical assault cases wherein abusers inflicted severe injuries upon victims, but they refrained from seeking medical help to avoid exposure. This surge has been catalysed by specific causes such as isolation of external support systems including persons such as parents owing to travel restrictions on visitations and the additional risk of exposure to senior citizens on residing with them afresh.
Corona pandemic has also escalated the domestic abuse in LGBTQ couples. The rate of domestic violence amongst sexual minorities is equal to or higher than those of heterosexuals. However, due to social stigma, heterosexism and hostility from services, they avoid seeking recourse from legal authorities or disclosing abuse to their families and social support services. According to recent research, the risk of domestic violence in same-sex couples has increased as the LGBTQ community is more prone to economic hardship and insecurity because of their employment in industries which suffered huge losses during the present financial crisis. There are very few domestic violence support services for the LGBTQ community, and the ones existing are not adequately equipped. Further, due to travel restrictions and fear of the pandemic, NGOs are unable to provide help to the sufferers. These existing prejudices, coupled with the impact of the pandemic in seeking support from domestic violence services, add to the stress and trauma that they already face as members of a marginalised community in the society.
Existing measures to curb the rise of domestic violence and persisting lacunae
Statistics pouring in from across the world make this new wave of domestic violence live up to its tag of a shadow pandemic ravaging through households in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. In India, China, Argentina, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and even in Germany, Canada, Spain and Japan – government authorities, women’s rights activists and civil society partners have reported an upward curve of domestic violence, and an amplified requirement for emergency shelters. Helplines in Singapore and Cyprus have registered an increase in calls by more than 30 and 33 per cent, respectively. In Australia, 40 per cent of healthcare workers reported increased requests for help with violence that was escalating in intensity. Although it is unlikely that many new abusive cases will turn up in the crisis, the increased numbers are primarily from people already in an abusive situation facing elevated violence without any means of escape. The substantial strain on healthcare resources is a potential bottleneck towards access to therapy and medical care.
Countries have initiated various socio-legal mechanisms, although some seem a little hasty or possessing inherent contradictions. For instance, India has launched a WhatsApp number in addition to online complaints via email, whereas Japan and Spain have operationalised similar text and call based helplines. Additional domestic violence shelters have been opened and deemed as essential services in Canada and France. These well-meaning measures falter at the central altar of increased proximity in the present circumstances where digital contact is a lot more monitored. Thus, victims might find it difficult to call, and in extreme conditions, even text in the presence of the abuser. Further, shelters are only a stop-gap measure which may quickly be overwhelmed as hotspots in the coronavirus era.
Recommended socio-legal mechanisms to defeat the shadow pandemic
Looking at the above dynamics, we recommend a three-pronged approach for resolving this shadow pandemic. Before discussing the specifics, we propose first, the strengthening of existing helplines and rehabilitation services and second, allowing provisions for counselling – both victim and couple, to bridge the lack of conventional support systems and therapists. Third, we advocate the integration of stringent law enforcement and responsive judicial systems that shall act as a clear deterrent. We feel that helplines and SOS mechanisms need to be veiled yet responsive to ensure unbridled ease of use. The apps ought not to be explicitly branded and must have specific keywords for complaints, support, legal advice or triggering a police response. Additionally, a physical interface could be added. An example is from Spain, where women can visit pharmacies and request for “Mask-19” that triggers immediate police support.
Further, online counselling, focussed on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA), should be incorporated with ideally a person of the same sex as the medium of contact for victims, alongside home visits with relevant travel permissions, if deemed necessary. Finally, police should be sensitised to avert dire situations and aggravation of violence through quick SOS visits via the abovementioned apps/helplines. The judiciary should proactively allow priority status to such instances – for example, in Colombia, the government has guaranteed continual access to services virtually including psychosocial advice, police and legal services. The incorporation of teleconferencing of domestic violence survivors into court proceedings is a much-needed step in this direction.
Therefore, in sum, the phased incorporation of the above recommendations can go a long way in ameliorating the impact of gender and differences in challenges faced by both heterosexual and LGBTQ couples, as identified, in this shadow pandemic.
*Ayushi Shukla and Sushmit Mandal are Third Year law students at National Law University, Odisha, India.