National Law University Odisha, Cuttack
In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the surge in cases of gender-based violence globally is another shadow pandemic and public health emergency that requires intervention by governments across the world. Nationwide lockdowns imposed as a containment measure have forced people to stay indoors for their safety as well as that of others. Unfortunately, homes are not the safest places for victims of domestic violence. Every third woman in the world has been physically abused by her spouse/partner. As per the recent statistics, during the 68 day period of lockdown (25 March 2020 to 31 May 2020) in India, 1477 complaints were made to the National Commission for Women, which is the highest number of complaints recorded during the similar time period in the last ten years, keeping in mind the fact that around 77% of the cases in the country go unreported.
Factors Responsible for the Surge in Domestic Violence Cases
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the women of India, who are not only tackling economic crisis,but also adverse social consequences. However, there has been no formal statement or acknowledgement by the Government of India yet on the surge of domestic violence cases in the country. Currently, relief measures for domestic violence victims is neither considered an essential service nor is it addressed in any of the COVID-19 response plans. Various reasons have been cited as the possible triggers for escalation of violence in these stressful times. Some of the most crucial reasons for this increase can be listed as financial insecurity and exhaustion of savings due to job losses and pay cuts, isolation of the victim with the perpetrator, lack of third-party intervention to prevent violence, and decreased access to support systems and legal remedies. The not-so-gender-neutral impact of a gender neutral pandemic, which put women in a much more vulnerable place than men, is evident from the Discussion Paper authored by Ashwini Deshpande analysing statistics provided by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), stating that women were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed compared to men post lockdown.
The Legal Framework in India
The country has ratified general as well as specialised international human rights instruments in relation to women’s rights, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In order to fulfil its obligations under international law and the Constitution of India (1950), the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDV Act, 2005) was enacted to grant a prompt civil redressal mechanism to the victims. As per Section 3 of the PWDV Act, 2005, domestic violence is the act of causing or threatening to cause (i) harms to the health and safety of life– including physical, sexual, mental, verbal and emotional abuse; or(ii)harassment or harm with a view to unlawfully demand dowry or any other valuable security – i.e. economic abuse. Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code(1860) is the penal provision that provides imprisonment upto three years and monetary penalty in order to protect married women from cruelty inflicted by husband or his relatives. According to an addendum concerning a mission to India to the 2014 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Rashida Manjoo, to the Human Rights Council, in spite of the legal developments in India, the effective implementation of laws as well as allocation of financial resource for their execution is lacking.
Judicial and Government Response
While the country still awaits a national level regulation or a policy framework that reflects the needs of women, what has provided a partial relief is the judicial response towards a plethora of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petitions. PIL pertains to legal actions taken up tocourt where the interest of public in general is involved. These fragmented High Court orders have attempted to fill in the gaps in the Government response, by ensuring that prompt and adequate steps are taken by the administration to provide immediate relief. Considering a PIL filed for protection of victims of domestic abuse through video conferencing, the Delhi High Court issued an oral order for the stringent implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDV Act, 2005). It directed the Delhi Commission for Women as well as the National Commission for Women to keep all helplines (including through WhatsApp) functional at all times. Taking suomoto cognizance (i.e. taking matters in its own hand) – the Jammu and Kashmir High Court issued certain directions which included the creation of dedicated funds, public awareness campaigns and the designation of informal spaces such as grocery stores and pharmacies as safe spaces for the victim to report. Similarly, the Tamil Nadu High Court entertained a PIL on the issue and was apprised of the steps taken by the State Government such as permitting protection officers deployed under the PWDV Act, 2005, to travel, in order to aid and assist the victims during the lockdown despite the travel restrictions.
Section 11 of the PWDV Actobliges the Government to raise awareness by means of regular publicity, however, there has been little to no campaigning on the issue except by one or two Indian States. The Uttar Pradesh Government for instance widely advertised the helpline number to tackle with the surge of domestic violence cases in the State using the tagline “Suppress Corona not your voice”. According to LIRNEasia Research Report, Indian women are 46% less likely to own a mobile phone compared to men. According to the same report, only 11% of women surveyed had the access to internet due to reasons such as lack of resources, knowledge and high costs. Thus, it becomes evident that the information regarding remedies provided on the websites of National as well as State Commissions would also be largely inaccessible to underprivileged victims, based on the vast inequalities in the access to information itself. Moreover, complete transition to the online medium of counselling would leave a huge number of women with no means to reach out.
The United Nations Special Procedures and COVID 19 Working Document states in relation to domestic violence against women has stated that governments should come up with new and creative solutions for the victims as making phone calls and online help may not be accessible to all. Another reason why women in the country choose to suffer in silence is due to high rate of financial dependence on the spouse for sustenance of their children and themselves. This problem has been further aggravated due to the loss of livelihoods, especially for the female gender during the pandemic. It becomes crucial for India to have a nationwide plan of action that considers different socio-economic contexts and includes the provision of economic support and employment opportunities to the victims in these uncertain times.
As per the data released by United Nations Population Fund, the COVID-19 pandemic will not only increase the instances of violence but will also cause one third reduction in the progress towards decreasing gender-based violence. For every 3-month extension of the lockdown, there would be an addition of 15 million cases across the world. India is witnessing a sharp spike in domestic violence cases every single day, as stay-at-home advisories are still in place in most parts of the country. It is imperative for the Government to prioritise assisting the victims of domestic violence and putting in place preventive and redressal measures to empower all groups of women, rather than paying lip service to this pertinent issue.
Manvi Khanna is a final year student of BBA. LLB (Hons.) at National Law University Odisha, Cuttack. She is highly interested in researching diverse areas of human rights law especially with regard to gender justice and has a few articles to her credit. She likes to read and keep herself updated with the happenings around the globe.