The lockdowns imposed to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated a shadow pandemic of a very different kind: millions of women were trapped in their homes the world over with abusive partners and spouses. State policies unfortunately were not adequate to deal with the problem.
I still remember how in March 2020, at the start of the lockdown in India, our lives came to a standstill with four hours’ notice. We were still trying to process how to navigate the lockdown – whether to treat it like an extended holiday or to feel frustrated about being cooped up – when I started to receive calls and emails about women in different parts of the country seeking help for the intimate partner violence they were experiencing. As the Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation, which works on sexual and gender-based violence, they thought I could be of help to them.
One friend reached out to tell me about a woman who walked out of her home in Central India and sat on the street because she didn’t know where to go. She made it clear she didn’t want to go to the police as she didn’t trust them. There was no transport available to go anywhere else and shelters were not accepting anyone. She could not return home because her partner was abusive. So she sat for hours on the pavement trying to figure out her options.
Another friend reached out because a woman and her differently abled child turned up at her doorstep seeking help to escape an abusive situation. My friend called the police, who were helpless themselves as there were no alternative accommodation options available. Another woman wanted to go to her second apartment in a different city to escape from domestic violence, but e-passes for travel were not available. In yet another case where a woman found the courage to go to the police station to file a complaint against her abusive husband, she had to return home as COVID-19 infections had been detected at the police station itself, whilst in another case the police filed the complaint in the wrong category and did nothing further, putting the woman’s life at risk.
These are just a sample of the stories I have heard in the last few months about a huge number of women who have experienced domestic violence, trapped at home with abusive partners and family members. Domestic violence is a form of gender-based violence and has long been described by UN Women as a pandemic, impacting one in three women globally. Yet it took the outbreak of COVID-19 to highlight this shadow pandemic.
Domestic violence is an extremely sensitive issue because it often involves a loved one who is a perpetrator and because it takes place in the home, which should be a safe place but in these cases is not. Lockdowns exacerbate the issue further because they prevent us from working outside the home and many survivors have no opportunity to leave their house, as I explained earlier. It is also hard for survivors to break their silence and seek help, as women are socially conditioned not to discuss this violence, and many believe that it is the norm and they have no choice but to endure it.
So when GDL members Sonja Peteranderl and Julia Jaroschewski invited me to speak at their virtual panel discussion “Domestic Violence: How Women Struggle During COVID-19 Lockdowns” on 28 October 2020, I was pleased to share my experiences and throw light on the issue, because I personally do not think we are having enough conversations about it.
As I highlighted in my talk, we need to rethink cities in the post-COVID-19 era and design better policies. Some of my recommendations are:
a) It should be made easier for women to report sexual and gender-based violence. They should be able to do so using technology so that they do not have to go in person to a police station, which may be intimidating.
b) Digital access should be made a human right. Surveys indicate that barely 43% of women across India have access to a phone. Only 35% of Indian internet users are women and only 31% percent of rural women have access to the internet. But this is not only an Indian problem and we need to ensure women globally have access to digital devices and the internet.
c) Helpline numbers should be standardised, as today in India we have multiple helplines in different cities, which makes them difficult to remember and therefore to access. In times of crisis and when immediate help is required, the relevant number should be easy to remember and access. A good example is 911.
d) Shelters or alternative accommodation should be available to survivors of domestic violence. For example, I highlighted how one of the two one-stop crisis centres in Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, is named “Female Beggars’ Home”.
e) Transport and e-passes should be made available to women who need them.
f) Spouses should not be able to renege on alimony or other support. If they do, alternative arrangements should be made available by the State.
g) Domestic violence prevention services should be classified as essential, as women will need to use these services during lockdowns related to COVID-19 as well as in other emergency situations. To that effect, my organisation Red Dot Foundation filed a Public Interest Litigation case with the Supreme Court of India, but we were redirected to work with government agencies. So we filed a change.org petition to put pressure on the government to take up the matter with urgency.
I do believe that it will take each and every one of us to recognise the seriousness of this problem and educate ourselves on how we can be allies for each other in the fight against domestic violence. Together we can contain this shadow pandemic and prevent it from spreading further.
 An e-pass was required to travel between cities during the lockdown in India. It had to be applied for online and was meant only for essential workers and extreme emergencies.
About the author:
Elsa Marie D’Silva is a social entrepreneur with interests in the fields of social and personal development, peace, aviation and mental health, and she is also the founder of the Red Dot Foundation (Safecity), a platform that crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces.
Published on November 26, 2020.
Photo credit: Mark Beckmann