The home which is now the safest place for all to protect oneself and families from the virus is now turning out to be a nightmare for women who are in abusive relationship.
Now you are locked down, where can you go? An abuser threatened his wife in a remote village in Assam. The violence escalated and was aggravated by the lockdown which is in force now to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic. The woman waited for night to set in. She did not want to be seen by anyone. But would anyone see the violence she was going through? With a five month old infant wrapped in her sador/clothing, she fled. She crossed two paddy fields and reached her natal home. She informed our Gramin Mahila Kendra which offers pysho-social care to women in abusive relationship in remote rural areas . Our helplines are open. We reached out to the woman over phone. The women was counselled and consoled over phone continuously. After about four days, the abuser landed in her natal home, threatening her with dire consequences. As the argument heated up, he snatched the five- month old baby and fled. The women went through immense anxiety and pain. It took us three days to finally restore the baby to the mother. We mobilized the frontline worker such as ASHA and also the village headman who are mobile in the area. However, this cannot be an answer. Any form of violence if not addressed timely could lead even lead to death of such women.
The pandemic will have massive impact on people’s lives and livelihoods; it will have perilous impact on women who are marginalized because of their gender status in harsh patriarchal realities. The associated frustration will be unleashed on women as food, firewood, grocery, medicines, cash, income and other essential necessities start to dwindle in a family. Domestic violence will now be heightened as they are now locked up with abusers. Before we could finish addressing the first case, our helpline rang again. In another district, an aggrieved woman dared to defy the lockdown. Unable to bear the excessive physical assault by her husband, she walked to the local thana to lodge her complaint. She did not want to return home. We swung into action. The police warned the abusive husband after which she hesitantly returned back. We have no choice in this situation but to check with the woman’s well being on a daily basis over phone. We are also trying to support such women with dry ration. A badly beaten up thirteen year old girl and her mother took refuge in a neighbour’s house. The frustration was over inability to earn a daily wage by the man. Women are compromising on their rights and returning to violent homes. The One stop Centres are faraway and not accessible for many such women.
Assam is notorious when it come comes to crimes against women. NCRB 2017 data for Assam says that cruelty by husband rate as reported to police stands at 60 per lakh population. This number will double as more and more are likely to face violence or the ongoing violence will spike up. This violence could be verbal/mental/physical/economic or even sexual. Not all abused women will report due to fear of repercussion of violence on them and their children or their dependents. They also have no access to any complaints mechanism and they will continue to bear up with the abuse in silence. Cases will not be reported and recorded. After restrictions are relaxed, more abused women are likely to share their struggles. Apart from intimate partner violence, there are different women who live in a domestic relationship like minor children, dependent parents, woman siblings, partners and others who are the mercy of the abusers .Insecurity of being deprived of basic necessities like shelter and food prevent women from speaking up . One usual pattern of domestic violence is to socially isolate aggrieved women from talking to or visiting their natal families or their confidantes. With the abuser hovering over her, such aggrieved women will not dare to make a phone call and report. Such cases will remain unnoticed and unrecorded. Domestic violence is all about wielding masculine power to exercise control over a woman’s mobility and freedom. This completely violates her to a right to safety and dignity.
We at North East Network are not able to intervene effectively as our grassroots counsellors are observing lockdown and physical distancing. We are also trying to call and speak to survivors of violence who had approached us earlier, checking on them and assuring them that we are reachable. Some of these service providers are active in remote rural areas and are within reach of aggrieved women where state services are not accessible. Their interventions need to be recognized as essential service . Passes must be immediately issued to organisations which are registered as service providers by Government Social Welfare Department . Many organisations offer shelter, legal aid, counselling, etc.Moreover, it is important to alert all frontline workers such as ASHA, ANM, Panchayat, Village Defence Parties and others to report such cases. District Protection Officers must be equipped with additional powers and resources to reach out to the last woman in the districts.
Given an alarming situation like this, it is extremely important for government to recognize domestic violence which is faced by women in locked up homes.The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health issue, but it has a massive social, economic and psychological impact with increased stress in families. The challenges of restoration will be huge. Rebuilding measures must be gender responsive. Women and children are the most vulnerable and have the least powers to come up with coping mechanism to fight back in stressful homes.
The epidemic of abuse must be stopped rightaway. Therefore , state COVID19 advisory must include measures to ensure safety and security of women and girls. In this way, we will be able to continue to combat violence on women and save many lives.