The walls closed in, those walls that were once their refuge or at least that is what countless women across the country have been portraying for years, conditioned as they have been to accept dominance at home.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘if someone slaps you on one side of the face, turn the other side to him.’ In India, silent women have been doing so and more for decades, without a choice.
The scourge of domestic abuse in the country is by and large hidden, the windows of homes have their curtains firmly drawn making it the unseen story, yet a story it is and one that needs to be told, again and again. But something changed in the past year.
Did the pandemic finally allow us a peak in? Once it confined families indoors, even safe places for women began to shrink as time lost all meaning. There was no mercy but more importantly in a lockdown, there was no escape. The abuser and the victim became trapped together during months of uncertainty.
Soon after, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported 2.5 times more complaints of domestic abuse since the national lockdown.
Rise in countrywide cases
Between March and September, 2020 almost 5000 complaints of grievance were received. The ‘Hindu’ reported that there were 1,477 complaints of domestic violence just between the months of March and May, many of them on a WhatsApp helpline the commission specially launched during the pandemic.
Data though doesn’t flow from one fountainhead- many NGOs working on the ground have their own burgeoning assessments.
Yet, was this really, unexpected? 70% of women in the country are victims of domestic abuse, stated the National Crime Records Bureau in a 2019 report.
And while as before, a vast percentage of domestic abuse cases are expected to be unreported, the difference this time around is that Covid will allow many abusers an excuse of the frustration of isolation.
The reticence of victims and families of victims to fight for justice isn’t new either, the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 estimated that a shocking 99.1 per cent of sexual assault cases are not disclosed.
Don’t go by the increasing cases of divorce in the country, separation is still a stigma and victimisation of a woman takes many garbs including by their own families who become complicit by their compliance.
The data available during COVID-19 then is only of those brave enough to pick up the phone and, it is an act of courage because repercussions can be harrowing.
A year before the pandemic, my cook went to visit her husband and came back almost collapsing at the gate. She had been beaten blue by him and couldn’t open her swollen eyes for days.
A culture of patriarchy
Although she allowed us to complain, she is now back with him saying his drinking and violence had been a momentary aberration. Patriarchy has done a number on our women who have normalised and even accepted a life where their man can get away with much because he was ‘drunk.’
During COVID-19, there could have been no fleeing the stench of this alcohol as trapped indoors, women were on the receiving end of financial instability, frustration and uncertainty. Their work increased and their responsibilities multiplied. Locked in together, there was no respite.
But India's Women and Child Development Minister, Smriti Irani, reportedly dismissed concerns of surging complaints last year as ‘scaremongering.’
The reality is that even one incident of domestic abuse is one too many. Without acceptance victims will have no access to their legal rights. First though they have, to be taught that they have rights.
There is no denying that globally too cases of domestic abuse have inflated, but the difference remains in flagging the violence. In our country, seeking help is often, not an option.
A case in point
But there was a 24-year- old medical student who did highlight her abuse, sending images of her bruises to her family members in June this year. Two days later, Vismaya Nair was found hanging in her husband’s house. The victim’s family alleged dowry harassment by the husband who had a government job.
Dowry demands and domestic abuse are two sides of the same coin - Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 defines domestic violence as physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse - the scars are not always visible, not just by the spouse but also members in a joint family.
This includes unlawful dowry demands and yet this data remains unchartered territory during the lockdown, especially from households with a big family.
Vismaya’s tragedy happened during peak COVID and stood out also because it unfolded in Kerala- a state with 100% literacy, more women to men ratio and the reputation of being the leader of gender equity in the country.
Is it all a mirage? Peel the surface and it seems Kerala’s first world image is not very different from other parts of the country. What, hope then is there for marginalised and illiterate women?
It is not hard to understand why it happens. But it is an uphill task to understand what it will take to stop it when education itself isn’t a barrier.
The problem has many stakeholders. Families who do report, hit a wall. They are asked to compromise, whether by the police or ‘well-wishers’. I have heard this several times even during the pandemic from counsellors.
Is there anything though more violating for a woman than marital rape? Only 36 countries have not criminalised it, India is one of them. The Justice Verma committee set up after the Nirbhaya gang rape in 2012 had recommended that marital rape be criminalised with consent being the key.
Needed: An urgent re-look
In a country where a woman is raped every 16 minutes, this repressive and reprehensible issue is still not on the ambit.
Imagine living with your rapist who is safeguarded by law, and if it was during COVID-19, then for long months without any respite. The pandemic has shown that the legality of marital rape, which is another tool of power, needs an urgent re-look.
Perhaps the most worrying repercussion of the pandemic has been the orphans or children who have one surviving parent but devoid a livelihood.
Workers on the ground fear that even minors are being married off with an urgency, so relatives can save finances and get rid of responsibilities. The children are already vulnerable and now they will also be exposed physically.
“It was just a slap,” said the husband in the Bollywood movie ‘Thappad’, a rare film that tackles domestic abuse. The silence of our women is deafening.