By Roshni Chakraborty
Worldwide, countries have imposed lockdowns and issued stay-at-home orders to mitigate the community transmission of COVID-19. For many, however, staying at home poses a greater threat to their health than leaving. Activists and governments around the world have reported an alarming spike in domestic violence since social distancing measures were adopted. The United Nations has called for a domestic violence “ceasefire,” raising its concerns about a “horrifying global surge.”
Over the last month, I have been volunteering for a hotline in Kolkata, India. Since the Government of India announced a country-wide lockdown, beginning on March 24, we have seen a considerable rise in calls, and almost every woman I speak with mentions coronavirus as an immediate stressor triggering the abuse. As public health officials race to defeat the virus, victims of domestic abuse remain silent and forgotten.
I have been trained to avoid asking the question “why?” because survivors tend to blame themselves or to justify the abuse in other ways. Still, the calls we have been receiving suggest that the raging pandemic and its attendant economic distresses are causing anger and frustration, which, in turn, are being taken out on partners (primarily women) and children. Under normal conditions, nearly one in three married women in India experience spousal violence. Of course, spousal violence is only a subset of domestic violence, omitting violence by other intimate partners, immediate family, and in-laws. Now, families are trapped together for weeks with no end in sight. Complaints to our hotline have nearly doubled—one of many indicators of the crisis. After the lockdown, a helpline for children in India, for example, received 92,000 SOS calls in 11 days. Given the problem of underreporting, even these numbers do not capture the entire picture.
The most important question I ask when I get a call is “Are you safe now?” The answer is often in the negative and in hushed tones, pointing to two of the biggest concerns with domestic violence in the time of coronavirus. First, it is hard to be safe and escape abusive family members if there is nowhere to go. Traveling to another family member’s home has become increasingly difficult with the closure of public transport and the banning of other nonessential travel in the country. We have been arranging vehicles to transport victims who need to travel short distances and we are looking to expand this service. Shelters, in India and elsewhere, are closing down because of sanitation concerns, inadequate staff, and operation costs that are proving impossible to sustain. We are still operating one shelter, but its capacity has decreased significantly because it can no longer be set up as a dormitory. Individuals, or small families, have to be given their own rooms and bathrooms because of social distancing guidelines, causing a massive shortage in housing. We have been trying to lobby state authorities to pay for hotel or motel rooms for women and children seeking shelter. In one case, leveraging personal relationships, a staff member was able to connect a woman and two children to a guest house where they are now living temporarily. The French government has adopted this on a larger scale, agreeing to pay for 20,000 nights of hotel stay for victims. India needs to follow suit.
Second, and in many ways, a larger concern is about those whom we are not hearing from. How many women are unable to ask for help because they are constantly within earshot of their abuser? I estimate that most of the calls I respond to are from middle-class women, given accents and language. Most likely these women have some spaces where they can be alone, but even these calls often end in rushed goodbyes. One woman told me, “Ekhon phone kora-o mushkil—bhoy laage” [Even calling has become difficult now—I feel afraid]. In a country like India, where low-income women live in densely populated areas and slums, they may have no safe space from which to make calls and ask for help. The solution that we have identified requires social awareness and participation. We have benefitted from and are trying to educate people about the Red Dot Initiative introduced by entrepreneur and activist Iti Rawat. A person in trouble places a red dot (bindi) on their palm to signal that they are suffering abuse. If other citizens or the police see the red dot, they can inform nonprofits or state authorities. We have received two calls from private citizens who saw bindis on palms and reported on behalf of the women. Ms. Rawat says, “We want to make ‘Red Dot on the Palm’ a global symbol for domestic violence. This way many women will break silence…” Building a broader citizen support network through initiatives like this might help women even after the lockdowns come to an end.
Although the issue of domestic violence is now being discussed in many circles, the troubles of women have tended to eclipse the abuse faced by children. Children are not just witnesses to domestic violence, but also victims of it. This is especially true in India, where corporal punishment for minors is a widespread and accepted social phenomenon. In two of my calls, the women were not calling for themselves but because their children were being abused. Work and school act, in many cases, as reprieve from abuse—now, there is no such recourse.
At the end of my calls, I typically try to discuss actionable steps or coping strategies. Creating that action plan has become harder than ever. There is wariness of the police because of heavily publicized instances of police brutality during the lockdown. State legal services have slowed down considerably. Psychosocial support services are hard to deliver over the phone or email. Nonprofits in the country have been struggling to cope with the demand, primarily because they are understaffed in general, which Covid-19 has exacerbated, with a gendered dimension. Many of our staff members in these services are women, whose increased burden at home now means that they have had to reduce their hours in order to take on more domestic duties for the rest of the family.
For policymakers, the most vulnerable are often an afterthought. Activists predicted these issues weeks in advance and yet nothing was done. Now, we must be proactive. The Indian government needs to provide financial and medical resources to organizations helping women in distress. They must have dedicated police officers (ideally female) working such cases. And they should publicize efforts like the Red Dot Initiative to build awareness and enlist support. Countries around the world must act similarly.
But until states step up, citizens must. If you are safe, reach out to friends and family—domestic violence is often where you least expect it. If you don’t feel safe, ask for help. Call, email, WhatsApp, or speak to someone you trust. There is help. You are not an afterthought.
Roshni Chakraborty is a junior at Harvard College from Kolkata, India. She is concentrating in Social Studies, with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. Her research interests lie in migration and gender-based violence. The FXB Center’s director of research, Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, is supervising her senior thesis.