Twenty-seven-year-old Sunita Sharma spends all her time cooking, cleaning and staying out of her husband's way.
"One misstep and I will be slapped. His mood swings have been quite erratic since he started working from home. I just want to stay away," she tells The Quint on a call at 6 am. She does not know if she can "speak freely" while he is awake.
Her voice quivering, she says that earlier, she would at least have the day to herself, but now she is “locked in captivity.”
For people in abusive relationships, the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus is nothing short of a disaster. While the entire world has been advised to take comfort inside their homes, for those at the receiving end of domestic abuse, home is hardly a ‘safe space’.
Domestic Abuse Helpline Numbers See a Drop: That’s Worrisome
The lockdown has left this vulnerable group completely at risk, with no escape from their abusers during quarantine, activists point.
Statistics from Brazil to China, Italy to the United Kingdom, point to a spike in helpline numbers for domestic abuse during the COVID-19 lockdown. In India however, there has been a big drop in the calls received, says Sonal Mehta, Regional Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
And this is more worrisome than a spike, she explains.
“Every helpline number will tell you that the calls have gone down. A spike in helpline number will tell you that they are still trying to connect. But if the number going down, especially during a lockdown, it tells you that the situation is worse. One of the biggest reasons why violence perpetrates is because of silence.”Sonal Mehta
‘What’s Coronavirus When You Fight For Peace of Mind’
Sunita realised that the frequency of abuse was becoming worse since mid-March, when her husband’s firm switched to work from home. She suggested to him that they visit their parents in Mumbai.
“I just feel safer when there are more people around. Then, you see, he wouldn’t act on impulse. But just a couple of days before our flight, domestic flights were halted. People told me, don’t travel – you might catch coronavirus at the airport. But what’s coronavirus when you are fighting for some peace of mind?” asks Sunita, an architect, who is on a sabbatical.
Why A Lockdown Can Be More Dangerous
The lockdown is more than “just for your health,” points out Urvashi Gandhi, Director, Global Advocacy for Breakthrough India, which works with women who are victims of gender-based violence.
“The lockdown has a psychological impact, along with bearing social and economic consequences. There is a sense of isolation due to the lockdown – both with the abuser and the victim. A lot of people might be losing their jobs or taking pay cuts. When all these factors come together, it makes women in already abusive relationships even more vulnerable.”
In some families, women are the sole breadwinners and they will be at risk if they are not able to bring food to the table.
Like Sangeeta. She works at a private school in Delhi as a helper, and she is currently on a contract. She has not been to work for the last 20 days and does not know when or how she is going to get money. Her husband is not earning any income but the weight of taking care of the family – and the abuse – falls on her.
“My husband’s routine is hitting me, drinking and working whenever he wants to. Two days back, he hit me because I asked him to go get ration. I didn’t know he got no money from his work. What do I do,” she tells The Quint.
Shaonli Chakraborty, Associate Director with Swasti, an NGO that works with marginalised communities, stresses the importance of shared spaces.
“A complete lockdown means you are detached from your immediate neighbourhood, friends and family. This puts women more at risk as they are sharing the space, for the entire duration, with the abuser. The NGO workers also pointed that stigma associated with coronavirus itself could be a trigger – in case the woman falls sick or is taking precautionary measures.”
What Should You Do If Someone Is Abusing You In This Lockdown?
IPPF’s Sonal Mehta advises that while it might seem easier to preach than practice, it will be helpful to put as much ‘physical distance’ as possible between the abuser and the victim.
“If something goes wrong, the victims must know whom they are going to contact and how they are going to contact them. Are they going to scream till someone hears? Do they have access to a phone, and how will they call and let the contact person know that they are in trouble?” Anu Balasubramanyam, who is also associated with Swasti, lists some suggestions.
How Can the Govt Help Survivors?
While spreading awareness about coronavirus outbreak and the necessary precautions to be taken is very important, Sonal adds that it is equally important to be talking about women’s rights.
“The entire situation is like an onion. Combating coronavirus is important but it is not the only layer to it. One layer adds to another and so on. So it is important that the government put out messages addressing both victim and abuser,” says Sonal.
North East Network (NEN), a women’s rights organisation that operates in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam, recently roped in accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers when their counsellors could not step out to help a woman in distress, reported IndiaSpend.
Speaking to the portal, NEN’s Assam state director Anurita Pathak said that Given that ASHA workers are at the frontline of India’s COVID-19 prevention work, they be alerted and “respond rapidly” to any domestic violence instance.
The Centre and the states can take cues from the Uttar Pradesh Police who have put out a special hotline number (112) to contact in case people are subjected to domestic violence. The cops have also put out adds announcing the same with the tagline – ‘Suppress Corona, Not Your Voice.’
“We need to dissect how we look at pandemics and disasters from a human-centric approach. We have to put 'humans' at the centre and then develop a response. Currently, we are looking at one form of response – ensuring that health is maintained. But creating this awareness is of utmost importance,” says Urvashi.
(The names of survivors have been changed to protect their identities.)