Twenty-three-year-old Anita (name changed) from Rajasthan had decided to escape a life of marital rape and violence in January 2020. But the pandemic and multiple lockdowns delayed her escape, until she finally managed to leave her abusive husband and in-laws late 2021. With the help of Delhi-based NGO Shakti Shalini, she is now pursuing a case against her husband.
According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, released on 29 August, India saw a total of 4,28,278 instances of crimes against women in 2021 – a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
Of these, 'cruelty by husband' saw the most number of cases – almost 32 percent – followed by cases registered under 'assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty' (20 percent).
Anita is one of the 1,36,192 women across India who registered cases under 'cruelty by husband or his relatives' in 2021. She is also a survivor of 'shadow pandemic' – a name given by sociologists and social scientists for the spike in domestic violence cases during the pandemic. COVID-19 pandemic, experts point, could be one of the reasons for a high number of such cases in 2021.
"India did downplay the impact of lockdown with respect to crimes against women during 2021. There was no alertness, preparedness in which we thought about the issue when the lockdown was imposed. This is not just about COVID-19, but also any sociological study would show the lockdown would generally lead to domestic violence."Sociologist Rituparna Patgiri to The Quint
West Bengal, Rajasthan Record Most Incidents of 'Cruelty by Husband'
West Bengal reported the highest number of cases of cruelty against women by spouses or their relatives in 2021, according to NCRB. A total 19,952 cases under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with violence against women by husbands and their relatives, were registered in the state.
West Bengal was followed by Uttar Pradesh where 18,375 such cases were recorded, and Rajasthan where 16,949 cases were registered. Among metropolitan cities, Delhi reported most cases of such violence at 4,674. In Kolkata, the figure stood at 841, much below those of Hyderabad (1,678), Jaipur (1,200) and Lucknow (1,101).
During the same period, India recorded 13,534 cases under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 last year, a 25 percent rise compared to the cases registered in 2020 (10,046), as per the NCRB data. One-third of these cases (4,594) were registered in Uttar Pradesh – the highest in the country.
There has, however, been a slight decline of 3.85 percent in the number of dowry-related deaths in 2021, which recorded a total of 6,589 such cases, compared to 6,843 cases in 2020.
How Women Were Let Down During the Pandemic
At least 45 percent of women, surveyed across 13 countries, reported that they or a woman they knew experienced some form of violence since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, revealed a survey by UN Women, released in November 2021.
The report revealed that women who experienced violence were 1.3 times more likely to report mental and emotional stress than those who had not. Seven in 10 said they thought verbal or physical abuse by partner became more common during the pandemic, and three in 10 were of the opinion that violence against women, in their community, had increased.
"Survivors were stuck with their abusers during the lockdown, so it was nearly impossible for them to place a call, some of them would reach out when the abusers were asleep. Keeping this in mind we worked around the clock, even at wee hours. What we also discovered during the lockdown is that many young unmarried women were also facing the wrath of their families."Tanmoyee, Project Coordinator, Shakti Shalini told The Quint
According to the the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), which was conducted during the period, one in three women in India – between ages 18 and 45 – experienced spousal abuse.
One of the project coordinators, who works at a shelter home, run by the Delhi Commission for Women, said that organisations had to fend for themselves as they received "no help from the government."
"Our area of focus is the urban poor, they usually don't have phones or internet. During lockdown many women turned up at our doorsteps flouting the lockdown guidelines. Though it became crowded, we welcomed everyone. It was extremely difficult to maintain the COVID norms and provide a secure shelter along with counselling. We eventually started putting out tents for those who were showing COVID symptoms. Funds were a big issue because we didn't receive money from the authorities."
Between 25 March and 31 May 2020, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 1,477 complaints of domestic violence. Nearly 727 of these complaints were received on its WhatsApp helpline (+917217735372 ) set up in April to ensure women, who couldn’t access emails or send complaints by post, could receive help. However, the total complaints during the 68-day period were 1.5 times of complaints received during the same year in 2020.
'Numbers Don't Show the Full Picture'
While the increase in cases is alarming, it is not always a 'bad sign,' says Sonali Shelar, an advocate who works with survivors of physical and sexual abuse. On one hand, the increase in cases of 'cruelty by husbands' may actually be a good sign.
"For every FIR related to crimes against women, there are at least 10 that are not reported. Data shows that the number of these crimes have increased over the years, but the reporting hasn't significantly increased. So, if the reporting increases, it does not mean that the crime has increased, too. In fact, it is a good sign, rise in reporting implies awareness and more importantly, faith of the people in the judicial system."Sonali Shelar told The Quint
The project coordinator, who works in government-run shelter, too, asserted that there is more to these numbers.
"I feel numbers can be deceiving. You'll get data only if it's registered. Many women suffer in silence, we have to tune into the silences to carefully hear the cry for help. During the lockdown, women were locked inside the four walls with their abusers. The rise in numbers we see is because the survivors were pushed beyond their limit and they had to file a case. Another thing I witnessed was due to unemployment there was a growing tension of finances in many households. In one case, a husband who recently lost his job forced the woman for more dowry," the coordinator said.
"Filing of the complaint, that is, FIR is the first step in reporting the incident, it is barely the beginning of the judicial process. Reporting alone cannot promise conviction, endless factors are in the way of an accused getting rightfully convicted and even more in the way of a survivor getting compensation," Shelar added.
As Patgiri pointed, India was neither prepared, nor had systems in place to tackle the 'shadow pandemic' – but there has also been no effort to take the learnings forward.
"There is no concerted effort to look into what happened, there is no way in which it could be quantified. Most importantly, no attempt has been made to bring this into policy framework as well. We have not really tried to address the impact that COVID-19 has had on social structures like family."
"Now that we have the NCRB data as proof, efforts should be made to actively include study about consent, about violence. There needs to be a policy that addresses providing financial support to survivors, so that they are empowered to come out with stories of abuse. There need to be more subcommittees, and just the organisation like NCW is not enough," Patgiri added.