How Useful Are Calls to Domestic Abuse Helplines During Lockdown

Lack of access to technology and finance can act as barriers to reporting domestic violence.

Updated14 May 2020, 07:56 AM IST
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5 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic – as other public emergencies and disasters – has led to a spike in gender-based violence. As women are forced into their homes with their perpetrators, domestic violence has noticeably increased globally.

Helpline numbers are available for ‘round-the clock’ counselling services (for less serious cases), rescue missions (for serious cases), and for the provision of shelter homes. While there are successful cases of police intervention to safely direct survivors to shelter homes, there is gross under-reporting due to lack of access to technology and finance acting as barriers.

Grappling With Digital Divide

As explained by the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), even though the number of complaints have doubled since the imposition of the lockdown, most have been received over email. The most popular medium of reporting complaints under normal circumstances for the NCW is post and physical visits, neither of which are functional through the lockdown.

The closure of these means of lodging complaints implies that those who cannot use phones, emails, or social media to contact crisis response initiatives will most likely be entirely excluded from their purview.

This could be over half of the population of women in India.

As of 2018, only 45 percent women in India own mobile phones, as compared to 76 percent of men. In fact, India has one of the highest gender gaps in technology in the world.

The gap is stronger in rural areas than urban, and among low income groups, but persists across all of these categories.

Further, 47 percent of women are ‘phone borrowers’, that is, they use phones owned by their family or friends. Almost 52 percent of borrowers report borrowing the phone from their husbands.

Further, there is a significant gender gap in digital skills – women may not be able to use phones to file a complaint even if they can get their hands on one. According to a survey in 2015-16, a little over 60 percent women in India have ever made a phone call, and 15 percent have sent an SMS.

Socio-Economic Barriers And Level Of Agency

Even after women acquire access to phones, a fundamental problem that is often ignored is the context they are placed in, or the level of agency they can exercise.

Research has found that restrictions to technology have a greater impact on married women who are caregivers at home, as opposed to unmarried women who undertake paid work outside the home.

This is in part because women entering public spaces are considered safer when the family has the means to contact them, while no such requirement exists for women inside the home.

Phone usage can also raise questions about the ‘purity’ or character of the woman before marriage, and appear as a distraction from care responsibilities after marriage.

With the survivors confined with abusers during the coronavirus lockdown and the latter having total control over the physical space, there are very little avenues of external support for abusers.

The ability of the survivor to ‘isolate’ or seek privacy could be threatened, especially at times when the intensity of violence is likely to escalate.

Physical movement of survivors could be constantly monitored by abusers, leading to ‘out of the ordinary’ behaviour arousing possible suspicion.

The Threat Of Surveillance

Constant monitoring also means that women’s use of phones are under surveillance – their use of certain apps such as social media is constrained, so is the level of contact they maintain with friends.

Reports have shown that abusers usually know the phones’ passwords of their victims in case of smartphones, allowing men to easily keep an eye on them.

In addition to constraints around access and privacy, women may not have the resources to seek help, which could include the means to recharge phones. Women with resource constraints are also those more likely to be at the receiving end of violence in the first place.

Women that are economically dependent on their families or partners, including widows and those with physical or mental impairments, are more likely to be at the receiving end of violence than those with relative financial independence.

Financial Independence At Core Of Digital Access

Women are also less likely to be financially included and have access to banks. There have even been recorded instances of abusers depriving their partners – for instance, a case where a woman had her ration card stolen by her husband to deprive her of basic resources. Thus, financial dependence, the lack of resources and lack of liquidity are significant obstacles in digitally accessing support.

There are many socio-cultural factors behind why survivors may not seek help immediately, even if they have the resources to do so. The cycle of abuse is often normalised, creating a culture which encourages violent behaviour.

Extreme aggression, violence and toxic masculinity are normalised in intimate relationships, especially marital relationships. The harms to women as a result of the false dichotomy between the private and the public have also been acknowledged in the Supreme Court judgement affirming the Right to Privacy in India.

What’s The Way Forward: Learn From Citizen Initiatives

Outside of a handful of government bodies, women’s rights NGOs, shelters, and crisis centres were added to the list of essential services much later into the lockdown, and continue to face barriers in resuming physical services.

Exceptions need to be carved out to allow counselling centres and feminist organisations to function, including in containment zones.

Some government bodies, such as the National Commission for Women, have started physical rescues a few weeks into the lockdown.

Without adequate protective equipment, frontline workers are also placed at risk, as was the case with a counsellor and driver working with the NCW were quarantined after coming into contact with a COVID-19 positive woman during a rescue.

This highlights the need to protect frontline workers with adequate PPE and training on social distancing even during rescue missions.

To reduce reliance on digital solutions, transportation for physical rescues should be subsidised along with support for opening up new shelters. An aggressive statewide and nationwide campaign to raise awareness on domestic violence needs to be launched, along with the communications around COVID-19 related hygiene measures.

Government bodies can learn from innovative citizen-led initiatives.

For example, in France, women are using ‘code words’ in pharmacies which are a ‘sign of alert’ for domestic abuse. The North East Network has roped in ASHA workers, who already have wide networks and are continuing frontline work on the ground, to reach out to women and identify those facing abuse. It is critical for these solutions to be supported and scaled up by the government and private sector actors.

While digital solutions are definitely useful in avoiding physical contact, complete reliance on them without accounting for access and agency of those most vulnerable to violence is exclusionary. We must ensure that such exclusions are addressed through innovative measures on the ground.

(Ambika Tandon is a Senior Policy Officer at Centre for Internet and Society. She tweets at @AmbikaTandon. Mira Swaminathan is a Policy Officer at Centre for Internet and Society. She tweets at @mira_cle12. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 14 May 2020, 07:54 AM IST
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