Author: Diya Vaishnav


Introduction

Under the prevailing crisis, owing to the novel Coronavirus outbreak, nations all around the world have been forced to impose “lockdowns” in their respective territories. While this is essential for the nations in order to mitigate the risk of any further spread of the COVID-19, it has coerced the citizens to remain completely within the bounds of their residence. These nation-wide shutdowns have succeeded over time in “flattening the curve”, but it is not an overstatement to say that this strategy has more adverse side effects. The catastrophic economic impact of mandating people to stay at home has alarmed governments all around the globe. However, there is a lesser noticed harm that is being gravely inflicted upon a particular demographic group – the women.  As the infectious virus grapples the whole world, the governments of these countries are encumbered with the management and tackling of the economic and financial repercussions of the impact of the pandemic. Meanwhile, little heed is being paid to the grievances of women, who face a pandemic of their own, within the boundaries of their residence- the repeated abuse.

Stating that the confinement was fostering strain created by financial and health worries, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka opined that the outbreak of the virus has led to increasing isolation for the women with their violent partners. This has separated them from the people and resources that can best help them. “It is a perfect storm for controlling and violent behaviour behind closed doors.” she said in a statement, calling the violence against the women, as “a shadow pandemic.”

The Protection of Women from the Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

Definition

The “Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005” was enacted by the Parliament of India to protect the Indian women from domestic abuse. This was the first time in the Indian Legal History, that the term “Domestic Violence” was defined. The definition provided in the Act includes within its ambit not only physical violence but also other forms of violence, such as sexual, emotional verbal and economic abuse.

The term is defined by Section 3 of the Act, as “any act, omission or commission or conduct of the respondent shall constitute domestic violence in case it:

  1. Harms the physical and mental health, safety, life or well-being, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so; causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse; or
  2. Harasses or injures the aggrieved person to coerce her or any other person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any dowry or other property or valuable security; or
  3. has the effect of threatening the aggrieved person or any person related to her by any conduct mentioned in clause (a) or clause (b); or
  4. otherwise causes harm, whether physical or mental, to the aggrieved person.

Protection for Women

To seek protection and relief under this Act, an aggrieved woman must establish not only a domestic relationship between her and the respondent, but also that they lived together in a shared household. For the aggrieved to file a complaint against the abuser, the first legal step would be to approach either a protection officer appointed to assist the victims, or the police. A report can also be filed before the Magistrate’s Court, Family Court, or the District Court within the jurisdiction of where the act has taken place.

Though the Act is essentially civil in nature, it does take on the cloak of criminal law, since it prescribes penalties for violations of its orders under the Criminal Procedure Code. Moreover, it also encompasses a maintenance clause, providing for compensation arising out of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence in the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Fuelled by the mandatory lockdown rules, and high economic uncertainties caused by the pandemic, domestic abuse has witnessed an increasing global trend. Across the world, countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, South Africa, and others have reported cases of increased partner abuse and domestic violence. India, infamous for the high rate of domestic abuse (and ranked the fourth worst country for gender equality), is showing similar trends. The current pandemic has forced an almost 100% increase in domestic violence during the lockdown, in India. Pre-lockdown, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 116 online complaints over the seven days from 2 March to 8 March. A total of 257 complaints through email alone, and about 315 another through WhatsApp and other media were received during the first phase of the lockdown, by the NCW. However, according to the activists, the grave issue still remains unsolved. As per the NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma, the number of such cases must be much higher, but many are not getting reported due to the constant presence of the abuser at home. The number of cases reported to the authorities by the victims is likely to be not proportional to the actual rise in the rate of domestic violence. This is due to the fact that the victims, locked in with their abusers may not be able to get access to any modes of communication, nor space and time to call for help. Most avenues to seek help from someone or to physically remove themselves from their situations are impaired.

The complaints reported against domestic abuse were often accompanied by dowry demands and threats, mental and physical torture. Being trapped in a space with violent or manipulative partners has led to an increase in the intensity of threats, sexual and psychological abuse, controlling behaviour and intimidation. Further, the ability to isolate the aggrieved from relatives, and restrict access to financial resources and medical care is heightened by a lockdown. Due to the rise in the unemployment figures, the helplessness of the women also increases. In several instances, the earnings of the women are given to their male partners, and now, they’re unable to do so, as and when demanded. This has also escalated the abuse experienced by the victims. In wake of this lockdown, it is hard for victims to physically run away and even harder for them to get any help from outside. This leaves the women with no other alternative, but to submit to the torture with resignation.

Conclusion

The apocalyptic virus has forced the Indian government to impose lockdowns, in many parts of the country. On one hand, the regulations enforced are saving lives every day but on the other hand, these confined walls have widened the scope for the abusers. The lockdown may seem parallel to many, but for the victims, who are vulnerable to the every-day domestic abuse, this lockdown is akin to a living nightmare. While the government is taking quick steps for “flattening the pandemic curve”, not much has been done to flatten the Shadow Pandemic curve. The aggrieved women seek recourse, but none is provided to them, especially in such times, when the nation fights against the disaster. It is a dire need for the victims to seek imminent help, in order to be freed from the shackles of mental and physical abuse and trauma. Aggressive nationwide campaigns to increase awareness about domestic violence, and highlighting the various ways by which complaints can be filed should be launched. The social media platforms and news channels should be used strategically so that they have a wider outreach to sensitize the victims and warn the abusers. Perhaps, easy access to filing FIRs should be arranged for, by the government. This will effectively make the legal remedies available to the abused, and provide them with adequate shelter and assistance. The outbreak of the pandemic has already caused enough destruction to humanity, financial and medical stability. However, we cannot afford to let the victims suffer any further; and thus, an effective redressal to the issue of this Shadow Pandemic is an urgent need of the hour, domestically and globally, both.


About the Author: Diya is a first-year B.A.LL.B (Hons) student at Gujarat National Law University.


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