Lockdown and domestic violence: As NGOs struggle to support women at risk, government plays catch up

In the absence of a comprehensive plan from the Indian government to assist women at increased risk of domestic violence during the nationwide lockdown, women’s-rights NGOs have been operating helplines to offer support. But these organisations are facing their own sets of challenges due to the lockdown. Ali Monis Naqvi
15 April, 2020

Within few hours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a nationwide lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that the government had failed to plan for its impact on vulnerable sections of society, such as migrant workers and the homeless. Another group that was put further at risk by the sudden announcement were women who face steady emotional or physical violence at home, who were forced to remain in abusive environments with little access to redress. Many women, including those who escaped violence or identify as queer women, are also finding themselves isolated and without necessary support such as counselling. Worldwide, nations have reported an increase in instances of domestic violence under lockdowns, with even the United Nations having called for urgent action, and for governments to “put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

In the absence of a comprehensive plan from the Indian government to assist such women, several non-governmental organisations have been operating helplines—some of them functional for 24 hours—since the lockdown began, to offer support. But women’s-rights NGOs are facing their own sets of challenges due to the lockdown. Unable to move beyond telephonic or web counselling, the organisations are struggling to be of further assistance to victims of abuse or at-risk women.

Shakti Shalini, a Delhi-based NGO, is one of the organisations that has been running a 24-hour helpline since the lockdown began. Dolly Singh, a counsellor with the NGO, told me that it is receiving an average of five–six calls a week, as opposed to the 25–30 calls they received before the lockdown began. When I asked her about the reduction—which appeared to go against the worldwide rise in cases—she explained that it likely only indicated women’s inability to seek help. “Survivors are staying twenty-four-seven with abusers, so it’s very difficult to talk and ask for help.” Running a 24-hour helpline was necessary since “as they speak on the phone, they disconnect it when someone shows up,” Dolly said. “They have no privacy at all to speak openly. They report in instalments—they speak for a bit and disconnect and then call up again some time later.”

In case of an urgent request for rescue from a victim of domestic violence, under usual circumstances, the police could be contacted to intervene immediately and bring the woman to the safety of a shelter home. But given the police’s focus on enforcing the lockdown, other cases are no longer a priority. Citing a call she received from Uttar Pradesh, Dolly told me, “The girl wanted to move to a safe space. The police refused to drop her anywhere else. She is still living with her abuser. After intervention from us and the police, she is not suffering physical violence any longer. But she is still facing emotional violence.” Dolly said the NGO was “helpless” when it came to any further intervention on the ground. Giving women a space to share their grievances is the only thing we are able to do right now, she said.

Reshma Singh, the state coordinator at the Jharkhand unit of the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, or AALI, said that women she spoke to felt compelled to bear with physical abuse as they had little expectation of help during a state-enforced confinement. “Two–three women called us after suffering beatings for three or four days,” Reshma said. They said that on day one and day two, they wondered what use it would be if they complained to anyone under this lockdown. Nobody will be able to rescue them. On the fourth day or so, they decided that they could no longer tolerate it.”

In the few cases of emergency requests that came to AALI during the lockdown, it intervened to ensure that the police registered first information reports as a deterrent against the abusers, Reshma said. “Even normally, there is no shelter home in Jharkhand except one in Ranchi. It is not possible to bring someone from other districts to Ranchi. That is a huge challenge. There are one or two private shelter homes but access to those has reduced,” Reshma told me. She noted that after the lockdown began, the district commissioner’s office in Ranchi began operating two helplines for women facing domestic violence. Speaking to The Telegraph, an official from Ranchi denied any rise in complaints, but acknowledged that the office did  “see a psychological impact of the lockdown on behaviour among couples.”

Reshma pointed out that physical distancing norms have made it difficult for women to seek help from their neighbours. “When incidents of physical violence occurred before the lockdown, they”—victims—“could seek help from her vicinity. Now even that has stopped because neighbours do not respond as they used to,” she said.

These norms have also necessitated a complete shift to counselling through phones and on online platforms, which in turn highlighted the inequalities in access to channels of communication for women. Anuradha Kapur, the founder of Swayam, a women- and child-rights NGO in Kolkata, said that the utility of helplines is limited to a small section of distressed women who can access a phone. Swayam has been able to stay in touch with communities where they have sources on the ground who pass on information on incidents of domestic violence. “In the rural ones, we found that there was an increase of about 18–20 percent in violence than we normally see,” Kapur said. “In the urban communities, we found an increase of almost 33 percent. As for the others we work with in different parts of the city, we don’t know because we are not on the ground in every location.” She added that she foresaw the full scale of cases of domestic abuse coming to light only after the lockdown ends.

Swayam also operates in Diamond Harbour, a city in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. In this area, the organisation managed to supply rations to women who needed support by coordinating between local shops and people from the community. But similar measures for individual women in distress across Kolkata, on the other hand, has become impossible as door-to-door delivery of essentials is risky.

The announcement of the lockdown at short notice left Swayam little room for putting a system in place to support survivors, Kapur said. “We left the office not knowing that the lockdown was going to be for so long. So we don’t have everybody’s contacts with us. We have tried to put out all our numbers on our website and on Facebook but not everybody goes on Facebook.” She added that the number printed on the brochures that are with women at the grassroot level is a landline in their closed office.

Kapur also drew attention to the plight of survivors who have moved away from their abusive families. “There are single women who are absolutely alone in their house. There is a mental-health impact as well with a lot of anxiety and fear of what is going to happen. A lot of them don’t have the money to refill their phones. Even getting in touch is a problem,” she said. Like the representatives of other NGOs I contacted, Kapur also spoke of the added difficulties caused by the complete absence of transport options. “We have one woman who suffered so much violence that she had to walk with her child to her mother’s house which is quite a distance away.”

The near-impossibility of accessing transport facilities was a recurring concern expressed by the organisations I contacted. But Vishakha, an NGO in Rajasthan that supports working migrant women, has been able to implement outreach programmes for those affected by the lockdown. After talks with the local block administration, the NGO arranged for vehicle passes for their staff members, who are working to supply rations to women who contact them.

Rajasthan has 39 government centres aimed at safeguarding women’s interests, termed Mahila Salah & Suraksha Kendra, which are all run by local NGOs. After the lockdown was announced, the government shut these down. However, Vishakha continued to operate the three MSSKs under its charge in Udaipur, Bikaner and Dungarpur. “We know that this is a time when violence is on an increase. The difficulties will only rise if they are closed,” Bharat, a co-founder of Vishakha, said. (He asked to be identified by his first name.) “We worked hard to transfer the numbers of those centres to the mobile phones of our counsellors to keep all the three centres active under the current lockdown.”

Vishakha is also in charge of the state government’s mental-health helpline, known as Man Samvaad, which is currently being operated in shifts by experts between 8 am to 11 pm. “We have written to the CM requesting that all the helplines and the centres should be treated as emergency services and that they should not be closed,” Bharat added. The NGO is also working in Salumbar, a region in Udaipur with a concentration of migrant workers from Gujarat. Another issue that its workers noted was that owing to the lockdown, the women workers did not have access to sanitary napkins and contraceptive pills. “We have set up 25 depots in 25 villages where sanitary napkins, some basic medicines, contraceptives and emergency pills are available. And we supply rations wherever we identify the need,” Bharat said.

Stree Mukti Sanghatana, or SMS, which operates nine counselling centres in Maharashtra that cater to working-class women, is facing challenges that are unique to working in a densely populated city such as Mumbai. “We do not have the facilities to maintain some distance and offer counselling,” Shobha Kokitkar, a senior counsellor at the NGO, which primarily works for the empowerment of waste pickers and domestic workers, told me. “So we had to close them down. Otherwise, my heart could not accept that we had to close them and sit at home when we should be there to help women who have no one.” Around 20 March, when the NGO staff knew that the lockdown was imminent, they called up victims of serious cases of abuse to pass on all information about available helplines.

SMS has not received rescue requests from domestic-violence victims so far. In the event of such a request, while government-run shelter homes are operational, Kokitkar anticipates that the shelters will refuse new entrants, for fear of infection. “They have to ensure the safety of the women who are already there at the shelter. We will intervene and ask for a medical examination of women before they are admitted,” Kokitkar said.

Several of the NGO workers I spoke with explained that it was not just women who faced direct, physical violence who were put at risk of continued abuse during the lockdown. The shutdown also forced many women into spaces where they faced or were at risk of emotional violence and abuse. “Emotional violence is a subset of domestic violence,” Reshma, the state coordinator of AALI, told me, adding that sometimes, the physical evidence of abuse may in fact make it easier for a victim’s crisis to be believed and acted upon. “As far as emotional violence is concerned, they may not be able to share it with anyone for various reasons. But it causes a lot more harm to women. After some time, when the lockdown is over, it will affect them negatively.”

Women are disproportionately impacted by the lockdown, making the confinement harder still for women survivors or those at risk. Reshma pointed, for instance, to a mounting toll on the mental health of many women, who find themselves without any solitary time. “They have lost their personal space. Now they have no time to rest as they have to constantly meet the needs of every family member at home,” she said, adding that women also have the additional stress of managing the household with fast-depleting stocks of essentials.

For queer and trans women, the family is often a site of abuse. Nazariya, an organisation with a specific focus on issues affecting lesbian women, bisexual women and trans people assigned female at birth, has been organising weekly sessions on the video-conferencing app Zoom to compensate for the impossibility of in-person discussions with LBT people who have no support system at home. Acknowledging that this platform would only be available to privileged classes, the NGO’s co-director Rituparna Borah said that the call sessions themed on art and music performances have served as a breather from the lockdown for the participants. But as representatives of other organisations also pointed out, survivors are sometimes too stifled at home to even have such conversations freely. “Last time, one of the participants was hiding in a storeroom because they wanted to be part of the discussion,” Borah recalled.

In the social context of the people of marginalised persons that Nazariya works with, policing and suppression of their identities by their family members is highly prevalent. “Queer women are very scared about discussions in the house regarding their marriage,” Borah told me. “We normally help and support clients if they want to run away from their households during a crisis but because of the lockdown, we are not sure how will we rescue people because transport is not working.”

As of 10 April, close to the end of the 21-day lockdown, the government’s plan to help victims of domestic violence or women at risk of abuse was still in the planning stages. In late March, the National Commission for Women, the central body that works on women’s rights in India, had noted an inability to ascertain the increase in incidences of domestic violence during the lockdown. The NCW reportedly received 370 complaints between 23 March and 10 April, of which 123 were related to domestic violence. Of these, 46 were registered between 6 and 10 April. The commission’s chairperson, Rekha Sharma, had said in another media interaction that the number of complaints they received after the lockdown began were higher than usual, but added that the true cases must in fact be higher than the commission’s data. Women are intimidated by the presence of their abuser at home and unable to reach out, Sharma had said. She also noted that the commission usually received most complaints not by email, but by post.

The NCW announced a WhatsApp helpline for complaints of domestic violence only on 10 April, suggesting that it saw the need to put a support system in place only after noting a spike in the number of complaints via email. The same day, Sharma held an online conference with the heads of the state commissions for women across India “to explore possibility of providing counselling through online and phone services,” according to the commission’s Twitter account. The various commissions also agreed to identify training institutes to train volunteers who can assist women and children in distress under lockdown. When this plan of action will be implemented remains unclear. A look at the social-media accounts of the commission suggested that Sharma and the NCW are promptly responding to complaints via mails and tweets. But as Sharma herself pointed out, social-media is not the medium through which most women reach out to the central body.

I sent a list of queries to Sharma’s official email address on 12 April, regarding the complaints received by the commission, its responses, and its approach to address the rising cases. The next day, an official from the NCW office called to speak to me, but declined to comment on the record. The official then said that the NCW would send an official response to the queries I had emailed. At the time of publication, no response had been received.

Most NGOs I contacted said they expected the hardships of women to continue long after the conclusion of the lockdown. “We will see its reflection for the rest of the year,” Kokitkar said, referring to the impact on the women workers her NGO helps. “They will have to face a lot of economic issues in future. We will plan to meet the requirements of their education and health in accordance with individual cases.” For now, though, with the lockdown due to continue until 3 May, organisations such as hers must address this desolation from a distance.