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.”