Who knew that we would be witnesses to such a catastrophic event in the world, the likes of which has never been seen before? To prevent the spread of a tiny virus, we are confined within the four walls of our homes and forced to give up our education and businesses for a limitless amount of time. When monolithic uncertainty clouds our future, the primary thing we desire is safety and good health. We readily accept the condition of socially distancing ourselves for our well-being. However, for some, the safety of “home” is just a mirage, a far-fetched dream. The very methods to loosen the hold of the infectious agent — social distancing and isolation have proved to be detrimental to women and children’s welfare in multiple households. The sheer number of victims of abuse who are unable to reach out has been on the rise since the pandemic broke out.
With the lockdown comes being stuck at home with friends or families, with no escape. While this puts a certain sort of strain on relationships, some of the most concerning outcomes of the lockdown come in the form of abuse.
Over one-third of women and men have experienced emotional abuse from their spouses while around one in four women and one in seven men have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.
With families in lockdown worldwide, hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, leaving victims in a crisis and governments trying to deal with something that experts state they should have seen coming.
Domestic violence victims are faced with a lot of challenges during this pandemic. Victims who need to reach out for help now may not have the privacy to do so and public resources, including law enforcement and medical professionals, cannot do much.
In several of these situations, the abuser tends to have control over their victim’s finances as well. In times of this global crisis, this can result in an even more intense level of abuse- abusers might try to cut off the victim’s economic resources or threaten to do so.
They might also try to cut off certain necessities such as face masks, sanitizers and disinfectants during this time. In other cases, they might threaten or try to infect their partner if they have symptoms or not allow the victim to seek medical help if they display symptoms.
On April 6, Secretary-General António Guterres called for measures to deal with the “horrifying surge in domestic violence”. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.” he tweeted.
According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) study, at least 15 million cases of domestic violence are reported over the world yearly. The research also assumes an increase of 20% during the lockdown that is anticipated to last around three months in all 193 UN member states. The research also takes into account an assumption of the unreported incidents. The study expects an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence during the three month period of the lockdown.
The same UNFPA report articulated the capacity gaps in countries with high levels of poverty and conflict. In the low- and middle-income countries, the danger of COVID-19 will only compound existing cases of domestic violence and increase the danger of lethality. International organizations working to provide health care and humanitarian assistance to communities should simultaneously address domestic violence to protect vulnerable victims.
It is the same story across the world in several countries. According to the United Nations, domestic violence reports have increased by thirty percent since the lockdown began. Calls to domestic violence helplines in Spain have increased by eighteen percent during the lockdown, while Singapore has reported a thirty percent increase.
The National Commission of Women (NCW) in India reported that the number of domestic violence cases has doubled during the lockdown as compared to pre-lockdown.
Governments all over the world have come up with new ways to tackle this ever-growing situation.
On April 18, under the direction of the Delhi High Court, the Centre and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government held a top-level meeting to discuss the course of action to curb domestic violence and protect victims during the lockdown. The NCW has also created a WhatsApp number- 72177135372, so victims can reach out for help via text messages in case they lack the privacy to make a phone call.
Along with task forces and government operations, several countries have created several code words for victims to tell the pharmacy staff in order to ask for help. In the Canary Islands, if a woman requests for a ‘Mask-19”, the pharmacy staff will immediately call the police for them. This scheme has been adopted by other regions of Spain and several countries such as France.
There are cases to prove that parental substance abuse, and family violence increase due to heightened stress and anxiety levels. This pandemic, which is perhaps one of the most stressful times, is no exception. While children might be less susceptible to the virus, they are extremely vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic on society.
The uncertainty of the future, combined with the stress about education, finance and health, looms large over everybody’s heads. At a time when sole breadwinners of households are losing their jobs, economic insecurity particularly leads to tension. It has led perpetrators to find a release of their frustration in none other than lashing out at children. A male earner struggling to provide and care for his children, ironically, may resort to violence in an attempt to re-establish his dominance.
Constant exposure to their abusers can only lead to trauma and suffering for the victims of physical, psychological, or/and sexual abuse. Children who live in existing violent or dysfunctional families are now deprived of their support networks such as their friends or dependable teachers who help them cope. There is no reprieve available for them to escape the harsh environment of their homes.
Apart from offering a temporary shield, outside contact also enables other adults to keep a watchful eye on the children. The concerned authorities receive maximum calls from educators, guidance counsellors, and daycare professionals (around 20 percent). A teacher, for example, might see injury marks on a student and report it immediately. The shutdown of schools has taken away this opportunity as well.
On the other hand, the closing of schools has led to a great number of children to bury their heads in the virtual screens in front of them. The internet has become the only means to gain an education, be entertained, and stay connected to the outside world. Unfortunately, not all children know how to remain safe online. Hence, the risk of online sexual exploitation, violence, and cyberbullying has increased as well.
There is a dire need to focus on the welfare of children — a section of society that often does not have a voice at all. Lawmakers around the globe, with the help of child care services, need to address this issue tactfully. Virtual check-ins can be conducted with high-risk families, something that’s already being done to some extent in several parts of the world. Creating awareness, distributing helpline numbers, and providing guidance to parents for dealing with the situation are some of the other steps that can be taken. Doctors and physicians need to be trained to recognize the warning signs of abuse. Parents need to teach their children how to use the internet safely.
How to report cases of violence
There are several helpline numbers for women facing violence, that are run by police, women welfare departments and NGOs that aim at working for the rights of women.
The domestic abuse national helpline number is 181.
The women police helpline numbers are 1091 and 1291.
The NCW has also launched a WhatsApp number- 72177135372, to report domestic abuse violence on an emergency basis during the lockdown.
There are two WhatsApp numbers as well to provide psychological help to women in distress- 9000070839 and 0402760531.
The government set up helpline number for reporting child abuse is ‘CHILDLINE 109‘.
The Women’s Funding Network has recently announced a new strategy to help women who are trapped at home with their abusers. It has come up with a “Signal for Help” — a simple hand gesture that can be silently shown during video calls. This will alert family and friends to the possibility of an individual at risk.
The most important thing to deal with alongside the pandemic is the overall protection of victims of abuse. Domestic abuse doesn’t follow the boundaries of pin codes, salaries, or faiths. It is crucial for us, as neighbours and friends, to keep an eye out for signs of distress. Small acts of support — providing needful little things such as food or lending an empathetic ear — can go a long way in easing someone’s stress. We need to act in unison to ensure that vulnerable women and children receive the protection and care they deserve.
Image Courtesy: Women’s Funding Network
Written by Tanya Jain and Tulika Somani for MTTN
Featured Image by Sara Dharmik for MTTN