The Breakthrough Voice 30th April, 2020

Pandemics, Lockdowns And Domestic Violence – A Legal Perspective.

With a rise in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases across the globe and in India, the states in India have gone into lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. All States and Union Territories have invoked the provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 so that Health Ministry advisories are enforceable. In the past, the Epidemic Diseases Act has been enforced across the country for dealing with the outbreak of diseases such as swine flu, dengue and cholera. 

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to take unprecedented steps to restrict the movement of their citizens, due to which survivors of domestic violence have suddenly found themselves trapped at home with their abusive partners. Some are unable or are too afraid to call the police. As lockdown measures across are getting stricter, social service workers are raising the alarm over a potential spike in domestic violence. Being confined at home with their abuser makes survivors more vulnerable because there is no escape. 

Domestic Violence in the Global Context

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a message has addressed the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” against women and girls amid growing fear and economic and social pressures arising out of the circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also revealed that reports of domestic abuse have more than doubled since families were confined to home by the coronavirus crisis.

In order to handle this situation, countries like Spain and France have started telling survivors to head to drugstores and say the code word “mask 19” to the pharmacist. Policies are being formulated across the globe since no jurisdiction governed by rule of law anticipated a complete lockdown in the present situation.

Domestic Violence in the Indian Context

The Indian Government has taken measures to try to reduce domestic violence through legislation in the past through The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. However, the present spike in the number of distress calls due to the covid lockdown and women being shuttered in with their abusers needs consideration by the Legislature, Judiciary and Executive.

In this regard, the upper house of its legislature in 2010 voted on a bill that would have designated one-third of seats in national and state legislative assemblies for women. It is also suggested that an Indian Government with more women in it could better support Indian women by passing comprehensive laws that defend women from abuse and help survivors recover.

Being confined at home with their abuser makes survivors more vulnerable because there is no escape. 

On the other hand, executives of states such as Odisha have issued instructions over lodging FIRs in domestic violence cases due to the nationwide lockdown. As per the police order, the survivors need not go down to the police station to file a complaint. Instead, the police will reach the spot, after receiving the call, to register an FIR and take necessary actions. Further, they have launched apps such as Odisha Police Citizen Portal and Sahayata Mobile App through which the survivors can reach them. 

Furthermore, the National Commission for Women (NCW), in order to step-up its outreach for women facing domestic violence in their homes during the lockdown, has launched a dedicated WhatsApp SOS alert number for those who are unable to reach out through emails and social media. The complainant can send a WhatsApp message alert and the Commission will respond with assistance. 

The Way Ahead 

Issues such as domestic violence are rampant since time immemorial – however, the measures taken by the government to curb this violence are not enough. It is clear that during an emergency when women are stuck in homes – they become more vulnerable to domestic violence. In order to depose this evil, the Legislature should make necessary amendments in The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 by providing protection to women and children. 

While the Indian government has made significant efforts in reducing the largely unchecked epidemic of violence against women, there is still a long way to go. Merely passing laws against domestic violence in India to protect women from abuse is not enough. Even after the 2013 amendment in Criminal Law whose aim was to provide harsher and swifter punishment for those who commit violence against women, horrific crimes continue to happen. It is also clear that our legislations are far from being efficacious, especially in dealing with modern-day epidemic related problems. 

A necessary step in moving forward lies in changing the overall mindset of society towards women. There needs to be more sensitisation on how to treat women as equals, along with counselling. These appear to be the most viable solutions during an epidemic outbreak that has caused a national lockdown. Professional counsellors, trained mediators, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists or anyone for that matter who could help must come forward towards helping those in need. This could be achieved through phone, WhatsApp, video-conferencing or even through mass media.

Police should be the last resort, as such intervention could be counterproductive, especially since our policymakers and judiciary are making an endeavour to decongest over-crowded prisons. This is assuming that the police does take action against the perpetrators, at all. If the Indian government can combine proper enforcement of their existing domestic violence laws with thoughtful gender education programs and counselling, we could be looking at a safer and brighter future for Indian women and girls.

Also Read: Violence Against Women in Times of COVID-19

Featured image used for representative purpose only. Image source: New Indian Express

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