Domestic Violence in Meghalaya during the time of COVID Pandemic
Recently, on receiving a case of domestic violence over the phone, I realized how helpless we had become in responding to such cases. We were unable to leave our homes; neither could the counselors help the women since her husband had taken away her phone. In the next few minutes, we received a phone call from the women’s relative asking us to intervene soon, as the husband was mercilessly beating his wife for days on end since he had returned home when the lockdown was announced. In another incident, we received a call from a community member asking us for help, as her neighborhood friend was being abused in her home by her husband, who was bringing other women to the house. In both the incidents, our response was hugely delayed and I dread to think of what could have happened to the abused women during that delay.
The COVID19 pandemic has resulted in a public health emergency of global proportions. When the Government announced the nationwide lockdown on the night of 24 March, 2020, it became evident that its impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized section of society, such as, the daily wage earners, migrant workers and the homeless was catastrophic. Another group that was put at a further risk were women who face domestic violence, who were now locked in abusive environments, with little to no access to safety.
The rise in cases of domestic violence has been reported in countries worldwide. This sudden increase in cases was acknowledged by the United Nations Secretary-General on 5th April, 2020 stating “we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence” and urged world leaders to include protective measures in their pandemic plans. In India, The National Commission of Women recorded 476 cases of domestic violence in the first three weeks of lockdown.
The situation in Meghalaya is nothing different. Crimes against women has an under-reporting problem even during normal times. Domestic Violence in Meghalaya has always been treated as a private family issue and something women should bear silently. Besides social stigma, a key reason for this is fear of retaliation by the perpetrator. With constraints on mobility taking away the option of escaping to a safe place, under-reporting of domestic violence is expected to be far greater during the lockdown. Meghalaya lauded in the myth that a matrilineal society had empowered women, who lived a violent free life. The Government and the society had a wakeup call in 2005, when statistics of domestic violence from the study of the National Family Health Survey revealed that Meghalaya ranked third highest in cases of domestic violence. Efforts made by NGO’s, civil society organizations and individuals helped to reveal the reality of domestic violence in the State. The Government responded with setting up of the One Stop Centers, the 181 Helpline, women helpdesk at the police stations and so on. Women, both from rural and urban areas, were able to access the justice system, receive the counseling they needed and their cases were being redressed. However, with the curfew and lockdown in place, women’s access to justice has been deeply restricted.
Lockdown may not only intensify the abuse suffered by existing victims but can also create new victims. The sudden unnatural situation of being confined to your homes, the fear of a deadly virus, uncertainty of work and lack of financial security may in itself cause tension within homes that can manifest itself in domestic violence. In fact, if India goes into an economic recession, abuse driven by mental stress will likely continue post lockdown. Women will also lose their work. This loss of financial independence will cost some of them their sense of empowerment and bargaining power at home.
Though the Government initiatives and those of NGO’s are still active to an extent, their means to act swiftly has rapidly declined. Mobility of personnel is restricted, counselors are helping only through phone calls and messages, police are on duty for COVID19 and are unable to attend to other matters with the same urgency, and women are unable to access the One-Stop Centers located at the hospitals. With all our resources being restricted, it makes it even more urgent now for the State and civil society to strengthen the existing mechanisms to address domestic violence, as well as deliberate on new solutions tailored to these extraordinary circumstances. It is also important to ensure that the measure incorporated must cater to women across all levels of education, access to technology and the ability to use it.
Responding to domestic violence should be an integral part of the States response plans that are currently being developed to address COVID19. The Government making an official acknowledgment can send a strong message to the abusers and serve as a deterrent. The Government and civil society organizations have done well in bringing out IEC materials on COVID19. Developing awareness materials on Domestic violence might just save several victims of abuse. In Meghalaya, we have only had the Meghalaya Police of West Jaintia Hills district release official notification on combating domestic violence in the district during the lockdown. The Superintendent of Police at Jowai has done a good job by recognizing the increase in domestic violence cases in the State. He has also put out the names of police personnel, legal aid counselors, health supervisors, and volunteer counselors who can be contacted directly for assistance. We need this to be a uniform practice across all districts in Meghalaya.
In addition, curfew passes should be given to those service providers registered under the PWDVA Act of the State. This will enable them to act more swiftly in responding to cases of domestic violence. Local NGO’s can track cases that were known to them pre-lockdown with phone calls and messages to see if the women are doing ok. It may also be wise for organizations to start an online survey to help identify new cases of domestic violence. It is imperative that the State Commission for Women also develop new strategies to assist women in reporting cases. These could include web based or app based reporting of cases.
Traditional institutions, women’s groups in the localities can now play a much more important role in this regard. They can dually serve as complaint points as well as providers of livelihood support in these times of financial hardship. The need of the hour is for the government and the traditional institutions of governance to apply a gender lens to the COVID19 response strategy in the State. The focus should be in putting together a quick plan of action, and organ sing a coordinated effort by local government, grassroots organizations and communities for effective implementation.
By Joy Syiem