By Sarah Aslam

“Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Very often, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache”. This is what one survivor of domestic violence had to say about her trauma to the team of Healthy Place. 

Being confined in a space with your abuser is both terrifying and frustrating, as it fosters chances of attack. An abuser’s outlet for aggression is under their very roof and their victims are confined with them through most of the day, seven days a week. In lieu of the COVID-19 pandemic, many households are even more vulnerable to domestic abuse than before. The very combination of the global pandemic, coupled with the global epidemic of domestic violence, is predicted to transpire a myriad of domestic abuse cases worldwide; causing them to surge to an all-time high rate. The mental repercussions for victims will be indelible and hard to eradicate or seek help.

Marianne Hester, a Bristol University sociologist who studies abusive relationships, states, that when families spend prolonged time together, such as during the holidays or summer vacations, abuse often tends to rise. Covid-19 has changed a lot of lives, particularly those who are forced to stay in lockdown with their abusers. Those who have experienced violence and abuse in their own homes are particularly trapped as they cannot break free from the cycle, and there is no escape from their trauma. They have no choice but to keep living it over and over again. This information is further reinforced by the 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which discerns that children who were exposed to violence in their households experience an array of long term psychological, financial and social consequences as they mature and become adults.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of a “horrifying global surge” in domestic violence due to the COVID-19 pandemic and urged governments to maximize efforts to prevent violence against women and children. In a video message posted on Twitter, Guterres further goes on to state, “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest”. 

This calls for greater attention towards domestic abuse in South Asia. Not only has it been severely hit by the virus, but also has staggering rates of domestic violence, particularly toward women and children. 

Domestic violence is considered one of the greatest human rights violations. Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also a public health concern. According to the WHO, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) makes up the highest amount of domestic violence, with 1 in 3 women having experienced physical and/or sexual IPV in their lifetime. The United Nations Women, in their report titled ‘In Pursuit of Justice’, discovered nearly 90,000 cases of family violence in 2009, in India alone. Furthermore, half of the women surveyed in Bangladesh had reported they had experienced physical violence at least once by their partner. 

Domestic violence in South Asia was peeking and becoming a worldwide concern prior to COVID-19. According to estimates by the WHO, South Asia has the highest rate of IPV in the entire world. This estimate proves to be even more shocking when taken into consideration that a plethora of cases of domestic abuse in this region go unreported. Moreover, from the recent report of the Asia foundation, it is noted that violence against women is the deadliest form of violence in South Asia, constituting of greater deaths as compared to other forms of violence; such as religion based. It is unfortunate that lawmakers pay little to no attention to this matter.  

Whilst the entire world has recognized the rights of women, South Asia is yet to further laws to protect victims of domestic violence and hold more accountability. The World Bank reports that all five countries in this region do have laws against domestic abuse; yet, they are outdated, scarcely implemented, or acted upon. This may be because the government seemingly has ‘more crucial’ issues at hand. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is very likely that the issue of domestic violence is further swept under the rug. The research conducted by The National Commission for Women (NCW) in India clearly provides evidence for such, as the commission observed a threefold rise in police apathy towards complaints made by women regarding domestic abuse, as they became exceedingly busy with lockdown orders. Domestic abuse complaints to NCW had also doubled within a week after the lockdown was imposed in India.

The possible reasons for such an escalation in domestic violence is due to South Asian culture. Not only are people desensitized to violence against women and children in this region, but often believe abuse is acceptable. According to India’s 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 52% of women and 42% of men believe that beating one’s wife is justified. This is highly problematic and alarming as most people take a passive stance towards violence, particularly against women if it means ‘putting them in their place’. The build up of systematic sexism, where women are considered less than men in the society is at its worst when violence and abuse is involved. The whole system needs to be reformed and mindsets need to change drastically. 

Due to COVID-19, economies are crashing and businesses are dwindling, causing countless men and women to lose their jobs. This is particularly worrying for working class societies, where the financial contribution of women is of great significance to a household. When women are put out of work, there is greater financial strain on men, unfortunately causing them to channel their aggression on their wives and children. As problematic as that aggression is, job loss for women also means that they are not financially capable to be independent or flee. A survivor of domestic abuse, and an advocate for survivors of the same nature of violence, Kiesha Preston, stated, “Financial resources are a huge factor in being able to get away from your abuser, and right now we are in an economic crisis”. Moreover, due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, seeking help or fleeing has become much more challenging for the victims due to additional reasons such as, the lack of privacy and limited access to telephones. 

Financial strain, job loss, threat to life and health, all contribute to an individual’s threat to their security, and eventually, their sense of self. Majority, if not all individuals, are increasingly stressed and worried about numerous things due to the onset of the pandemic. As a result, one is more likely to become violent and aggressive, which could fare worse to victims of domestic violence because of the current circumstances, where all these travesties are likely to occur at the same time. In her book, “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us”, Rachel Louise Snyder calls this a ‘fatal peril’, describing it as a moment where an individual’s sense of self is so severely threatened that he/she ultimately snaps, and looks to channel aggression physically on anyone around them. 

These reasons as a result, undoubtedly call for greater need to act now more than ever. The government must look into this because not only would domestic abuse undeniably threaten the mental health of the victims, but also add to the economic impact of the COVID-19. According to the UN Women Headquarters, the global cost of violence against women had previously been estimated at approximately USD 1.5 trillion. This estimate is predicted to rise as a result of the pandemic. The UN Women data also shows an upward surge of 25% on domestic violence reports made by helplines and police worldwide since the implementation of quarantine and lockdown.

Institutions that should protect individuals from domestic violence are underfunded, weak or ignored, and can only do so much to attend to the increased demands and calls for help without external help. Several shelters are also being used as COVID-19 recovery centers, or have now exceeded their capacity. The contagion quality of the virus has also added to the anxiety of victims to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. For the same reasons, they are reluctant to get help or visit families and relatives. 

On a more positive note however, there has in fact been some development in terms of reaching out to victims and making it accessible for them to reach out. In Pakistan, for example, the Ministry of Human Rights set up a National Domestic Abuse Helpline, and the National Disaster Management Authority of the country, has set up a dedicated ‘Gender and Child Cell’ to deal with domestic abuse cases. However, many governments in the region of South Asia are yet to put into effect any formal plans to curb the rise in domestic violence amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While helplines may be beneficial to some extent, a large number of cases do go unreported, which is why it is extremely important for the justice system to stand with victims and create a safe space for them. Long term action by the government is due. The need for robust psychological care and economic resources to aid survivors of domestic violence is at an all time high. As helpful as shelters and helplines are, they are not a permanent solution by any means.  

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly testing our resilience, values and most importantly our shared humanity in ways that we may have never imagined before. With economies crashing, people losing their jobs and some succumbing to death because of the virus, this year certainly has proven itself to be remarkably indelible. In regards to the virus, there is still some light at the end of the tunnel, as eventually the pandemic will pass as new vaccines get discovered and people remain precautious. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for domestic violence survivors, for even if they find refuge, recovering from the trauma is a big feat. The current conditions are ideal for this epidemic to grow, and therefore, it is imperative that governments specifically in South Asia ameliorate their efforts to control violence against individuals within the walls of their own homes, and address this issue before it is too late. The collective recovery of each society must be put into action before it is further delayed and more deep rooted and difficult. 

2 thoughts on “Domestic Violence during Lockdown

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