News reports from around the world indicate that as more and more quarantines, lockdowns and ‘shelter-in-place’ orders are implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the incidence of abuse and violence in homes have increased substantially. Indian homes are witness to the same trend of intimate partner violence (IPV) or family violence increasing during times of crisis, as is being witnessed around the globe.
With social distancing and isolation being heavily encouraged, someone experiencing IPV is forced into being in close proximity with their abuser, with few options of escape. “Home” is not a safe space for everyone and being quarantined in an abusive environment and experiencing harm can deeply impact survivors of violence.
There have been limitations in India’s response to IPV even before the pandemic hit, making abuse and violence in many communities almost invisible.
For instance, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code recognizes only cruelty by the “husband or relative of husband subjecting a woman to cruelty” and not other possible abusers such as live-in partners.
While the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) recognizes the various forms of abuse (physical, sexual, economic, verbal & emotional), Section 2(f) places conditions on the definition of “domestic relationship”, which if not satisfied, will not provide recourse to the individual under that act.
IPV in same-gender or queer relationships is another area where there are lacunae in the law. There is no legal clarity on IPV in queer relationships since the reading down of Section 377. Additionally, for members of the queer community, the feelings of fear may be heightened as they face abuse from their partner and persecution from a police force and society who will not understand them.
The police and community response is known to be coloured by insensitivity and homophobia. Narratives of “normalizing” violence run within communities and the police, making it difficult for those experiencing abuse or violence to speak out or trust the systems that are “supposed” to protect them.
• Conditions like lockdown, quarantine, social distancing have made it so that there is a lack of escape. Earlier routines involved children going to school, abuser or survivors leaving the house for work or being able to access neighbour’s homes or women’s shelters for safety. These options are no longer as accessible. Proximity to abusive individuals has increased, and leaving the home to get support is not as viable an option as before.
• Closure of public spaces such as coffee shops, malls, libraries, workplaces etc. have not only increased time at home with the abusive person but have also decreased privacy to safely make calls for help or to get information about support.
• Services such as police support, helplines, NGOs etc. have reduced operations, have been shut down or are working in a limited capacity. Provision of support purely in an online format may be less effective. With responding to IPV situations not having been deemed a “necessary service”, state responses to reporting of cases of abuse/violence may be delayed.
• With the shut-down of usual supports like childcare services, creches and community aid, there may be increased reliance on the person causing harm to help with household management and child care. The person experiencing violence may not be able to go out of the house and earn an income, as is the case for many women workers in lower caste and class intersections in India, leading to greater financial dependence as well.
• With isolation and distancing being practised, there is less opportunity for vigilance from the outside. Isolation and lack of connecting with support systems can allow for violence to go unchecked or uninterrupted. Isolating and disconnecting someone by taking away access to their phone or social media is a means of control. In many homes in rural India, there is only one mobile phone or landline, which is usually within the control of the person causing harm.
Many online means of reaching out such as writing emails or using social media, knowing how to safely clear chat/search histories, etc. are not options for Indians who are not familiar with the use of information technology or do not have access to computers/smartphones in their homes. This makes the poorer populations in India even more vulnerable.
• The means of control and domination have also changed. Individuals experiencing IPV may have to face threats of being thrown out of their homes, with possibilities of infection due to the spread of COVID-19. Withholding items such as sanitizers, food or preventing someone from seeking necessary medical intervention are also means that might threaten safety.
IPV has a significant impact on the mental health of the person experiencing harm. Violence causes trauma, often accompanied by feelings of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, helplessness, worthlessness, and sometimes even thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Safety planning has often emphasized leaving the person causing harm, taking the children if any, and calling the police. What can individuals experiencing IPV do in the midst of the pandemic when these options are
not as viable as they were before?
Here are some ideas.
This is not to say that the person experiencing harm is responsible for what is being done to them. Abuse is NEVER the fault of the survivor. However, at this time, it may not be safe or possible to leave, and so the goal is increased safety in whatever forms possible. Identify what situations trigger abusive behaviour and make a game plan about how those can be avoided.
Call on the wisdom you already have and look at the ways in which you have already been practising safety. Look out for facial expressions, behaviours or words that indicate abuse is likely, and remove yourself from the situation when you notice these signs. Being cordial with an unsafe person isn’t ideal, but may lead to increased personal safety.
Identify spaces in the house where there are no weapons and there are ways to escape. If possible, avoid encounters in the kitchen or the bathroom where there are hard surfaces or availability of weapons like knives or razors. If situations begin to escalate, try to move to the rooms which are safest.
Even in lockdown, you are permitted to visit pharmacies or grocery shops. You could also leave the house for necessary activities like walking a pet or trip to the doctor if possible.
Can someone call? Set up a code word with friends/family and decide on what it indicates in advance. Use the code word to indicate you need help. The support person may call the house to disrupt abuse or call the police if needed.
Can someone visit? Since certain services can deliver, is it possible to schedule the delivery of groceries, food, or medicine during times of the day that are particularly trying?
If physical violence is unavoidable, make yourself into a small target. Dive into a corner and curl yourself up into a ball with your face protected and arms around each side of your head, fingers entwined. Try not to wear scarves or long jewellery that could be used to strangle you. Hide supplies such as money, personal documents, medication, food, sanitizers for yourself and create a ‘go-bag’ in case you need to leave suddenly for your safety.
Isolation works in favour of the abuser and has shown to have adverse effects on the mental health of the survivor. Ensure that as much as possible, you stay in touch with supportive friends and family. You can also consult a therapist or join an online support group.
Try to find time in your day for activities that feel nourishing to you and allow you to recharge. This could be journaling, meditation, art, listening to music, singing, playing games, eating well, staying hydrated, or anything else.
Combating IPV is not just an individual’s responsibility, it is our collective responsibility as a community to support survivors, especially in the present circumstances. If you or anyone you know is experiencing harm, click here for a list of resources that can be accessed.