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.
There have been limitations in India’s response to IPV even before the pandemic hit, making abuse and violence in many communities almost invisible.
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.
“Patriarchy” refers to “male rule” and hence “male authority” and describes a very broad continuum of gender role models in which males have some type of gender-based authority over females. Many researchers who have looked into the link between patriarchy and IPV have found that ideas of male control and power over women, over the household, over finances and in the society, are a direct cause of violence against women. It contributes to narratives of male dominance, female’s submission and of males “putting women in their place.”
Narratives about the “proper” roles that males and females are “supposed” to embody can deeply impact the way that individuals experience their reality and can inform their behaviour. Men are often portrayed as the “leaders” of the home, as “bread-winners” and “providers.” Masculinity then is pre-defined as aggressive, independent, strong and dominant. Women are portrayed as contrasts to men. They are seen as “child-bearers”, “caretakers” and “grahanis.” Femininity is then pre-defined as obedient, service, respectful, caring, maternal and “inherently”, less powerful. These ideas create acceptance around men’s “right” to control women by any means necessary.
Masculinity also contributes to ideas about how men’s expression of emotions should look like. They are often encouraged to push down feelings of anxiety, sadness, uncertainty, (which are considered signs of weakness) while emotions such as anger and frustration (often manifesting in violence) are socially sanctioned (as they are considered signs of strength). Violence, in some ways, then becomes excused as “passion” or “anger” which is seen as out of the control of the person causing harm. In this way, accountability and responsibility are minimized.
Ideas about what relationships entail and what experiences are normal and acceptable in relationships often come from societal and cultural norms. Ideas that deem violence as a “normal” part of relationships, or encourage partners to “stay and make it work” can support abuse in relationships. The acceptance of options such as the dissolution of a relationship, divorce etc. is different in different communities.
It is interesting to see ideas about IPV as something that happens “out there” or “not in our family”, even though statistics indicate that 90% of perpetrators abuse are known to the person who is experiencing harm. The view is that a family is a self-contained unit, deserving privacy at the expense of other rights and freedoms.
This affects intervention as police then often see IPV as a minor offence and as a family issue in which police officers should not interfere. Community and family members may also often encourage the person to tolerate abuse (sehen kar lo) and stay silent. In these narratives of silence, the voices of those who are being harmed are lost. Narratives of silence go hand in hand with narratives of shame.
When survivors of violence do speak out, they are often shamed for doing so. They may be shamed for their choices in many ways-for staying in the relationship, for leaving the relationship, for not leaving the relationship sooner, etc. In legal proceedings too, shame and stigma are attached to the survivor, often accompanied by questions around their morality and identity.
In the previous sections, community narratives were looked at in terms of their role in supporting IPV. Despite conditions for violence, communities can offer multiple forms of safety. What can we do to support those who may be experiencing harm in the form of IPV in the present situation?
When exploring risk and safety and mapping out options, our role is to support and empower someone in their agency in making choices that are best for them. Survivors have already learned some things about what keeps them safe. They are the experts in their situation and consulting them as such can lead to creative ideas for safety.
Collaboratively decide on a frequency of check-ins via telephone or video chat or email that feel safe to the person experiencing harm. You can choose a codeword or phrase in advance with different meanings. One could indicate the need to raise the alarm, while another could indicate that you should call and check-in. Use yes or no questions that the person can answer safely, without increasing the risk to their safety.
If the code-word is sounded, you can call for help. Keep the police/helpline number on speed-dial for quick access. Disrupting abuse can also look like calling the house if you suspect the person is in danger, or if possible, going to their house to ring the doorbell and then leaving. Often, just the idea that someone might witness and report the violence can prevent harm.
If required, can you teach the person experiencing harm how to reach out via online mediums? Can you connect them to resources or support systems online through email or social media by teaching them how to use those platforms? You could also teach them means to maintain security online by guiding them on how to delete browser history, how to delete chats on their social media, how to turn off location services or create secure passwords.
If the person causing harm is withholding supplies, can you share resources with them in some way? This could look like dropping off a home-cooked meal as a friendly neighbour or transferring money into their bank account. If the person is able to leave their house, you could meet them in spaces such as pharmacies, grocery stores, parks or parking lots to provide them with the resources they need.
You can show that you are available by spending time on your balcony or on your verandah if you often see the person who is experiencing IPV when you are there. You can stay connected virtually. You can show that you respect their choices even if they choose to stay with the person who is causing harm, or even if they are not taking your advice or choose not to communicate with you. Let them know that no matter how their choices change or how the situation develops, you will be there to support them.
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.