The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
To the outside world, my aunt, when she wore one of her brightly coloured scarves, seemed to exude happiness. However, this veil of ignorance was lifted the day I found her breaking down in front of my mom over their usual evening cup of tea. She had taken off her extravagant scarf, revealing reddish-purple bruises on her neck, bruises that her husband had inflicted while venting his frustration on her.
Up until then, I had believed domestic violence to be an issue of the poorest, most uneducated households. I had read books and watched countless plays and movies featuring domestic abuse, but never in my wildest dreams had I expected it to be a reality within my own family.
The most unreported crime world over, domestic abuse usually happens in intimate relationships such as dating, marriage and cohabitation. One in every three women suffer from some form of domestic abuse in India, and during the COVID-19 lockdown, cases have spiked by 30%. Between 24 March and 1 April this year, a total of 257 complaints were received through email alone, out of which 69 complaints were related to domestic abuse.
However, these reports represent the tip of the iceberg as most cases go unreported due to the shame, stigma and blame attached to survivors of domestic violence. Even women who report rarely receive any financial, emotional or social support from family and friends since they refuse to get involved in domestic disputes.
Our government has addressed the need to fight COVID-19, but there are no conversations about domestic violence — the shadow pandemic during this lockdown period. For domestic abuse victims — the majority of whom are women — the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” mantra does not mean anything as “safe” and “home” are not synonymous.
Trapped within their homes, women are unable to reach out to family members and friends for support. Domestic abuse helplines do not have any protocols during the pandemic, rendering them useless, and the lack of rehabilitation and redressal services only complicates the issue. Additionally, women fear that if they go to police stations and their husbands find out, they may be tortured and never again be allowed outside their homes.
In most cases, women in India give up their economic capacity to raise kids. So they are left with no choice but to stay in destructive relationships because if they leave, they will be penniless, unable to support themselves or their children. Financial empowerment would allow women to not depend on men and give them the ability to take charge of their own lives.
Lockdowns have helped control the virus, but they have also devastated the most vulnerable groups amongst us, including women. And so we must place our ears against walls behind which many women, like my aunt, wail despairingly, so that they no longer need to suffer in silence.