In the run-up to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24th, 2020, the government failed to craft strategies to address possible fallout in several areas. One such area that went unaddressed was domestic violence.

The term domestic violence is used in many countries to refer to intimate partner violence, but it also encompasses child and elder abuse, and abuse by any member of a household. While women alone don’t face domestic violence, the rates of violence and abuse directed at women are high, particularly from perpetrators known to them. According to the World Health Organization, one in every three women across the globe experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime; and at least 30 percent of all women in relationships have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their partners.

Domestic violence in the context of COVID-19

Steep rise of around 94 percent of violence against women cases has been reported from 23 March 2020 to 16 April 2020 by the National Commission of Women. Other agencies across the country, too are reporting jump in number of incidents of domestic violence. The child line has received twice the numbers of calls it received on average days. During the lockdown, as the reported cases of violence are increasing, at the same times, the support services are dwindling, putting women and children at high risk. Women have lost the access to any support measure available outside the household including access to their parental homes which is earlier providing a safety-net.

It is not that women are not being abused in homes earlier, but during the lockdown, the virus is mirroring and magnifying the discrimination, inequalities, oppressions, privileges and patriarchal violence, all of which already existing in the male-dominated hierarchical and layered society. In fact, structural gender-based violence is being reiterated during the lockdown where women who are already considered at a lowest rung within the family hierarchy are now being economically and social disempowered.

   Even otherwise, home is a contested site for unequal gender relations where both men and women are placed unequally and men hardly share the household unpaid care work. The gendered social norms burden women with the responsibility of care work within homes and women are being judged on the basis of the quality of work.  The cultural and social biases act against the interest of women. During the lockdown, women are expected to take up traditional gender roles and engage in domestic work with little or no contribution from men.

Fuelled by mandatory stay-at-home rules, physical distancing, economic uncertainties, and anxieties caused by the pandemic, domestic violence has increased globally. Across the world, countries including China, United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Tunisia, France, Australia, and others have reported cases of increased domestic violence and intimate partner violence. India, infamous for gender-based violence (and ranked the fourth worst country for gender equality, according to public perception), is showing similar trends.

We know that women tend to face greater risks during emergencies, including health disasters such as pandemics. We also know that during times of economic hardship, there is an increase in violent, abusive, impulsive, compulsive, and controlling behaviour and aggression directed towards cohabiting partners and romantic partners. This has been widely studied since the time of the Great Depression, and seminal studies (such as feminist scholar Mirra Komarovsky’s The Unemployed Man and His Family) have evidence of the destructive effects of unemployment, lost income, and economic hardship on marital conflict, parenting quality, and child well-being.

Women whose livelihoods have been affected by the crisis, might also now be in financial distress—which is one of the barriers to removing themselves from a violent household. Women who might have been saving up money to leave, might now have to utilise these savings elsewhere.

The lockdown affects the situation further

Within a few days of the lockdown in India, the National Commission of Women (NCW) noted a rise in the number of domestic violence complaints received via email. The NCW chairperson believes that the real figure is likely to be higher, since the bulk of complaints come from women who send their complaints by post, and might not be able to use the internet. Between the beginning of March and April 5th, the NCW received 310 grievances of domestic violence and 885 complaints for other forms of violence against women, many of which are domestic in nature—such as bigamy, polygamy, dowry deaths, and harassment for dowry.

The number of cases reported are most likely not proportional to the actual rise in domestic violence. This is because people locked in with their abusers may not be able to get access to a mobile phone, nor the space and time to call for help. Most avenues to seek help or to physically remove themselves from their situations are impaired.

Being trapped in a space with violent or manipulative individuals could lead to increased rates and intensity of threats, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, humiliation, intimidation, and controlling behaviour. The ability to isolate a person from family and friends, monitor their movements, and restrict access to financial resources, employment opportunities, education, or medical care is heightened by a lockdown. These behaviours often have lasting effects on people, and can significantly affect mental health and well-being.