For Kamilini*, the lockdown put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, could not have come at a worst time. Trapped in an abusive marriage for almost 10 years, she had finally mustered the courage to set up a meeting with a lawyer to begin divorce proceedings. She had also lined up a job as women’s hostel superintendent on the outskirts of Kolkata. She could almost taste the freedom. But then the world, along with her carefully laid out plans, came to a standstill because of the coronavirus pandemic. To make matters worse, her husband found out about her plans and what followed next was emotional and physical torture. He even threatened to kill her if she ever dared to open her mouth. With her mobile phone confiscated and home internet connection cut off, she managed to make one distress call to the Swayam helpline through her landline phone. But when the organisation, which provides support services to women and children facing violence, offered help, she hung up saying she couldn’t bring shame upon her parents, plus that she had nowhere to go. Swayam, too, strapped for resources at a time like this, could not follow up.
“Domestic abuse cases have gone up by 33 per cent in urban areas and 20 per cent in rural areas during the nationwide lockdown. But this is a skeletal assessment based on what we hear through distress calls and emails. I am sure this number would be very high considering the large number of women in rural areas, who have no access to internet and no money to recharge their phones,” says Anuradha Kapoor, founder director of Swayam. As per a National Commission for Women’s (NCW) report, the number of incidents of domestic violence has increased dramatically. If January and February recorded 300 and 280 cases respectively, just the last week of March saw a shocking increase in numbers, 250 in eight days. States like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have recorded a large spike in instances of domestic abuse and even marital rape during the lockdown.
The lockdown is testing even strong relationships and has been a death sentence for more fraught ones. Small arguments over household chores, which inevitably fall on the women of a household, are getting blown up and, in some cases, culminating in violence. As consultant psychologist Anuttama Banerjee says, going by the sharp increase in the number of distressed and panic calls women’s rights organisations are fielding, it seems many marriages and relationships lack a solid foundation. “Relationships are crumbling and once the lockdown ends, we expect a lot of break-ups and many people rethinking their relationships,” says Banerjee.
For Shrikala P.*, a 42-year-old graphic designer from Mumbai, the lockdown and being stuck at home with an insensitive husband with no respite, has brought her to the brink of a nervous breakdown. “A fortnight into the lockdown I realised I couldn’t take the abuse any more. My husband’s business has not been doing well and he has been taking it out on me, throwing tantrums over food and every other little thing. My work has taken a backseat as I have to cater to his and his mother’s demands of food preferences throughout the day. My husband has stopped paying for the groceries and milk as well and shifted the entire financial burden on me. When I tried to explain that I’m not getting enough projects right now, he threw a cup of hot tea at me, which burnt my skin. After that I was so scared of him that my hands would start shaking every time I saw him. When I finally mustered the courage to call the police and seek help, the officer gave him a stern warning. I have two children and don’t want the marriage to fall apart as I am unsure of my financial situation after the lockdown ends,” she says. Her husband has been silenced for now, but Shrikala fears the storm that is likely to follow the uneasy calm.
For some, the abuse is subtle but still verbally demeaning and equally dangerous. “Since I am a housewife and don’t have to ‘work-from-home’, [my husband] thinks I am underemployed and having a whale of a time,” says Janaki*, who lives in Kolkata. “He has been piling all kinds of house work on me. It seems like the domestic chores never end. Plus, when he works late, he expects me to stay awake as well to be at his beck and call at all times.” Seeing women buckle under pressure also gives the abusers another reason to humiliate her. “The lockdown and the resultant difficulty in accessing help, in fact, is giving the perpetrators of violence the confidence to go on with it,” says Banerjee.
Paradoxically, in a few cases, the lockdown is pushing some women to give their abusive relationships a second chance. This may be prompted by their apprehensions and insecurities about the economy and their own uncertain financial and social situations. Dishaa Desai, psychologist and outreach associate at Mpower Centre in Mumbai, says that in some cases husbands are justifying their physical aggression and verbal outbursts using COVID-19 as an excuse and women are deluding themselves into believing it. What is worrying, though, in all this is the psychological health of women. “Endurance for such a long time might just take them to the precipice and if they are unable to spell out and share their woes for long, it might cause grievous damage,” fears Kapoor.
Complaints of abuse are not necessarily centred around husband-wife relationship or among live-in partners. They are also coming from women between the ages of 18 and 30, irrespective of marital status. Their abusers being brothers, fathers, brothers-in-law, even a village headman. “Young girls of 16 years and 18 years are being forced to get engaged so that they can be married off at the earliest date available after the lockdown lifts. In most of these cases, the pressure is coming from the men of the household, probably because they are worried about the future implication of COVID-19 on the economy, pay cuts, loss of jobs,” says mental health activist Ratnabali Roy. There have also been cases of women of low and middle-income groups being abandoned by men because they see the difficult times as an excuse to shrug off their responsibilities.
Ashwini*, who works as a part-time household help in Mumbai, recalls with horror how she was thrown out of her home at 10 pm during the lockdown. “I was dragged out of the house after a fight. I didn’t have any money or a phone and was scared to walk on the deserted streets. I sat down at the bus stop when a patrolling police van brought me home and threatened to arrest my husband if he raised his hands at me again. He had no option but to take me home. I am scared. He drinks, and with no alcohol available, he’s getting restless and taking his frustrations out on me,” says Ashwini.
With no respite in sight, the possible extension of the lockdown is only inspiring fear in the hearts of victims. Home is no safe haven for them.
*names changed on request