Due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 globally, many countries have resorted to imposition of a complete lockdown. The lockdown enforced due to pandemic has given an opportunity for patriarchal forces and unequal gender relations to be reinforced within the four walls of the house. UN has declared the domestic violence as being a shadow pandemic, and urged nations to position strategies to combat domestic violence at the centre of their overarching COVID-19 response policy. The need for such an approach in India is evident from the flood of domestic abuse complaints (emotional and physical) received by National Commission for Women in the past few months.
The lack of access to technology especially in rural areas often turns houses into prisons. Recently, to address the problem of domestic violence in India, a government circular suggested the use of mHealth and telemedicine in safely dealing with violence against women. However, this ‘help’ is a pipe dream for an illiterate woman living in a rural area, as unfavourable gender relations create severe handicaps and prohibit access to e-resources.
Present circumstances have led to various changes in our legal machinery – the justice delivery system to a certain extent has turned virtual, hence in such a pressing situation technology should be accepted with alacrity. Courts in India have attempted to ensure effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, (DV Act) in the wake of the increase in the cases of domestic violence during the lockdown. Some interim directions issued by J&K HC and Delhi HC on the issue are: tele/online counselling of women and girls; designation of informal safe spaces for women where they can report domestic violence, like grocery shops; increase online awareness campaign; call-in services to facilitate discreet reporting of abuse, and proper training of protection officers who will attend to e-complaints.
Need for revision
Much of the extant procedure under the DV Act – contacting protection officer appointed by the government, presenting application to district magistrate, reporting to police under and other procedural requirements – are difficult to comply with due to the on-going lockdown, hence bringing effective redressal to a grinding halt. However, legal recourse can turn effective with right use of technology.
As per the DV Act, a police officer, protection officer, service provider or magistrate who has received a complaint of domestic violence or is present at or reported of an incident involving domestic violence is responsible for informing the aggrieved party about their rights. However, due to the health crisis these responsibilities cannot be taken up physically, and must be managed through virtual modes of communication. Video conferencing with Magistrate Courts for interim relief and virtual communication between lawyers and victims are viable options. Because lawyers and judges both play a pivotal role in mollifying trauma of a survivor, the same must be facilitated despite circumstances.
The DV Act also stipulates mandatory provision of medical assistance to a victim of domestic violence, however, due to the ‘greater’ need for reallocation of healthcare resources, compliance with this mandate has become tough. Innovative modes of collaboration with NGOs and paramedical forces which employ technology must therefore be explored. In this regard, preliminary medical examination through telemedicine and counselling by offering trauma-informed care to the victim can be plausible solutions. For instance, long back in Bangalore, a programme to train nurses in hospitals to use a mobile device to identify women at risk of violence and promote disclosure was greatly successful.
As stated, to cater to connectivity and scalability problems, informal communication channels can be established with help of NGOs and volunteer groups through online complaints, emails and WhatsApp based network. There is an ardent need to increase interaction and awareness of services through routine news and advocacy efforts. Online campaigns/ awareness drives can be clubbed with ones on COVID-19, to further their reach.
Owing to increased gender based violence, the United Nations has urged countries to “put women and girls at the centre of the efforts to recover from COVID-19”. However, in India, there is still silence on the issue, with even the Ministry of Women and Child Development failing to implement any comprehensive measures. There is an evident shortfall when it comes to national-level advisories on domestic violence. The alacritous manner in which governments have tended to revenue generation through opening of liquor shops and so on – liquor, which has been shown to exacerbate domestic violence – seems apathetic when juxtaposed with the lack of initiative with respect to curbing domestic violence.
Lack of Foresight
At present, there is lack of legislative preparedness in India on this issue. The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, promulgated by the Government in April 2020 does not have any provision on domestic violence despite alarms raised by National Commission of Women over a steep rise in violence against women. Till a holistic legislation on domestic violence during pandemic arrives, we need to curb domestic violence cases and protect victims through proper use of technology and e-communication channels. Initiative like helpline numbers, phone applications for denunciation, portals for alerting police and other measures adopted pan-India are important. This must not come as an ad hoc hotfix only for the pandemic, but should be framed in a manner that forms part of long-term policy. Foregoing technological assistance should be extensively advertised with help of NGOs, lawyers and medical fraternity so that women in remote areas are made aware of it. Entire legal mechanism cannot be accessed through technology but steps must be taken for protecting vulnerable women at home to feel safe and be heard.
All is not grim, as some states – albeit very few – have taken cognisance of this alarming situation. The Tamil Nadu government has taken steps for redressal of problem via helpline numbers, e-counselling and regular updates; ‘Phone Up’ programme of Odisha government; UP Police online complaint portal by police for reaching women in distress during lockdown are some initiatives which can be emulated and scaled across India.
We can even draw inspiration from numerous nations that have tackled the problem of domestic violence meticulously through proper use of technology. For instance, the French government has encouraged victims to discreetly seek help at pharmacies, while the Italian government has launched a new app that will enable them to ask for help without making a phone call. Spain is utilising geolocation technology for tracking women in distress and alerting police. Portugal Authorities have strengthened their helpline by enacting new email addresses and SMS- lines, while in Bolivia denunciation through WhatsApp is available 24/7.
This pandemic has thrown light on the fact that our society has made pitiable progress in women’s safety at home despite ardent efforts through a series of stringent legislations. This not only points out the past failure to counter the problem, but also brings to light the urgent need for the revision of the existing mechanism. Frightening statistics of violence around the world also prove that hegemony of patriarchy is still deep rooted and trying to weaken women at home by diabolical actions. This alarming situation is an urgent call to policymakers to revive the existing laws to make it more accessible to victims through proper utilisation of technology amidst changing socio-cultural norms owing to COVID 19.
Divyanshi Shrivastava is a B.A. LL.B. student at MNLU, Nagpur, and presently in her 4th year. She is passionate about rights of women, and is interested in subjects exploring the interplay between women and law. She can be reached at email@example.com