Time To Ring The Alarm Bells On A Shadow Pandemic

There has been a sudden spike in instances of domestic abuse during the lockdown. What’s needed are urgent interventions and affirmative action

Sohini Bhattacharya Updated: Apr 9, 2020 17:42:24 IST
Time To Ring The Alarm Bells On A Shadow Pandemic Image used for representative purposes only.

It took a pandemic of this proportion to focus on what is now being called a shadow pandemic. The current lockdown and social distancing have suddenly shifted the focus on violence against women and girls (VAWG), especially domestic violence, as reports of waves of unspeakable abuse pour in from all over the country⁠—and different parts of the world. Gender activists, and those who have monitored crimes against women, have sounded the alarm bells for years to bring attention to it and find means to end it, but it took the current pandemic to bring focus to this outrageous crisis once again. Domestic violence is both a public health and human rights crisis of mammoth proportions that needs immediate attention.

In India, the National Commission of Women reported, on 2 April, that its national hotline had recorded a more than two-fold rise in gender-based violence. It is obvious that Indian women, under the lockdown, have turned extremely vulnerable. Between 24 March and 1 April, 257 complaints related to various offences against women were received. Many of them were over email.

But India hasn’t been the only one to be faced with this disgrace. Many other countries have reported either eerie silences at the other end of the hotline or a sharp drop in the number of calls, indicating something is not right with the callers. In fact, reports of the rise in cases have been pouring in from every corner of the world. Canada has experienced an alarming 300 per cent hike in calls in crisis lines in Vancouver city alone. France reported a rise in domestic violence abuse in Paris after the restrictions came into force. The cases even included two murders. NGOs in China, managing hotlines and working with women, have reported an almost 50 per cent increase in the reports of domestic abuse. The case load on organizations dealing with such cases in the UK has gone up as well, since the beginning of the epidemic.

The lesson we never learnt

Believe it or not, women and girls have experienced increased risk of various forms of violence during previous epidemics too⁠—lessons that we chose to ignore. In the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a rapid assessment in North Kivu found that participants perceived an increased risk of VAWG, particularly sexual violence, domestic violence and sexual exploitation and abuse (IRC, 2019). In Sierra Leone, an assessment of case numbers and available services managed by the UNDP and partners revealed an increase in VAWG (UNDP, 2015). What is it about these intense situations and abusive behaviours?

Domestic violence survivors find it hard enough to put up with their abusive relationships, even at normal times. However, at the time of a pandemic, living in isolation and under lockdown, they find it harder to deal with the situation they are already in. That their mobility is restricted, with no respite or options of going out and meeting other people, makes it even harder. Living in confinement, in closed spaces 24/7 with the abuser, and being unable to reach out for help or just having a discreet conversation with them on the phone⁠—with the abuser being present in the vicinity⁠—make it infinitely more challenging and frustrating. Continued stress, tension and uncertainty seem to result in frayed nerves and flying tempers, escalating the conflict situations.

domestic-viol_040920053031.jpgHistory has proven time and time again that episodes of domestic violence invariably increase during times of epidemics and pandemics. (Image used for representative purposes only. Source: Wikimedia commons)


What is even more tragic is that access to interventions or law enforcement is also severely restricted, rendering survivors completely helpless. Law enforcement systems may be busy dealing with the crisis at hand and, as a result, their response to such reports and SOS are either ignored or, at best, delayed. Therefore, even though reports are pouring in, responses are sporadic at best, and, in the worst case scenarios, may be too late. Where there is a response, service providers may find it harder to approach the survivors in the midst of the lockdown, and even if they make it through to them safely, their lack of protective gears or safe transport can add to surmounting the problem. Governments have obviously ignored the problem of domestic crisis for such a long time that factoring in this issue, and thinking it through during their early responses to the crisis and lockdown, is almost too much to expect.

What can be done

Declaring hotlines and crisis-lines as essential services during lockdowns is one step governments could take. Allocating funds for alternative housing either for the abuser or for the women, and any children they may have, is another. Providing resources to the NGOs who support survivors so they can keep their helplines open, can reach survivors safely, and keep their shelter homes and safe houses running, is another step that can be supported.

As you read about this grim scenario, and the tragic stories of women and their children who are trapped in this cycle of violence, questions on culture, patriarchy and normative behaviour are easy to disregard⁠—simply as the question of immediate intervention takes precedence. But beyond COVID-19, as the lockdowns are lifted and perpetrators find themselves in a new world where jobs are lost, financial setbacks become the norm, and the uncertainty of life deepens, one fears that the crisis of abuse and violence against soft targets can only intensify.

At Breakthrough, we ran a 360 degree campaign with rigorous on ground intervention called Bell Bajao, some years ago, where we encouraged men and boys to stop being passive bystanders and interrupt violence by a simple act⁠—to arrive at the doorstep of the home where violence is evident and ring the bell! The campaign reached 243 million people and there was a 15 per cent jump in demand for services against domestic violence. The campaign made “bell bajao” a metaphor for taking affirmative action.

It is time to ring the bell again, on domestic violence, to put a stop to it.


Sohini Bhattacharya is the CEO of Breakthrough, an organization that works on transforming norms that enable violence against women.
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