It has been noticed the world over, that the lockdowns forced by the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered domestic violence, which includes violence against women by their husbands as well as violence against children by their parents.
The problem is particularly serious in South Asia because societies here have been traditionally tolerant about men being violent with women if the aim is to “put them in their place.” Corporal punishment of errant children are also sanctioned by culture which says that only arms which beat children will embrace them lovingly.
Living together continuously without a break over a long period creates tensions which, in the normal course, would have got dissipated by absenting from the house for a few hours for work or other outdoor activities. A lockdown closes all safety valves for the relief of tensions. Venturing out is turned into a criminal act by the curfew laws.
Tensions in confinement also stem from males wanting to enforce their traditional dominance over women in a context where the women had got used to being free. As regards children, confinement sees the parents trying to control them while in the past they had been too busy with work outside the home to give much attention to disciplining children.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of a “horrifying global surge” in domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis and urged governments to step up efforts to prevent violence against women.
“We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest,” Guterres said in a video message posted on Twitter.
Al Jazeera reported from Chennai that women who were beaten by their husbands black and blue would, in the normal course, run out of their houses and sought help from neighbors. But this can’t be done during the lockdown. In the working class, women also work outside the home and bring home their earnings. But the lockdown has thrown them out of work. The financially hard hit husband then turns his wrath on the wife and the children too.
India’s National Commission for Women (NCW) said that it registered 587 domestic violence complaints between March 23 and April 16 – a significant surge from 396 complaints received in the previous 25 days between February 27 and March 22.
But this violence partially stems from a culture of violence against women. One-third of women in India’s 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) had said that they had experienced domestic violence, but less than 1 percent of them had sought help from the police.
According to the NFHS study, 52 percent of women and 42 percent of men believed that a husband is justified in beating his wife. Apparently, the lockdown gives domestic violence an unmatched setting.
Writing in the The Daily Star, Arpeeta Shams Mizan, an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Dhaka, noted that the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), had found that February 2020 saw a sharp rise in rape.
“Because domestic violence happens at the hands of people living under the same roof or sharing the same bed as the victim, it is hard to identify and hardest to prove. These victims are the least visible in society. In the case of domestic abuse, much of it happens at the hands of family members who can abuse, assault, humiliate and torture women and children. Domestic violence can also be verbal, financial, psychological and sexual,” Mizan said.
“Due to the countrywide lockdown and zero mobility, vulnerable women and children are trapped within the confines of their homes with their abusers 24/7. Earlier, they might have been safe for a limited time while the abusers were away for work. But now they are constantly present, with abusers having a stronger ability to control and terrify their victims,” Mizan said.
Added to this is the fact that few Bangladeshi men share the domestic workload. With home quarantine, women are facing increased work pressure. “If an exhausted wife dares to refuse husband’s advances at night, she might risk receiving forced intercourse. And thanks to the colonial laws, such forced sex can’t legally be considered marital rape,” Minan points out.
Many Bangladeshis believe that domestic violence is a private affair. Even during normal times, police rarely entertain complaints of domestic violence unless it involves fatal physical injury, dowry claims etc. With the COVID-19 crisis, people even think that talking about domestic violence is a luxury. This severely affects the victims,” Mizan observes.
“USA and Canada have actively acknowledged the increased risk of domestic violence during isolation, and are making continuous announcements about helplines and shelter homes. Bangladesh needs to follow suit,” Mizan suggests.
Najam Soharwardy, writing in The News, says that mental health professionals providing online therapy sessions say that they have seen a rise in cases of domestic abuse in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown in Pakistan.
“Since the lockdown began, we have been having more cases related to domestic violence in the country. Husbands justified violence by citing financial depression due to the lockdown,” said Amna Asif, CEO of ReliveNow, an online counseling and therapy platform.
“The bigger challenge is that our clients are leaving their online sessions unfinished. This is because of the fear that somebody will see them talking to us, since all family members are home,” Asif said.
On March 30, the Pakistan Ministry of Human Rights tweeted: “Lockdowns and quarantine measures often leave women and children vulnerable to domestic abuse and violence — which is known to rise during emergencies. Our helpline is here to help you. Dial 1099 or call/text us on WhatsApp: 03339085709.”
But senior lawyer Shuja Abbas said that domestic abuse victims know the consequences of reaching out to the government. According to him, domestic abuse victims would rather go to the respectable people in their areas for arbitration. “
“Since the lockdown does not allow face-to-face meetings, we need to have digital platforms for family arbitration,” Soharwardy recommends.
Writing on the Sri Lankan situation, Ermiza Tegal and Ananda Galappatti quote Savithri Wijesekara, Executive Director of Women In Need (WIN) to say that “between March 16 and April 01, WIN received approximately 250 calls of which 60% related to domestic violence.”
But domestic violence is not new to Sri Lanka as in other countries in South Asia, the authors point out. For example, in 2018, 60 complaints of domestic violence had been registered by the police every day on an average.
The authors cite the Chairperson of National Child Protection Authority, Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana to say that 127 of the 307 complaints received from the March 16 to April 9 related to child cruelty.
Parents are unable to cope with their children in the context of lockdown or working from home and they use violence as a means of exerting control. Conflict and tension between adults during the lockdown also result in greater aggression towards children.