How can India conquer the epidemic of Domestic Violence with the current law?
By: Tannvi* |
The world is in the middle of a unique historical trial. This trial is a global COVID-19 pandemic where lockdown has become an unsettling reality overnight. Along with this new normal of obligatory stay-at-home rules, economic difficulty and anxiety have brought another baggage of concerns.
While declaring the national lockdown on March 24 2020, the Indian Government failed to design plans to approach potential consequences in numerous fields. One such subject that went unaddressed was domestic violence. Reports suggest that between March 25 and May 31 of 2020, 1,477 complaints of domestic violence have been recorded, which has been the most in a similar period in the previous ten years. The statistics released by the National Commission for Women (NCW) India, stated in early April 2020, there has been 100 % increase in complaints related to violence against women after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020. But, it must also be noted that according to reports, around 86% of women who experienced violence in India never sought help, and 77% of the victims did not even mention the incident(s) to anyone.
Domestic Violence Act, 2005
The 2005 Act is the only ray of hope for tackling this parallel pandemic of domestic violence in such unprecedented Global Virus Outbreak. 'Domestic Violence' is defined under the Act as "any act of commission or omission or conduct resulting in physical, verbal, emotional, sexual and economic abuse." This may range from calling names, insulting, humiliating, controlling behaviour, physical violence to sexual violence.
The Act has rendered awareness through media (print and broadcast) to create awareness in the general public, which can include information about Interpersonal Violence Cycle, measures of de-escalating a situation at home, helplines, shelter homes and legal assistance available for women. An alternative arrangement of safe spaces (space away from the abuser) by the creation of temporary shelter homes should also be considered. Educating and using available human resources like NGO workers and other health workers, who are currently conducting door to door surveys about COVID-19, in identifying subtle clues of Domestic Violence would be prudent.
The Act tries to protect the victims by undertaking various measures. Some of the illustrations are as follows:
1. Under Section 6, Victims should be provided with adequate medical aid, counselling and shelter homes and legal aid.
2. Under Section 9, well- qualified Protection Officers, preferably women, are appointed by the Government in every district. They file incident's reports, provide shelter homes, medical facilities and legal aid for the victims, and ensure the implementation of the protection orders issued against the respondents.
3. Under Section 14, counselling should be given to either both or one of the parties, as directed by the magistrate.
4. Under Section 18, the Protection Orders are issued for the victim's protection from the respondent if he commits or aids or abets violence, or enters any place which the victim frequently visits or tries to communicate with, restricts assets of the victim or causes violence to people of interest to the victim.
5. Section 19 authorises the magistrate to limit the respondent from the place of residence of both the parties if they believe that it is for the safety of the victim.
6. Section 20 renders relief to the victim to compensate for the loss, including loss of earnings, medical costs, any expenses incurred due to failure of property by damage or removal, and maintenance of the victim and her children.
7. Under Section 21, the custody of the children is granted to the victim with visiting rights to the respondent if required.
Relation Between COVID- 19 and Increased Reporting of Domestic Violence
Prior studies have shown a correlation between exposure to natural calamities or other extreme events and increase in rates of Domestic Violence. The causation of it during any natural disaster is multifaceted, accelerated through various, interdependent causes like stress due to physical confinement, economic disruption, slowed down businesses, potential unemployment, scarcity of requirements and inadequate social support.
The rise in Domestic Violence cases could also be attributed to the disparity in the distribution of household work. India being a patriarchal society, domestic work is primarily considered women's job. Absence of domestic help has made people burdened with the increased workload, causing an increase in distress and claustrophobia because the inability to go out has added fuel to the ongoing friction between the couple and results in increased chances of Domestic Violence.
Moreover, among the families affected by substance use disorder, COVID 19 has worsened the cases of Domestic Violence. The stress of economic instability itself has resulted in increased consumption of alcohol, thereby increasing violence independently. During the lockdown, the perpetrator might inflict violence on the spouse demanding to satisfy his or her alcohol or other substance consumption needs or might consume alcohol or substance at home, in the presence of his family members. In both the above situations, Domestic Violence worsens. The National Commission for Women taking into consideration the twofold increase in domestic violence cases has announced a Mental Health Helpline at 08046110007 for providing community care and medication to the victims.
“While the world and policymakers are focused on ‘here and now’ at the moment, as said by the differential needs of women and men in medium and long term recovery efforts also need to be considered”- noted by Mohammed Naciri (Regional Director of UN Women, Asia and Pacific).
Possible Solutions and Way Forward
Domestic violence is an epidemic because it can neither be traced nor aided if the sufferer does not feel violated. It is a plague on every intimate relationship. This is because of many reasons, namely, attached social stigma, drawbacks in legal mechanisms and fear of retaliation. Several laws, both internationally and domestically, are enacted and implemented, but not much has improved. Primary sufferers are not aware of the atrocities they have been suffering. If they do, they do not have the means to come out of the domestic circle because of financial and emotional dependence. The survivors who made it through, state that they are still considered to be incompatible and inflexible to the requisite compromises in the domestic relationship. Thus this horrendous Act of violation, domestic violence cannot be solely treated through legislation and enactments. It needs a movement-based approach to transform social power hierarchy, distorted cultural norms, educational priority, financial independence as well as legal aid to make the world a safe and dignified place for all genders and ages.
Legal Reforms Needed
Law works as an informed spectator to understand the plight of the sufferer; jurists consider the pain and suffering the women faced in their homes to decide for their well-being. Some major changes needed in the dealing of Domestic Violence cases include:
1. the family courts must change the way they handle divorce cases;
2. provisions of public assistance to help victims to gain immigration status with an independent economic and social base;
3. the definitions of "aggrieved person" and "respondent" must be reviewed; as it only covers women's rights against domestic violence, neglecting men who are a victim of hostile domestic relations and overlooking the live-in relationships of LGBTQ. The Supreme Court ruling in S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal & Anr. specifies that a live-in relationship is permissible only in unmarried persons of significant age in 'heterogeneous' relationships. This issue makes it impossible for LGBTQ individuals to exercise their right against domestic violence.
4. The Act renders quasi-criminal and civil remedies to women considering that there is a particular social setting in which domestic violence takes place in India, this must be amended. Not only do women form a higher proportion of domestic violence victims, but combined with lower political-social and economic decision-making power, they face more difficulty in exiting abusive domestic relationships.
6. In many districts, instead of contracting Protection Officers, government officials already working in the department are given this duty; and are not qualified to deal with the same.
Consequently, they do not meet most of the duties specified in the Act, and because of this, victims are not able to get the most of the law for their benefit.
In the case of AICHLS v. Union of India, the court reviewed the increasing number of Domestic Violence cases in India and ruled that the National Commission of Women shall announce a Mental Health Helplines for those witnessing any form of Domestic Violence and ensured proper implementation and training of staff who attend the helpline numbers was done.
The court also urged that the Protection Officers as envisaged under the act can also be looked into by the respondents till the regular appointment of Protection Officers are made. This was done keeping in mind the changing needs of the circumstances.
Domestic violence is like being abused by a kidnapper for ransom while never having enough to pay back for one's liberty and dignity. Several victims are facing physical, emotional, verbal and psychological trauma in the present scenario. This is rooted in the patriarchal socio-economic, legal and political order. Such socio-legal issues need a holistic movement for protecting victims of domestic violence. The solution to this can be brought only if all of our efforts are brought together. We need to start at first by breaking the silence, then by giving the sufferers a voice. These steps are imminent because the victim is facing violence in a setting where he or she should have been safest in the first place.
* The author is a student at CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru. She is presently engulfing into the intersection of Intellectual Property Laws and Cyber Space as well as International Women Laws and Internet Technology.
Image courtesy: Lindsey Lims; Unsplash.