Chennai, India – When the beating began on March 25, Parvathi* tried the usual things first, but things were different under the nation-wide coronavirus lockdown.
As her husband began beating her, she would run out into the narrow lanes of the slum she lives in to call for help from her neighbours, a strategy that usually worked. But a police barricade had been erected at the entrance of the street, and neighbours called to her from their homes to stay indoors.
The 45-year-old cook in the southern Indian city of Chennai had become accustomed to physical abuse from her unemployed, alcoholic husband in the early years of her marriage, but the violence had diminished recently, largely because of the salary she brought home every month, she said.
Under the lockdown, Parvathi’s employer asked her to stay home. She was not being paid, and her husband, deprived of his daily drink, was in a foul mood.
Half an hour later, she ran out again, this time working up the courage to walk to the police barricade, and asked to be taken to the police station.
“Go home and sort it out,” the officer on duty told her from behind a mask. “The police and courts are shut for 21 days.”
NCW reports rise in cases
India’s National Commission for Women (NCW) on Friday said it registered 587 domestic violence complaints between March 23 and April 16 – a significant surge from396 complaints received in the previous 25 days between February 27 and March 22.
One in six new complaints of domestic violence was made over a relaunched WhatsApp number.
That WhatsApp number had been out of use for some time, an NCW official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, suggesting there could have been more complaints that never got through.
The NCW relies on women to report domestic violence on its fixed helpline numbers and through the post, two modes of communication that have been closed since the lockdown.
The Commission then publicised the email address of its members and began receiving complaints on social media and through its online portal. This in a country where only one-third of women have access to the internet.
Feminist economist Ashwini Deshpande analysed NCW data for the months of March and April in 2019 and 2020.
She calculated the average complaints per day and found that “there is already a jump in complaints related to domestic violence and the right to live with dignity, and a smaller increase in rape or attempt to rape and sexual assault”, all within the home.
Even in normal times, women facing domestic violence in India rarely turn to the police.
One-third of women in India’s 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) said they had experienced domestic violence, but less than 1 percent of them sought help from the police.
Their neighbourhood or community is also not always a refuge for women facing abuse.
According to the NFHS study, 52 percent of women and 42 percent of men believed that a husband is justified in beating his wife. Showing disrespect towards the in-laws topped the list of reasons respondents deemed it acceptable to subject a wife to a beating.
And these are not normal times.
‘Horrifying global surge’
Most countries globally are seeing a surge in domestic violence, leading to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealing to governments to pay attention to and prevent a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” amid lockdown measures.
But in other parts of the world, mechanisms to protect women from being locked in with their abusers have evolved to take into account lockdowns and social distancing.
The French government has promised to open pop-up counselling centres and pay for hotel rooms for domestic violence victims, who have also been encouraged to seek help at pharmacies.
In Italy, the government has launched an app that enables domestic violence victims to seek help without making a phone call.
In India, the response has been one of playing catch-up.
The government has shown absolutely no concern for the vulnerable in planning and executing this lockdown.
Some women’s groups were more prepared, anticipating the surge.
Before the lockdown came into force, the Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care diverted calls from its landlines to counsellors’ mobile phones, helped women submit documents they needed to save to a cloud-based service, and started a WhatsApp service.
“For the first week, the number of calls we get fell, and we believe this is because women were basically locked in with their abusers,” Swetha Shankar, director of client services at the organisation, told Al Jazeera.
Soon after, however, women began to call late at night or from their children’s rooms, and the numbers began to climb.
The stress of confinement, financial constraints and the lack of access to alcohol were exacerbating factors, Shankar said.
In Tamil Nadu, protection officers, appointed by the state, are allowed movement during the lockdown, and Shankar said some women in dangerous situations were rescued and moved to shelters.
This is not the case everywhere, federal officials told Al Jazeera. In many states, only the police are allowed to move, and requisitioning a vehicle from them was difficult.
Many women facing abuse want to go to their mothers’ houses, but during the lockdown, they can only be sent to state-run shelter homes, where the risk of overcrowding and poor hygiene runs high.
“Why should a woman escaping abuse in the middle of a lockdown be sent to a shelter home where she risks catching coronavirus?” Vrinda Grover, a leading feminist lawyer who is associated with several landmark women’s rights advances in India, said.
“India’s Domestic Violence Act gives the woman a right to shelter. Let her stay home in her house, with her kids, and let the man be sent to a shelter home if he is going to abuse the woman in the middle of a pandemic,” she told Al Jazeera.
Bunty Chand* used to work in a garment factory on New Delhi’s southern border, while her husband works as a garbage collector. Her alcoholic husband’s abuse has taken on a frightening edge of late, she told Al Jazeera.
Her anger crystallises in telling of the government’s decision to revive a mythological TV show for broadcast during the lockdown.
“They think that we will all sit at home and drink tea and watch Ramayan [the TV show]. My husband got angry about some small thing on the first day of the lockdown and hit me and broke the TV. So there goes the Ramayan.”
For Grover, the government’s failure to shore up women’s protection organisations and to plan for what was an expected surge in domestic violence is of a piece with its failure to protect the poor and daily wage earners, particularly migrants, from the devastating shock of this lockdown.
“Whether it is poor migrants or women, the government has shown absolutely no concern for the vulnerable in planning and executing this lockdown,” said Grover.
On April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week extension of the coronavirus lockdown until May 3. For India’s battered women, it is a prison sentence that only got longer.
* Names changed to protect privacy