The National Commission for Women (NCW) in India reported in April 2020 that there had been an almost 100 percent increase in domestic violence during the coronavirus-induced lockdown. In the Hubei province of China, there had been a tripled increase in domestic violence reports to police, in February, reports The Guardian. Latin American countries like Mexico and Brazil have witnessed a spike in calls to hotlines in the past two months. The story is similar in other countries like South Africa, France, Germany and Australia.
Let’s not forget that this data does not include those sections of society wherein access to technology and telecom of any kind is ill-afforded and therefore countless cases are potentially going unreported. Due to the lockdown, many are unable to reach out to the police. Incidentally, this too is no easy feat.
In India, whether the survivors belong to an educated, higher-income family or an uneducated, low-income daily wager, police apathy has reportedly been the great leveller.
Irina Brar, 36, a former professional Golfer who hails from Chandigarh, Punjab was in a 10-year long abusive marriage before she could muster the courage to call out her perpetrator and seek outside help and legal counsel. Speaking to me candidly, Brar relayed the additional horrors she had to face while trying to lodge a complaint with the local authorities. “Reporting the abuse to the authorities is another trauma in itself. I am fortunate that I finally found legal counsel that I can trust but sadly it took hiring three sets of counsel to get here. When a woman goes to the authorities she is already at her weakest and most vulnerable. And that is when the system decides to break her even more by making her feel like the criminal. It’s a complete trial by fire. After what I have been through in my quest for justice, I know that nothing can break me now.”
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Another woman in her late forties reached out to me with her story on the condition of anonymity. “ I faced the wrath of our patriarchal society that told me to suck it up and live with it. My parents haven’t yet come to terms with the split. Just a handful of friends and relatives stayed in my corner. The others all distanced themselves.”
The common denominator here is that these are all strong, unyielding, working women and mothers, fighting alone not just demons inside their own married lives but those outside their homes too. The very same authorities that have been put in place to help women like them are the ones that extinguish any lingering burning flames of hope and justice.
A Times of India news piece from 2018 reveals that on average, one woman lodges a complaint against police apathy every two hours and the NCW reported that 13 women on average wanting to file complaints ranging from domestic violence to harassment are turned away, discouraged or further harassed by the police.
Many survivors talk about how their abusive spouses engage in gaslighting which is a form of psychological abuse that manipulates someone to start doubting their own selves and sanity. A Time magazine article from March this year highlights the burgeoning issue of domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic and how abusers are using the lockdown period and the virus to threaten and bully survivors into further isolation. The CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the USA – Katie Ray Jones talks about the kind of calls the hotline has received during this period. “Perpetrators threaten to throw their victims out on the streets so they get sick. We have even heard of cases where medical and financial assistance is being deliberately withheld.”
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Ray Jones also throws light on the psyche behind the heightened levels of abuse during the lockdown reiterating that its all about power and control. The lockdown has ensured a resounding sense of lack of control for everyone and this makes the short-tempered, aggressive personality type individuals dole out their bottled-up frustrations on their spouses or other victims living in close proximity. A survivor who had dialled the hotline number provided by the NDVH said her husband had threatened to throw her out if she coughed. She feared that if she left the house he would lock her out.
Many of these survivors are mothers who also need to protect their children which can further become an impediment to their already dwindling sense of hope and a way out. To minimise what they see, hear, endure and internalise. Says Brar, “ The hardest part was seeing the effect the abuse had on my daughter. A toddler at the time, she would cower behind curtains, cover her eyes and ears and no matter how many times I told her afterwards that everything was okay, she was smarter and knew better. When we moved back in with my parents, she said to me, “mama, we are safe now.”
We often associate “domestic violence” with only physical abuse, forgetting that abuse can be mental, physical, verbal and also financial.
Another mother tells me that it was when she saw her husband go after one of her children and manhandle him that she was able to muster the strength that had thus far eluded her to take the tough stand and end the relationship. “My kids had started to internalise the anger. They started lashing out too with their own newfound tantrums and it was when I saw my younger one starting to put fingers in his ears that it dawned on me that I would be raising two mentally fractured kids if I stayed.”
We often associate “domestic violence” with only physical abuse, forgetting that abuse can be mental, physical, verbal and also financial. Financial freedom too becomes a key factor when an abuse survivor wants to attempt to leave the abusive marriage or relationship. But trying to save or earn money secretly while imprisoned at home due to the lockdown can be very challenging. For many, quite impossible if the survivors begin to lose their jobs. Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Women has appealed for governments to provide stimulus packages for paid sick leave and unpaid care work in order to allow women at the behest of domestic abuse at home to be financially independent.
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“It starts with small things and then begins to escalate and creep up on you slowly over the years.” Another Indian mother of two, newly unshackled from an abusive marriage tells me. “Belonging to an orthodox society, it is ingrained in us to just take it all. They start out being charmers and then when the wives begin to shine at work and social events outside the house, the problems begin. The taunts begin at home and once the children are born they are further emboldened because they now believe that the woman can’t leave so easily.”
Her story left me with goosebumps. It brought home a point that she herself put succinctly. “Abusers are fractured souls in the beautiful armour of socially charming people. So there will be very few who believe you instead of them. And that becomes the toughest battle.”
The advice that these women have for those who are still on the inside, their voices stifled, their courage still eluding is that there IS light at the end of the tunnel if you have the means to reach out for it. Don’t wait or hesitate. The fairy tale that has failed you inside the marriage awaits you outside with open arms. The nightmare CAN end and a happier ending can be obtained.
Most of us are lucky to belong to happy homes that are gender sensitive and not “insensitive”. But for many others unhappiness is the only normal they have known. The hope is that the stories of these courageous women will embolden others to reclaim their enmeshed lives and those of their children. And know that however broken the system and society may be that refuses to give abuse survivors the time of day, there will always be someone somewhere willing to lend a helping hand and guide them towards the light.
Shaira Mohan is a marketing and sales professional with a passion for the written word. An avid traveller, yogi, reader and animal-lover, she currently resides in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia with her husband and toddler son. The views expressed are the author’s own.