HAVING REACHED out to women in villages and distant hamlets offering help in tackling incidents of heightened domestic violence during the lockdown, about 25,000 women volunteers operating through 1,455 WhatsApp groups in Maharashtra are now reporting to have successfully resolved cases, chastised oppressors and emboldened women voluntarily seeking help. These groups function as village-level vigilance committees on domestic violence, a pilot project initiated in April by the Pune zilla parishad.
In June, members of this committee accompanied a woman from a village in Mulshi to the public health centre and then Paud police station to register a complaint — not only was her husband assaulting her but he was also trying to force her to sell a house that was registered in her name. With the help of committee members and the local police patil, she was eventually shifted along with her children to her sister’s house, where she continues to update the vigilance committee about her safety.
In another case in Haveli taluka, an alcoholic man had broken down the door of his own home during one bout of violence. The vigilance committee’s members along with the gram sewak, the police patil and the village’s supervisor of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme counselled the man and simultaneously appointed their neighbour responsible for the woman’s safety.
In a third case, recorded by the zilla parishad’s Women and Child Development Cell, a man actually fled his home in fear — the zilla parishad had announced that if particularly severe cases cannot be resolved amicably, the perpetrator would be placed in an institutional quarantine facility.
“We initially thought women would not come forward with their experiences, preferring to keep a shroud of secrecy over domestic problems,” said Dr Ratnaprabha Potdar, supervisor in the Women and Child Development cell of the Pune zilla parishad. “But while we have been recording some cases anonymously, in fact there are also cases where women are telling the vigilance committees their entire name and address and urging for quick action to protect themselves and their children.”
Dr Potdar said the committees and WhatsApp groups have been working every single day since they were formulated in mid-April, updating Google Forms on every case they counsel or refer for further action. The village-level vigilance committees comprise a government representative, anganwadi workers, Self Help Group members, small savings group members, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and gram panchayat women members who offer case-by-case solutions ranging from phone counselling to complaints with the local police station.
The project was launched amid reports of increased domestic violence during the lockdown. Between the last week of March and mid-April, the National Commission for Women reported a sharp rise in the number of complaints it received regarding domestic abuse, prompting the NCW to launch a special helpline. A large percentage of abuse cases was also going unreported due to the lockdown, activists believed, as the forced sequestering at home rendered women at greater risk from abusive husbands or alcoholic male relatives and women found it difficult to access the usual recourse.
Pune zilla parishad’s president of the women and child welfare committee, Pooja Parge of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who is an elected representative from Haveli, said they were shocked that cases were emerging from affluent homes too. “Domestic violence was occurring but we weren’t taking note earlier. The lockdown led to us giving more time to our families, and in that increased time with families there was increased violence too. The Mahila Suraksha Dakshata committees have been tremendously successful in locating cases, helping resolve them without police help, sometimes with police help but without formal complaints. In some cases, now a woman simply threatens to approach the vigilance committee and that’s enough,” Parge said. She plans to keep the committees running after the lockdown too.
Potdar also said the committees were working in multi-dimensional ways. “We are able to do an unofficial need assessment for families who would otherwise not seek charity. Middle-class women who need help with essentials are also able to approach these committees which, at their own village level, manage to provide assistance,” she said.
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