November 23, 2020 7:10:13 pm
In a shelter home for women in Delhi, a quiet 23-year-old is the only one who didn’t flee a bad marriage during the lockdown. She was physically and emotionally abused by her father, siblings and an aunt. “In the past eight months, we have seen a rise in the number of women, who are reporting abuse by their native rather than marital families. There have been cases of women being beaten by their fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters or another family member. That many girls are coming up with reports of abuse by their native families is significant because, in India, it is taboo to criticise your elders,” says Monika Tiwary, a counsellor with Shakti Shalini, a Delhi-based organisation.
Domestic abuse has emerged as the shadow pandemic this year, with Delhi-based National Commission for Women reporting 239 domestic violence complaints, from March 23 to April 16 as opposed to 123 distress calls during the same period last year. Though they do not have the data yet, most organisations recorded an increase in the reports of violence on women by their native families. “A lot of middle-class young women called the helpline, which did not happen in non-COVID times. Probably, middle and upper class girls went to their friends circle but, with the lockdown, access to friends and other support structures stopped and organisations such as ours saw a certain class of women calling up,” says Sangeeta Rege, coordinator at Mumbai-based Cehat, which provides support to victims of violence through crisis centres set up in hospitals of Mumbai and Haryana.
One of the flashpoints between women and their families was the practice of working from home. “It was not taken seriously by families. In one case, a woman was required to log in a certain number of hours every day and her widowed mother and her brother, who was unemployed, would not believe that she was sitting at a computer and working. They refused to cook for her and she was asked to not consume too much electricity or internet time. She called us in a desperate state to ask for police support to leave the house and go to another place,” says Rege. “This was in April and the police was busy enforcing the lockdown. We strategised and tried speaking to her housing society members but, eventually, she moved to a friend’s house and we facilitated a police pass to enable her to do so,” adds Rege.
The traditional structure of the Indian household positions parents at the top, and a person’s story of abuse is not given importance. Women living with their parents are supposed to be in a safe place by society. As a result, though the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 Act clearly identifies abuse caused by parents is domestic violence such cases are little reported. “The children are told that parents beat them out of concern and love or that they were being hit to discipline them. When you try to protect yourself or object but your story is not given importance and you are tagged as a person who defies societal norms and disrespectful of authority. There are very few girls who realise that it is not normal,” says Tiwary. A number of women, aged 16 and above, frequently get admitted to the hospital with “accidental consumption of poison”, a euphemism for an attempt to end life. “After a lot of counselling, they disclose that either the parents disapprove about their boyfriends or they are being forced to marry against their wishes, their education is truncated, their cellphones taken away and their mobility is restricted. They can’t talk about about this to anybody else to they turn against themselves,” says Rege. “It’s time for the community at large to take in to account parental abuse against women. This is the least understood and acknowledged form of violence,” she adds.
Among the complains that emerged during the pandemic were of parents punishing women who wanted to study or work and delay their marriage; or did not perform household chores to satisfaction. “One girl, from an affluent family in Delhi, said she worked harder during the pandemic to make sure that her family was not inconvenienced when the house help did not come in. She was constantly criticised and her family grew more demanding. Her brothers used to hit her, often banging her head on the wall while her father said nothing. She had suicidal thoughts as a means to solve her problems. It was after she dropped hot tea on herself by accident and lay crying in pain for a long time before her younger sister came to her help that the girl decided to approach Shakti Shalini for help,” says Tiwary.
To most minds, physical violence is the only form of abuse. Counsellors, however, insist that individuals watch out for the other layers of violence as well around themselves. “If you are a neighbour and hear sounds and voices and get a sense of violence, you could help by reaching out to the woman. When girls are being abused by their family, people have the perception that they must have done something wrong and that’s why parents are scolding her. Don’t jump to such a conclusion. Friends, too, can make out if the woman has changed in her way of talking or behaving. A lot of times such a girl is depressed. It is important that we start listening to the person and, then, you can connect with an organisation that specialises in dealing with abuse. It is a fight that a victim alone cannot undertake,” says Tiwary.
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