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Is Domestic Violence Act Enough To Protect Women During Pandemic

Neeta, 28-year-old women who is a mother of a 2 years old girl, lives in a village located at 2 km distance from the city of Indore, Madhya Pradesh. She works as a house help in the city and has an alcoholic husband who is a daily-wage factory worker.

Earlier, Neeta on various occasions have told her employer that her husband comes home from the factory intoxicated and beats her brutally. While, there was a decline in such incidences in lieu of the earnings she brings home. With lockdown being imposed all over the country in order to control the spread of COVID-19, factories have been shut down, liquor shops have closed and Neeta's employer has asked her to stay home. situation has worsened for her. Daily beatings by her husband has become the new normal.

COVID-19 has impacted people all over the world be it rich or poor, man or women or elders or children. Despite this one cannot deny that it has impacted everyone differently. While most of us rejoice over the time we are getting to spend with our families, cooking our favourite meals or clearing our backlogs. As people spend more time locked in their homes and face pay-cuts which add-ons to the existing frustration and anger, the risk of intimate partner violence increases.

Thousands of women are trapped in home with their violent husband/ family members full time. Imposition of lockdown has seen surge in domestic violence cases all over the world. Domestic violence has increased threefold in Hubei province of china, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, from 47 cases last year to 162 this year. Situation is no different in European or American states. There have been numerous instances of women being killed by their husband or boyfriend in both Italy and Spain.

Cases Surges In India

Like many other countries, India has its own anti-domestic violence laws. Nevertheless, these laws have failed to prevent women from their abusers with the National Commission for Women receiving 587 complaints from March 23 to April 16, out of which 239 are related to domestic violence.

According to data shared by the NCW, 123 cases of domestic violence were received between February 27 and March 22. In the last 25 days, the commission received 239 more such complaints while this is just the data of women who can muster enough courage to report against the perpetrators, there are many unreported cases out of fear of the husband or having to go live with him again after filing the complaint. Another reason being lack of access to internet or other resources.

As per the India Internet 2019 report, the female internet user population in the country is as less as 28% which means in most cases women who live in slums, backward areas or even who live in urban areas with no access or know-how would fail to report incidences of domestic violence.

The Protection Of Women From Domestic Violence Act, 2005

As per section 4 (1) Any person who has reason to believe that an act of domestic violence has been, or is being, or is likely to be committed, may give information about it to the concerned Protection Officer. Protection officers are appointed by the government in each district and is mainly tried as far as possible that these protection officers are women. It is then the duty of protection officer to make reports of the incident and forward it to the magistrate and concerned police officers, make available safe shelter home to the aggrieved if required and get medically examined if she has sustained any injury.

Aggrieved has right to make an application for obtaining a relief by way of a protection order, an order for monetary relief, a custody order, a residence order through which in some cases the respondent can be removed from the house as well no matter that a man may alone own a particular house, he has no right to be violent against his wife or the woman he lives with and if the Court sees any violence he must be restrained from entering upon the residence essentially to secure the wife and children against further violence and similar disputes (upheld in case of Sabita Mark Burges vs Mark Lionel Burges), she is also entitled to a compensation order or more than one such order under this Act.

Further, it is explicitly written under the act, that nothing in this Act shall be construed in any manner as to relieve a police officer from his duty to proceed in accordance with law upon receipt of information as to the commission of a cognizable offence. Hence, the police in-charge who is reported of such incident is duty bound to act not only to tell the women of her rights but to take an action.

Need For Reforms In The Act
The act is not to punish the perpetrator however to provide relief to the victim by way of various measures. Legislative intent behind Indian anti-domestic violence laws like most other countries' is to promote family harmony and social stability which in a way directly contradicts with the main purpose that is to prevent domestic violence. Thus, a major reason for ineffectiveness of the act and further promotes patriarchal values of female submissiveness.

Under section 19(1) (b) of the act the Magistrate may, on being satisfied that domestic violence has taken place may pass a residence order directing the respondent to remove himself from the shared household. However, the problem persists when the perpetrator is women. As held by the High court of Madras in the case of Uma Narayanan vs Mrs. Priya Krishna Prasad, In a shared household which may belong to a joint family, women members may also be living and in the guise of passing an order under Section 19(1) (b) of the Act, such women members of the family cannot be directed to be removed from the shared household but such a direction can be issued only against male members. With this provision in place women refrain from going against her perpetrators in fear of increased violence once she is back in the household.

With restrictions placed on movement all over the country during the COVID-19, Government needs all the way more and effective measures to enforce these provisions as the aggrieved now neither can they go to nearby shelter homes provided by the government due to the overcrowding in fear of spread of virus and bad sanitation or as some of the shelter homes have now been converted to places of quarantine nor there is any way for them to run to their mother's home or any other acquaintance with having government orders of all public transport being suspended in place, leave women with nowhere to go and live locked with their perpetrators.

Further, women literacy rate in India is 65.46 % that indicates large chunk of women is illiterate who neither can read or write nor have basic understanding of rights and laws of the country, therefore, totally impaired from accessing all the relieve measures that can be accessed by the way of internet. In some cases, totally unaware of the fact that they can even report such incidences of violence and can change the life they life.

Measure That Need To Be Taken
Countries and courts all around the world are focusing on strengthening anti-domestic violence laws. United Nation Secretary General Antonio Guterres acknowledged that Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest in their own homes” which has brought global attention to prevalence in fact increase in cases of domestic violence.

Various countries round the globe have come up with several measures which we can also adopt and can be proved to be helpful for those victims behind closed doors.
  • In Spain's Canary Islands, the Institute for Equality has launched a campaign called Mascarilla-19 (Mask-19) Pharmacies are widespread and among the few places people can still freely visit. When a woman experiences violence at home or sexual assault, she can go to the nearest pharmacy and request Mask-19. Pharmacy staff take a woman's name, address and phone number and alert the emergency services. She can go home, or wait until police and support workers arrive
  • In France An SMS service set up for people with hearing impairments now helps abuse victims too and receives 170 text messages a day. Drop-in areas have been opened in shopping centres and there is a support service for perpetrators on the edge. Grocery stores are housing pop-up-counselling services. Victims are being asked to access pharmacies and inform pharmacists about the abuse directly, or using a code word: mask 19 if they are accompanied by their abuser. France's government also recently announced that it had reserved 20,000 hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence.
  • In Denmark the government has since funded 55 extra rooms in shelters for four months and on Wednesday the lockdown will be eased, allowing some Danish schools to reopen and giving an opportunity for women to seek help
  • Canada and Australia have integrated funding for violence against women as part of their national plans to counter the damaging fall-out from COVID-19. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has set aside tens of millions of dollars to support women's NGOs, shelters and sexual assault centers across Canada.
  • In China, the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuring Epidemic has taken off as part of advocacy with links to online resourceshelping to break the silence and expose violence as a risk during lockdown.
  • In Antigua and Barbuda, online and mobile service providers are taking steps to deliver support such as free calls to helplines.
  • In Columbia, the government has guaranteed continued access to virtual gender-based violence services, including legal advice, psychosocial advice, police and justice services, including hearings

The United Nations has also taken a spotlight initiative and urged governments as follows:
  1. to dedicate funding in COVID-19 response plans for domestic violence shelters;
  2. ensure increased support to call-in lines, including text services so reports of abuse can take place discreetly;
  3. provide online legal support and psychosocial services for women and girls; which Services in many cases are run by civil society organizations, which now also need financial support;
  4. Shelters should be designated as essential services and kept open, which may mean providing childcare to staff so they can work;
  5. Ensure that these services are accessible, so they should be integrated into other essential service spaces, like grocery stores and pharmacies.
Likewise, Jammu and Kashmir HC have issued certain guidelines which shall be complied with. Apex Court shall make orders on similar lines with state governments and law enforcing authorities coming forward with stricter punishments and well as proper enforcement.

More and more awareness is required along with giving morale boost to women in order to stand up for themselves against their perpetrators. Other measures that might be taken can be appointing female constables near slums to monitor the areas and in a way providing sense of secured feeling to women living in these slums. Advertisements against domestic violence should be done on large scale with accessible toll-free helpline numbers. Regular reports shall be made by Protection Officers reporting status of each case that is reported to them. Work of such officers shall also be considered as essential.

The lack of enforcement as well as alternative source of residence also impedes women filing complaints with officials or the police, hence the sanitation in shelter homes shall be monitored along with setting up more shelter homes and providing victims with access to the shelter homes.

There is also a huge trust deficit for which it is extremely important for governments to look into the matter on priority basis and allot funds. Further, lack of income due to non-working days has made many women more dependent on perpetrators for money therefore it is important for the authorities to meet basic necessities of these women in order to strengthen them to take a stand for themselves.

Not only it is important to have a law in place but what is even more important is that it is well implemented and well regulated in order to provide safe harbour to women being assaulted physically, mentally, economically and sexually.

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