A little discussed but horrifying statistic is getting lost in all the analysis of the effects of the total lockdown during the 2020-21 pandemic. Over 5000 women had complained to the National Commission for Women (NCW) of facing domestic violence in 2020. As compared to 3369 domestic violence complaints during 2019-2020.
An NCW report adds that during 2020-2021, the number of such complaints had risen to 6049. The reason was obvious — more women faced abuse and violence as they were confined to their homes with their abusers.
Globally, fewer than 40% of women who experience violence seek help of any sort. And among women who do seek help, most look to family and friends. Only a very few look to formal institutions, such as police and health services.
It is clear that during the lockdowns, institutional response to domestic violence had become a serious issue as women were trapped with their abusers in their homes with no place to move or even get in touch with their families and friends. Civil societies and NGOs also noted that they received fewer calls as many women were not able to access mobile phones.
What the law says
Domestic violence refers to violent or abusive behaviour in a household that causes harm and may put the health and safety of a woman or a child under her custody in danger.
The law on Domestic Violence is known as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 [DV Law]. It was formulated to implement Recommendation No. 12 of United Nations Committee on Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1989, which was ratified by India in June, 1993.
Multiple cases including Madras High Court case Vandhana v. T. Srikanth (2007) and Bombay High Court case Ishpal Singh Kahai v. Ramanjeet Kahai (2011) have reiterated the objective of the law being an instrument to protect victims of domestic violence in the domestic or family sector.
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However, in India, the lack of access to support systems and reduced opportunities to complain about domestic violence has led to an increase in secondary victimization of many women. Which is mainly because those who are responsible for implementing the law do not consider such protection as an essential service and the resultant failure of the machinery under the law meant to protect these women victims
In May 2021, a case filed by an NGO “We The Women of India” argued that for the successful implementation and execution of the 2005 Act, it is necessary that the contact details of concerned ‘Protection Officers’ or the Service Providers’ as well as ‘Shelter Homes’, are made easily available and accessible to the aggrieved women, for necessary and timely assistance.
The Supreme Court has sent a notice to the Central Government seeking proper implementation of the mandatory provisions of Chapter Ill of the Domestic Violence Act which discusses the powers, duties, appointment and functioning of protection officers. This case is still pending.
Where are the Protection Officers?
One of the key officers responsible for helping women victims of domestic violence are the Protection Officers (PO).
A PO is generally the first point of contact for a victim of domestic violence. Anyone, including someone known to the victim, can visit, call or write to a PO in their district or the nearest such officer to complain against the violence and seek protection.
The PO will help in filing a Domestic Incident Report (DIR) which is a special report in cases of domestic violence, containing all the details of the harasser(s), details of the victims, etc. They will also help in filing direct complaints with the court and assist in getting legal support.
Every time a complaint is registered, the PO must forward a copy of the DIR [Domestic Incident Report] as well as a copy of the medical report, if the victim was medically examined, to the police station located in the area where the violence occurred. The police are then expected to investigate the issue and take action against the harasser(s).
The PO has multiple other duties like:
- Prepare a safety plan which will specify the measures required for the victim’s safety, and the orders the victim wants to seek from the court, like change of residence, protection etc.
- Get the victim or their child medical aid in case of injuries.
- Put the victim in touch with service providers who will assist her with legal support, counselling, shelter homes, etc.
- Help the victim gain access to free legal aid through the District Legal Aid Services Authority.
- Ensure that the victim and her children are not victimized or pressurized during the Court proceedings.
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The reality however is that it is not easy to find a protection officer. Even the National Commission for Womens’ website does not provide details for all states. Additionally, the significant gender gap in smartphone ownership among women in the low income segment makes it even more difficult for those women who are unable to access the internet, to contact helplines or protection officers.
In 2012, the Gujarat High Court in Suo Moto v. State of Gujarat, took up a matter on their own based on a news item published in The Times of India, Ahmedabad Edition, which reported that women wanting to file complaints under the DV law were asked to wait for three months on account of pendency of complaints and this was due to shortage of protection officers.
The court noted other reasons including how the working conditions of protection officers were not adequate, their contracts were temporary and how they were not being provided the basic amenities and facilities to be able to fulfill their obligations under the DV Law.
The case revealed data including how only one Protection Officer was found to be functioning in Ahmedabad District and how the situation in other districts was even worse. This is despite Section 8 and Section 9 of the DV Law providing for appointments of Protection Officers in each district by the State and Central Governments.
The domestic violence institutional functionaries cannot operate without more protection officers in place, as they are the primary on ground representative for the victim. When officers are given multiple roles, they will not be able to adequately and quickly address the needs of those women who want to file a complaint.
Plus, as a Ministry of Child and Women funded study highlighted, victims are often coerced into keeping silent due to family pressure, caste pressure, stigma and fear of being insulted.
Pandemic and aftermath
During the pandemic, several countries took action to address the needs of victims of domestic violence, like France (provisions for safe houses and converting hotels to emergency shelters), Canada (increase in funding and access to support homes, shelter homes) and the United Kingdom (financial boost and aid for victims of domestic violence).
At home, despite some states like Orissa taking initiatives such as the Phone Up Programme to tackle immediate issues, or Telangana making helplines an essential service, the centre is yet to list protections against domestic violence as an essential service, let alone put in place all the people and processes that make the law work.