Breakthrough, India, leads a conversation on COVID-19 and Domestic Violence

Public health measures such as lockdowns and social distancing may be necessary to contain the spread of the virus, but they also contribute to a different public health crisis: domestic violence. Lockdown measures from COVID-19 have led to a global surge in domestic violence cases, nearly doubling in India. According to the National Commission for Women, complaints of gender-based violence have increased from 116 in the first week of March to 257 in the last week of march, and reported cases of domestic violence have increased from 30 to 69 over the same period. “This pandemic has put at the forefront that there is very limited funding and support to services for addressing violence against women and girls. The existing services and laws have structural and systemic flaws as these are influenced by and run with a very patriarchal mindset,” said Urvashi Gandhi, Director of Global Advocacy at Breakthrough, India.

To address the alarming spike in reports of domestic violence, Breakthrough organized a Public Town Hall on Domestic Violence During Lockdown and the COVID-19 crisis, hosted on Zoom on April 10, 2020. The event emphasized the importance of recognizing domestic violence as a pandemic, like COVID-19, and the need for government mobilization on ending not just the pandemic of COVID-19, but also the pandemic of domestic violence.

Issues Raised: Town hall participants discussed several issues arising from or exacerbated by COVID-19. For example, during the lockdown, women who are trapped in their homes are increasingly subjected to unprotected sex, increasing their risk of getting infections or becoming pregnant. One participating organization described a domestic violence shelter that did not know how to respond to a woman seeking shelter who may have also been a coronavirus carrier. Other organizations shared examples of how police officers were not responsive to cases of domestic violence because they were burdened with COVID-19 responsibilities. These stories highlight how the pandemic has exacerbated existing issues of gender inequality, limiting and shutting down safe spaces for women and girls, who are facing more domestic violence and sexual violence without access to protections, treatment, or redress.

Recommendations: Through the town hall, Breakthrough developed several recommendations with its participants on addressing the pandemic of domestic violence. Some of these included: targeted public service messages from the national government on the issue of domestic violence; recognition of the gendered effects of COVID-19 and its corresponding public health response measures, such as lockdowns and social distancing; and the declaration of sexual and reproductive health services and commodities as essential. Breakthrough emphasized, “All COVID-19 measures must be gender-responsive.” To read the full list of recommendations, please click here.

The town hall discussion was also informed by recommendations from the AMAN Network group, another process that was led by Breakthrough. These recommendations were then submitted to India’s NITI Aayog, Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) and the National Commission for Women (NCW). To read these recommendations, please click here. Some state governments, including those of Kerala, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal, have taken steps to improve services under their helpline numbers, based on these recommendations, according to Breakthrough. Additionally, more media outlets have started covering the issue, thus bringing it into the public agenda.  

This article was written by Michelle Fan, 16 Days Campaign Program Intern, and published on May 27, 2020.

Additional Resources:

Global 16 Days Campaign’s statement on Domestic Violence in the time of COVID-19, please click here.

Recent statements from UN Special Procedures calling on governments to address the surge in domestic violence that is silently claiming women’s lives as the pandemic continues, please click here.