COVID-19 and Domestic Violence: A Double Whammy

This blog is inscribed by Varun Dashora.

While the whole world is dealing with COVID – 19 there has been a steep rise in the cases of crimes against women across the world due to the restrictions imposed by the governments on the people to contain the virus. According to the statistics provided by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Employment of Women,every third woman in the world is a victim of domestic violence.[1] Domestic violence (Intimate Partner Violence or IPV) means a pattern of behaviors that include violent or aggressive behaviors within the home which is committed by a spouse or partner who is in an intimate relationship.[2] Globally the primary victims of domestic violence are women. Domestic violence is a growing scourge that loiters in the shadows which have recently received national as well as global attention.

Definition in law

Domestic violence has been defined under Section 3 of ‘The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005’ as “any act, omission or commission or conduct of the respondent shall constitute domestic violence in case it-

(a) harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so and includes causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, and economic abuse; or

(b) harasses, harms, injures or endangers the aggrieved person with a view to coerce her or any other person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any dowry or other property or valuable security; or

(c) has the effect of threatening the aggrieved person or any person related to her by any conduct mentioned in clause (a) or clause (b); or

(d) otherwise injures or causes harm, whether physical or mental, to the aggrieved person”[3]

How is COVID – 19 affecting Domestic Violence in India?

Domestic violence has been a very common practice in India for a very long time. Due to the patriarchal set up of the Indian Society, it has been an accepted norm to abuse women. Though there are many other reasons for an increase in crimes against women but the occurrence of domestic violence has its roots in the patriarchal set-up of the Indian society, stereotyping of gender roles, gender inequality, considering women a second class citizen in the society. However, during the lockdown situations became worse for the women.

In India, the rise in the cases of domestic violence was shown in the data provided by the National Commission of Women (NCW) which showed the cases of domestic violence against women had doubled by mid – April. The country initially went into a nation-wide complete lockdown from March 25 to April 14 which was later extended till May 3 and again extended till May 17. From February 27 to March 22 the numbers of complaints received by the NCW were 123. But from March 23 to April 16, the National Commission of Women received 239 complaints (which is almost 100% rise) through email and through a WhatsApp number launched by the NCW to report complaints on an emergency basis during the lockdown.[4] These complaints are generally from the upper-class section of the society who are literate and have access to technology but the problem is more critical in poorer sections of the society because women from the underprivileged community have no means to reach out for help. Many victims are afraid of complaining because of societal norms, fear, and the inability to move away from the abusers. So, these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, the real picture would be quite devastating.

What is the cause of the increase?

Several key factors that are responsible for the increase in domestic violence and by studying them we can better understand why measures to contain the virus had worsened the situation for women.

Social isolation

It is one of the most common measures employed by governments all over the world to contain the virus. In India, government-sanctioned lockdown resulted in several organizational closures, religious festivals and gatherings are not allowed, visit family and friends discouraged. By isolating the victim from friends, family, and any other outside contact, the entire social support system had been compromised. In such a situation it becomes very easy for the abusers to assert control over the victim and allow abusers to engage in gaslighting techniques which is a vicious cycle of abuse and very difficult to escape.[5]

Stress and Unemployment

Stress is the most significant reason for fueling a rise in the cases of domestic violence. A pandemic like COVID-19 leaves us in a constant state of worry that triggers an overexposure of the stress hormone cortisol.[6] And studies have found that increased stress hormones trigger aggression.[7] Amid this lockdown, workplaces are closed because of which economy is badly affected and many people had lost their jobs, many employees have not received their salaries, promotions, bonuses, etc. which led to economic anxiety among them. Stress may be of many kinds but economic anxiety is the most significant stress or which leads to domestic violence. Research by the National Institute of Justice has shown that those households which are economically backward witness more severe cases of Domestic Violence.[8] According to the research which measured the rise in cases of domestic violence at the time of the great recession in the 1930s concludes that unemployment and economic hardships led to abusive behavior.[9] Another study shows that at the time of the 2008 recession increase in unemployment increased the cases of domestic violence.[10]There is a stereotypical notion in the Indian Society that men will go to work, to earn their livelihood and women will sit at home doing household works, so unemployment and economic hardships considered as a threat to their masculine identity and to overcome that men respond with violence to regain the sense of power and control.  

Lack of Legal Aid

Finally lack of resources also contributes to the rise in cases of domestic violence. India has a very lackadaisical judicial process and lakhs of cases are pending in Indian courts but during this lockdown, the courts had restricted their hearing strictly to emergency matters which have further closed the doors for justice. This is a problematic situation as it is not clear what falls under the criteria of emergency matters as it purely depends on the discretion of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court should issue clear guidelines regarding what falls under emergency matters and must include crimes against women as an emergency matter. The Government and the police are busy in controlling the outbreak of the virus. Also, the NGOs, legal aid organizations, and advocates are now forced to work remotely. Many of the victims do not have access to technology to report the case and ask for help. Besides this unlike other western countries, such as France we do not have the potential logistics to move the victims to shelter homes where they can be kept safe from the abusers.

Conclusion and Suggestions

Although a home may be considered as the safest place unfortunately it is not for all. It is quite ironic that the place where women are supposed to be the safest is the place where they are facing threats and violence. The government had raised various guidelines during this pandemic but failed to spread awareness against women’s atrocities. Various organizations like NGOs, Legal aid organizations, agencies, National commission for Women have taken steps to solve this issue but they seem to be inadequate. Thus, now the onus is on the government to prioritize the issue of domestic violence and should make the prevention and redress of domestic violence against women as one of the key parts of the national response towards COVID-19. The government can form a special task force that can specifically deal with the problem of domestic violence on a fast track basis. The police and the administration must take the complaints seriously even if they are coming from a friend, relative or a neighbor of the victim and act accordingly, because sometimes victims may be hesitant to complain. Also, the government can follow the France model in which pharmacy shops are used as a place to report complaints, as these shops are easily accessible. Various media can be used for spreading awareness against domestic violence, such as social media, radio, announcements through loudspeakers in rural areas where there is no access to technology. The media should slam the abusers extensively in public and so that any other person will think twice before attacking women. India must fight strongly against COVID-19 pandemic and take every necessary step to contain the virus and try to flatten the curve of rising cases of a pandemic but at the same time not let the atrocities against women rise exponentially.


[1] Facts and Figures: Ending Violence against Women, UN Women , https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.

[2] What is Domestic Violence? , National Domestic Violence Hotline , https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/.

[3] The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act,2005, No. 43, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India)

[4] India witnesses steep rise in crime against women amid lockdown, 587 complaints received: NCW, The Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-witnesses-steep-rise-in-crime-against-women-amid-lockdown-587-complaints-received-ncw/articleshow/75201412.cms.

[5] What is Gaslighting? , National Domestic Violence Hotline , https://www.thehotline.org/2014/05/29/what-is-gaslighting/.

[6] Understanding the stress response, Harvard Media School of Harvard University , https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.

[7] Rachel Anderson, Hormones, Stress, and Aggression – A vicious cycle, American Psychological Association , https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov04/hormones.

[8] Michael L. Benson & Greer Litton Fox, When Violence Hits Home: Hoe Economics and Neighborhood Play a Role, National Criminal Justice Reference Service , https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/205004.pdf.

[9] Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett, & Sara McLanahan, Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession, The National Centre for Biotechnology Information , https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4860387/.

[10] Claire M. Renzetti, Economic Stress and Domestic Violence,  University of Kentucky , https://uknowledge.uky.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=crvaw_reports.

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