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Social distancing means home closeness: rise in domestic violence during COVID – 19 lockdown

Apr 13 2020 / Posted in Gender Violence

-  Dr. Nayreen Daruwalla,
Programme Director, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children (PVWC), SNEHA, Mumbai 

Every nation across the world is struggling to cope effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic. While the world may have been caught off guard by the scope and ramifications of the crisis, it should be prepared to respond to the increased risks to the wellbeing and safety of women and children. The rise in violence against women and children seems like an opportunistic infection that is emerging in the conditions resulting from the pandemic. A syndemic approach to understand this is that these conditions that arise in populations are exacerbated by the social, economic, environmental, and political milieu in which a population is immersed. This approach has recognised that interventions for combating and treating disease take a multi-factorial track as the factors affecting are intertwined and cumulative in nature.

Violence against women and violence against children are widespread globally and intrinsically linked, sharing common risk factors and similar adverse and severe consequences. Violence against women, of which intimate partner violence (IPV) is the commonest form, is highly prevalent. Globally, one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by any perpetrator in their lifetime. Most of this is intimate partner violence. Violence against women tends to increase during emergencies, including epidemics. Women who are displaced, refugees, or living in conflict-affected areas are particularly vulnerable.[1]

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 6 in 10 (almost one billion) children worldwide aged 2 to 14, experience regular physical punishment, and even higher proportions (about 7 in 10) experience psychological aggression: “harsh physical punishment” – being hit hard repeatedly on the face – affects an average of 17% of  children from 58 countries where data are available, while 1 in 10 girls under age 18 (approximately 120 million) worldwide have experienced forced intercourse or unwanted sexual acts.[2] Boys also report sexual abuse but at lower levels than girls.Studies from many countries also document high levels of emotional abuse and neglect.[3]

While rigorous studies estimating increases in reporting of violence against women and children during or after pandemics are scarce, media reports and anecdotal evidence are widespread. For example, when the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa, an “epidemic” of “rape, sexual assault and violence against women and girls” was reported to have been largely undocumented as collateral damage (Yasmin, 2016)[4].

By mid-March 2020, there were already reports from Australia, Brazil, China and the United States suggesting an increase in violence against women and children. In China’s Jianli County (central Hubei province),the police station reported receiving 162 reports of intimate partner violence (IPV) in February—which was three times the number reported in February 2019 (Wanqing, 2020). According to Wan Fei, the founder of an IPV non-profit, “90 percent of the cases of violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic.” In the United States, the National Domestic Violence hotline issued a statement in early March 2020 on “Staying Safe” during COVID-19, including anecdotal evidence of how perpetrators were using the virus as a scare tactic to threaten or isolate victims, and urging those at risk to make a safety plan, practice self-care and reach out for help[5]. In Australia, a survey of 400 frontline workers indicated that 40% reported an increase in “pleas for help” and 70% indicated an increase in complexity of cases (Lattouf, 2020).[6]

In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW), which receives complaints from across the country, has recorded a more than twofold rise in gender-based violence. The total complaints from women rose from 116 in the first week of March, to 257 in the final week. Complaints of rape or attempted rape rose sharply from two to 13, while cases of domestic violence increased from 30 to 69 over the same period. Simultaneously, there has been an almost threefold increase in police non-response to women’s complaints, with the NCW receiving 16 complaints on the issue compared to six earlier, as the police are busy enforcing the lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.[7],[8] These developments are early evidence that related factors—such as confinement, social isolation, increased levels of financial stress, and weak institutional responses—can increase or intensify levels of violence, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

The World Health Organization has recently published information on how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated risks of violence, particularly domestic violence  against women, as distancing measures are put in place:[9]

1. The social and protective networks of women which women’s organisations have put in place have been disrupted. It is likely that women in an abusive relationship and their children will be more exposed to violence as family members spend more time in close contact and families cope with additional stress and potential economic or job losses.

2. Women bear the brunt of increased care work during the pandemic. School closures exacerbate this burden and place more stress on them. The disruption of livelihoods and ability to earn a living, including for women (many of whom are informal wage workers), will decrease access to basic needs and services, increasing stress on families, with the potential to exacerbate conflicts and violence.

3. As resources become scarce, women may be at greater risk of experiencing economic abuse. Perpetrators may also restrict access to necessary items such as soap and hand sanitizer.

4. Perpetrators of abuse may use restrictions due to COVID-19 to exercise power and control over their partners to further reduce access to services, help and psychosocial support from both formal and informal networks.

5. Access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, including for women subjected to violence, will likely to become limited.

SNEHA’s Program on Prevention of Violence against Women and Children aims to develop high‐impact strategies for primary prevention, ensure survivors’ access to protection and justice, empower women to claim their rights, mobilise communities around ‘zero tolerance for violence’, and respond to the needs and rights of excluded and neglected groups. The Program prioritises enhanced co-ordination of the state response to crimes against women through a convergence approach that works with government and public systems to reinforce their roles in assuring basic social, civil and economic security.The program runs six community-based counselling centres and three hospital-based counselling centres. In continuation of our work on violence against women and children, we have been appointed as an implementing agency by the Department of Women & Child Development, Maharashtra, to run the One Stop Centre (OSC). The centre is located at KEM Hospital, a tertiary hospital run by the MCGM, and was inaugurated by the Honourable Union Minister for Women and Children, Ms. Smriti Irani, on 3rd September 2019.

Crisis interventions include counselling for survivors, medical aid if required, facilitating police complaints, home visits to engage perpetrators and other family members supporting abuse, and mental health counselling. Extended counselling and mental health interventions such as individual counselling and psycho education, role education with the perpetrator, couple and family counselling and legal intervention are carried out with survivors with the aim of empowering them to make their own decisions about their situation.

On an average, SNEHA counselling centres register around 400 cases monthly, including women and children, and around 4800 cases are registered annually. Survivors of violence access the counselling centres physically and a range of interventions are provided for them. The interventions generally go on for about six months. SNEHA has provision for a Crisis Helpline and Crisis Email for survivors who cannot attend person. The COVID-19 situation has restricted women’s mobility in terms of reporting of cases. In March 2020, the counselling centres registered 513 cases, out of which 177 survivors (37%) were provided initial support, psycho education, and referral to the police and counselling on the helpline.

In the normal situation, the counselling centres receive about 100 calls on the helpline every month and around 10 crisis emails requesting assistance. During the pandemic, from mid-March to mid-April 2020, SNEHA has received 45 crisis emails (32 from Mumbai and 13 from elsewhere in India). Survivors have requested help as they are facing physical, emotional, verbal and sexual violence in their natal and matrimonial homes. At the same time, calls on the helpline have fallen from 100 to 56 as survivors are finding it difficult to call, especially when the abusive family members are at home sharing the same space.

As part of a long-term intervention process, SNEHA counsellors are following up with the survivors telephonically. They have managed to do the follow-up  for 1441 clients from mid-March to mid-April 2020.The counsellors are mainly checking in with women to understand their situation and whether they need assistance. Women have generally reported that they are experiencing tremendous stress due to restricted mobility, and not being able to connect and share their daily lives with other women, increase in housework and caring for family members, managing economic resources sparingly, and bearing the burden of keeping family members happy. They have said that in normal situations they had learnt to deal with domestic violence situations through positive and active coping strategies like venting in front of their friends and other women in their social network, making use of emotional support, positive reframing of their situation and calling on religion and humour. The COVID-19 situation has set them many steps back as they find it hard to use these coping strategies. SNEHA counsellors are providing mental health counselling and addressing the concerns of many women who have reported despair, anxiety and suicidal ideation about the situation they are in.

At the same time, SNEHA’s volunteers are in touch with women in their neighbourhood and are in a position to provide emotional support, intervene with families and link them with the police in crisis situations

Here are some tips for women to cope with stress and actions to take if the she or any other woman in the family is experiencing violence:

1. Reach out to supportive family and friends who can help with immediate solutions as well as coping with stress

2. Develop a safety plan for them and their children with the help of neighbours, friends or relatives

3. Collect important documents, money and few personal things in case the woman needs to leave.

4. Plan carefully on the phone the exit with a family member, friend or relative to access transportation help by contacting the nearby police station

5. Gather information on women’s helplines, NGOs providing support services on violence, shelter and police protection.


  • [1]COVID-19 and violence against women. What the health sector/system can do. 26 March 2020, World Health Organization.
  • [2]UNICEF (2014). Hidden in plain sight: a statistical analysis of violence against children. New York: UNICEF.
  • [3] Stoltenborgh M, van Ijzendoorn MH, Euser EM, Bakermans- Kranenburg MJ. A global perspective on child sexual abuse: meta-analysis of prevalence around the world. Child Maltreat 2011; 16: 79,101.
  • [4] The survey was reportedly conducted by Women’s Safety New South Wales, however note that New South Wales Police and Bureau of Crime Statistics noted “it’s too early to have statistical evidence of any shifts in arrest or police call outs.”
  • [5] National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2020
  • [6] Pandemics and violence against women and children, Amber Peterman, Alina Potts, Megan O’Donnell, Kelly Thompson, Niyati Shah, Sabine Oertelt-Prigione, and Nicole van Gelder
  • [7] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/national-commission-for-women-records-a-rise-in-complaints-since-the-start-of-lockdown/article31241492.ece
  • [8] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/coronavirus-ncw-says-domestic-violence-cases-on-rise-since-lockdown-69-complaints-so-far-1662533-2020-04-02
  • [9] COVID-19 and violence against women What the health sector/system can do, 26 March 2020, World Health Organisation.