April 25, 2020
35 year old Rasathi (name changed), wife of auto driver Murugan (name changed), has been the sole breadwinner of her family for a long time.
She earns Rs 4000 working as an assistant at a petty shop near her home in Coimbatore. She decided, some years after her marriage, not to depend on her alcoholic husband to provide for her.
“Murugan was at home for the first three days after lockdown,” Rasathi told The Lede. “After that he started going out in the morning and returning home at 2 pm. Then he would go out at 7 pm again,” she said.
Murugan was spending money in his hand to buy overpriced liquor in black. But one week later, he ran out of cash. Without income, since autorickshaws were not allowed to ply, he turned to his wife for money to feed his addiction.
“He asked me for Rs 200,” said Rasathi. “I gave it to him the first time. Two days later he asked me for money again. I gave him money 3-4 times. After that I got annoyed,” she recalled.
“Why don’t you earn and spend your own money on your habits? That too during the time of lockdown you are behaving in such a manner,” shouted Rasathi at Murugan.
A verbal duel erupted and abuses and violence followed.
Rasathi did not expect to win the fight and she did not, either. She was forced to take a loan in the end. Her employer lent her Rs 1000 and she handed over Rs 400 to Murugan. With the remaining Rs 600, she struggles to make food last until the end of the month.
“I really don’t know what to do,” Rasathi says, teary eyed, to The Lede. “Only after lockdown ends, we will be able to lead a normal life,” she said.
Discernible Spike In Violence
Although Rasathi is one among the many women who have not called the authorities for help, the lockdown period has seen a definite rise in the number of SOS calls from women on domestic violence.
ADGP (Headquarters) M Ravi has been watching the trend keenly since the imposition of lockdown on March 14.
“There has been a definite increase in the number of women calling us about domestic violence,” Ravi told The Lede in a video conference interview.
“We get around 25 to 30 calls on average per day from across Tamil Nadu. There are many women who don’t call us either, because their husbands are at home. So we have to take a proactive approach towards this issue.”
Renowned psychiatrist Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar told The Lede that the world over, during lockdown, domestic violence has increased. This has been the case even in developed countries, she said.
“There could be three reasons for the domestic violence,” said Dr Lakshmi.
“(i) In Tamil Nadu it could be because of alcohol stoppage. Many who are used to taking alcohol get irritable during the withdrawal phase, they keep pestering their wives, asking for money and this leads to violence.
(ii) If a marital relationship has good, if the husband is cooperative from the beginning, it could be more cohesive during lockdown. If the relationship has been rocky to start with, the fact that they are unable to discharge their emotions outside the house could lead to fights and violence.
(iii) Women are overworked during the lockdown phase – they don’t have time or space of their own. Children are at home and they feel like they are on holiday. They are demanding. When women see their husbands simply sitting at home or watching TV or looking at their mobile phones, they start picking fights. The husbands feel that the women who had been quiet thus far, are answering back and giving lip. If the mother in law lives with them, the situation becomes worse and leads to violence,” she said.
As for women who do not seek help from the authorities, she feels that a strong message needs to go out to all women.
“They are unable to talk in front of people, they have no privacy. All these issues can be prevented. Women are in a kind of trapped phase during the lockdown. They can take recourse by talking to officials. If they are able to get away, they should get away,” she advised.
Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women chairperson Kannagi Packianathan told The Lede that the police must file an FIR whenever women contacted them in distress. “There definitely is an increase in violence against women and children during this lockdown. We have created seven separate women’s commissions. There are two persons appointed to counsel the victims of domestic violence in each district. During the lockdown, women are unable to come out and complain. We are providing awareness to government and to the public. We can only help resolve the problem if people come forward and tell us about this.”
Packianathan added that since All Women’s Police Station personnel were also involved in lockdown duty, they are unable to provide enough support for victims of domestic violence. “Whenever there is a case of violence against women or children, an FIR should immediately be filed. Women police should immediately take up the issue, arrest where necessary and there should be no delay in dealing with the case,” she added.
How TN Police Is Dealing With Domestic Violence
Yamuna (name changed), a domestic help in Chennai, arrived sobbing at the home of a neighbour of her employers. “Please do something Amma, my daughter is in danger,” she cried.
Her pregnant daughter, 23 year old Latha (name changed), was being harassed by her in-laws and beaten by her husband. “He is kicking her on the stomach without even caring that she is pregnant. Her in-laws have thrown all her clothes on the road and are asking her to get out. Please do something and bring my daughter back to me, Amma,” she sobbed in distress.
What made matters difficult was that her daughter was living in Kanchipuram, an adjacent district. With no public transport services available and district borders sealed off, Latha was stuck in a house with three abusers, with no way to leave.
The neighbour contacted the police who immediately sent a team to Latha’s house. A few hours of negotiations went by and finally the husband, in-laws and Latha wrote letters of assurance, promising to not get into fights with each other and to remain peaceful. “The girl has agreed to go home to her mother after the lockdown is lifted,” said one of the police personnel who visited the house.
With the lockdown having been imposed suddenly, police personnel have been caught unawares. As domestic violence increased and with strict instructions that people should not move around, police have had to innovate in an effort to keep the peace.
“Luckily for us, the regular criminals are all sitting indoors during lockdown,” smiled ADGP M Ravi. “This has allowed us to focus on domestic violence as well as lockdown enforcement.”
Ravi says that the police have been told to double up as counsellors of sorts when calls of domestic violence come in.
“Most of the fights begin as verbal arguments and then end up in violence,” he said. “We take a proactive approach. We counsel the fighting couples and also in-laws, advice them and do conflict resolution of the problems amicably. The woman is assured that the police is there and supporting her. If the husband is not listening, we threaten him that we will file a case and lock him up. Usually that is enough of a deterrent. Sometimes we have had to enforce that as well. It is our duty to protect women and children in society,” he said.
The police have devised other measures as well to tackle those instances of domestic violence which go unreported.
“We have pulled out the records of the ex-offenders – people who have committed violence against women before – those fellows are under surveillance. Their families are being monitored by women police. We have also tied up with health workers who go door to door to screen people and we have asked them to alert us if they come across domestic violence,” he said.
In the Trichy range alone, across seven districts, the police has identified 14,000 former offenders and are being monitored. Other districts are in the process of compiling similar lists.
According to ADGP M Ravi, alcoholism and withdrawal symptoms are not a key reason for the increase in domestic violence. “There is a paradox that we have seen,” he said. “Even when they consume alcohol, they are teasing women and when they don’t consume alcohol too, they tease women. It is a paradox. It is a psychological problem so we have to deal with it with empathy,” he added.
Women too prefer not to file complaints. They want the conflict to be settled and assurances that it will not take place again, said the officer.
These are the same words told to The Lede by 72 year old Vasuki, who lives with her son and daughter in law in Coimbatore. She was sitting on the side of the road when The Lede met her. She narrated her story when asked as to why she was sitting outside.
“My son and daughter in law, both used to work,” said the old lady. “I would make whatever food I liked and eat it myself. But now both of them are at home and they are not allowing me to cook. Now the husband and wife fight and they take it out on me. They hurl abuses at me, they shout at me. They don’t give me food and they don’t allow me to go out. I am only allowed to sit outside my house for an hour, from 4 pm to 5 pm daily,” she said.
Weeping, the old lady said that she was waiting eagerly for the lockdown to be lifted so that she could go live with her daughter who stays far away. “I was living happily earlier,” said the old lady. “I was living on my own terms. Now all this has happened due to lockdown. I cannot share this with anyone else. If I complain to the police, tomorrow it will affect me,” she said.
The fact that the elderly woman was entirely dependent on her son, at least for the foreseeable future, was deterrent enough to stop her from calling the police.
Coimbatore: A Case Study
The Lede found that, surprisingly, in Coimbatore, the helplines had not registered even a single case of domestic violence.
An official who works with the state women’s helpline 181 in Coimbatore, Priyanka, told The Lede that on average, there would be 30-35 cases filed in the city daily. “After Section 144 was imposed, there have been no cases. Towards the end of March just two cases were filed – one was that of child marriage and the other was harassment of an elderly lady. We do not have the resources for door to door survey, we are waiting for information,” she said.
181 is a dedicated hotline for women facing violence and was launched by the government in 2018 at a cost of Rs 62.7 lakh.
She also added that she was unsure as to what cases ADGP Ravi was referring to and hence was not in a position to comment on the same.
An official at the Coimbatore Collectorate told The Lede on condition of anonymity that there was a complaint box kept in the premises which was reserved for issues being faced by women. “There has not even been one complaint in the box since lockdown began,” said the official. “Earlier we would get 9-13 petitions on average daily.”
But as the state heads into more stringent lockdown and livelihoods are affected, experts warn that violence against women is likely to increase.
“Women can call any of our helplines – 181, 1098, 100 and 102,” said ADGP M Ravi. “We will respond immediately and sort out the problem. They can also use the SOS button on the Kaavalan app, which has been downloaded by 10 lakh people. We have more than enough workforce which are all dedicated to responding to women in distress,” he said.
ADGP Ravi has some advice for both women and men living together under the same roof.
“My message to women is – if there is an argument, do not react. Your husband is not a remote control to activate you. Press the pause button before reacting. Pause, think and then reacted. A mere verbal argument should not lead to physical abuse. It is important to shield children from fights as they will be psychologically affected. So in the interests of the family, it is best not to react,” he said.
As for men – “The men should have a more tolerant approach. Unless they go to jail, they do not have a lockdown experience. Women are more accustomed to being at home. The men could have psychological issues since they feel they are jailed at home. Assist your wife in daily chores, make your family happy, spend time with them, do a workout, use social media in moderation. Be happy and peaceful and we will come out of this in a short period,” said ADGP Ravi.
“Be optimistic and positive,” he signed off.