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Law & Policy Columns
Domestic Violence during the Coronavirus Lockdown: Potential solution from a criminologist's perspective
Domestic violence as an indoor crime is seldom reported. Data available in the public domain would highlight the prominence of this crime irrespective of the socio-economic strata, hence the victims could be anywhere, everywhere.
The efficacy of policies in place to deal with this offence will have to be monitored, especially since the aggressor or the perpetrator is potentially residing with the alleged victim during the Coronavirus lockdown. Reporting may not be an easy task, and the consequence of reporting, along with the law enforcement agencies' response to such reporting, merits discussion.
The COVID-19 lockdown has highlighted the inadequacies in the Anti-Domestic Violence Law. Even education is ineffective unless it successfully subverts conservative values and teaches young people modern ideals like gender equality and respect between partners. It is pertinent that law makers incorporate modern, feminist values into the law to stop the vicious cycle of abuse during the ongoing epidemic.
Before discussing India's policies vis-à-vis domestic violence during the lockdown, let’s take a look at the attempts by other jurisdictions to tackle the situation.
The rise in domestic abuse has been steep across jurisdictions, from Brazil to Germany, Italy to China. Activists and survivors say that they are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse. In Spain, where lockdowns are extremely strict, the women have been exempted from lockdown if they go out to report domestic violence. The country has also reported adomestic violence fatality, where a woman was murdered by her husband in front of their children in the coastal province of Valencia.
In the United Kingdom, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for the authorities to waive court fees for the protection order.
In Trento, Italy, as per a court decision, the abuser must leave the family home, and not the victim.
In Germany, there has been a demand for budgets for safe houses. The problem is that the safe houses are over-occupied even during normal times.
In Greece, officials said they were stepping up a campaign to help women deal with problems clearly emerging from the issue of confinement.
Policies are being formulated across the globe, since no jurisdiction governed by rule of law anticipated a complete lockdown in the present manner. An individual has to be pronounced/held guilty without much of a trial or adherence to the principles of natural justice.
Be that as it may, it is now clear that our legislations are far from being efficacious, especially in dealing with modern day epidemic related problems.
The Domestic Position
The key question, therefore, is whether we can adopt punitivism or penal sanctions on perpetrators of domestic violence during lockdown? A detailed study by Ms. Radha Iyengar at Harvard University revealed that police action (punitive action) in cases of domestic violence actually increased intimate partner homicides.
Placing reliance on FBI Reports from 1976 to 2003, she observed that punitive action turned out to be counter-productive and led to a direct increase in homicides.
Likewise, my analysis of the underlying causal mechanisms vis-à-vis police or penal intervention during lockdown depicts counterproductive results.
First, if the law enforcement agencies caution the aggressor (remotely or otherwise) or use minor or symbolic force on the aggressor, the aggressor in turn may yet again turn violent on the complainant as soon as they leave.
If we are to analyse the vicious cycle of domestic violence, once ‘tension is high’ any trigger can set off ‘abuse’. It is noteworthy that tensions are generally high due to ongoing socio-economic circumstances and even a minor ‘trigger’ can set off an abuse.
Furthermore, unlike other western nations, we do not know if we have the potential logistics to move victims to safe homes or order the aggressor to move out of their homes, especially without any preliminary inquiry. Lets not forget that children too are an integral part of a domestic household.
One of the potential solutions is for the government to generally reassure its citizens about the ongoing socio-economic turmoil through policy frameworks that promote mental health, and through monetary reparation (even temporary). Multidisciplinary research through experts would also reveal that mass media must act responsibly by balancing the nature and gravity of content they choose to highlight.
Most importantly, counselling is the need of the hour. The demand for counselling may supersede the availability, but it appears to be the most viable solution during an epidemic outbreak that has caused a national lockdown.
Professional counsellors, trained mediators, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists or anyone for that matter who could help must come forward towards helping those in need. This could be achieved through phone, Whatsapp, video-conferencing or even through mass media.
Police should be the last resort, as such intervention could be counterproductive, especially since our policy makers and judiciary are making an endeavour to decongest over-crowded prisons.
The author is a practicing lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, a trained Criminologist and Managing Partner at Vashishtha Law Offices.
 National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 13186