Fears of a rise in cases of domestic violence due to the lockdown may have come to passAlthough official data says otherwise, anecdotal evidence from helplines and rights organisations report a significant increase in cases of gender-based violence.
Ever since the lockdown was implemented, 1145, the national helpline to report gender-based violence, has been ringing off the hook, at a rate of around 20 calls every day. So far, in the 30-or-so days since the lockdown began, the helpline has received 521 calls, of which 119 have been specifically about domestic violence.
“On some days, I take up to 15 calls about domestic violence,” one helpline operator told the Post on condition of anonymity as she was not authorised to speak to the media. “Just this morning, I attended to a survivor who had to lock herself in the bathroom of her two-roomed flat in Kathmandu to make the call. The husband, after an unsuccessful attempt to rape her, had dragged her by the hair while verbally abusing her.”
The helpline operator counselled both the woman and her husband but since the former did not wish to pursue legal recourse, the operator let the husband off with a warning.
On other days, she counsels women who are terrified making these calls because their perpetrators are in the vicinity.
“After I hang up, I am still apprehensive about the perpetrators repeating the abuse. Usually, survivors call us when their abusers are not around but now the abusers are around them all the time,” she said, reporting that the frequency of calls had increased since the lockdown.
When the lockdown was first instituted on March 24, there were already fears that cases of domestic and gender-based violence would rise, given similar experiences around the world. Now, more than a month into the lockdown, it appears those fears have been realised.
According to Renu Adhikari, founder of the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), the frequency of gender-based violence has increased since the lockdown began, drawing on testimonies from survivors and reports from local organisations. WOREC, an organisation working to combat violence against women and children, recorded 83 cases of violence against women in the last three weeks from 13 districts of Nepal.
While organisations working for women’s rights like WOREC report an increase in cases of gender-based violence, police reports suggest otherwise.
According to Nepal Police data, the number of reported cases of gender-based violence has decreased drastically nationwide since the lockdown was implemented. Total cases of gender-based violence, including rape, attempted rape, allegations of witchcraft, polygamy, and domestic violence for a period of only 10 days preceding the lockdown numbered 1,561. In contrast, nationwide cases during the first three weeks of the lockdown were just 362.
“Amidst this pandemic, the crime rate has dropped substantially,” said Senior Superintendent Umesh Raj Joshi, the Nepal Police spokesperson. “The same effect can be seen in cases of gender-based violence, perhaps due to the fact that men cannot be out on the roads and women are safer at home.”
However, police officers themselves disagree with the institution’s assessment. One police officer from the Ranipokhari women’s cell told the Post that complaints are often not registered when police are able to reconcile the two parties.
“We have received 19 cases of domestic violence in this cell alone,” she told the Post on condition of anonymity. “We usually let them off after the abusers promise not to repeat the abuse. Sometimes, such cases are not formally registered.”
Even in normal times, cases of domestic and gender-based violence are considered highly underreported. This trend has not only continued during the lockdown but is expected to have made things worse, as women are often unable to reach police stations or shelter homes on their own.
“Most cases that are occurring right now go unreported because the perpetrators are family members. Survivors usually repress such instances from other members of their family and filing formal complaints is out of the question,” said Sanjita Timsina, programme coordinator at WOREC. “The survivors cannot seek support from friends or other designated officials because they cannot leave their houses.”
According to women rights activists, the situation under lockdown is largely reflective of the situation at all other times—many women don’t trust the system and would rather make complaints to non-governmental organisations, hence the discrepancy between the official data and anecdotal evidence.
“A lot of survivors who have spoken to me do not trust the police or the women commission because of how casually their cases have been handled,” said Adhikari of WOREC. “This is a major reason why they have been turning to local gender rights agencies instead of designated government bodies.”
But with all public movement prohibited, women are now unable to visit these organisations in person, leading them to either bear with the violence or attempt to reach some support via helplines.
“I have been counselling women who are extremely vulnerable in their own homes and if not for the lockdown, they would have found an opportune moment to run to the police station and file a complaint,” said Punyashila Dawadi, an advocate. “Now, with limited mobility and continuous surveillance from their abusers, they do not have that freedom.”
Government agencies, however, are still reluctant to draw direct links between the lockdown and an increase in gender-based violence.
Shanta Adhikari Bhattarai, secretary at the National Women Commission, said that an increase in telephone calls alone cannot vouch for an increase in domestic violence.
“Domestic violence has always been present in Nepali society and it is continuing during the lockdown,” Bhattarai said. “In concluding that there is an interlink between the two, we might overlook other important factors that might have led to an increase in the phone calls,” she said.