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Domestic violence: NGO sees 'spike' in calls for help after lockdown began to ease

By Anika Bhasker*

Picture this: A 60-year-old woman, with a slightly hunched back, on her umpteenth visit to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court. This is what she has been doing for the last 30 years, since she filed a case against her husband on domestic violence charges. The judiciary has failed to resolve her case all these years but still, she remains hopeful, travelling the distance religiously to be able to get the same response from our judicial system.
A staggering 86% of the women who experienced violence never reported it, while 77% women did not even mention the incident to anyone.
Humsafar, a women’s support system based in Lucknow and founded by Richa Rastogi in 2003, aims to support survivors of gender-based violence. Richa Rastogi believes, these are not “victims” but rather “survivors.” Starting out in 2003 as an informal group, the group was registered as a trust in 2008. The goal was to provide support to women suffering under domestic violence, and provide them with the various options that they could exercise in terms of litigation or mediation.
The purpose of Humsafar was extended to enabling the survivors to seek financial independence. One of the unique ways in which Humsafar does this is by finding an alternative livelihood for women as drivers of e-rickshaws in the Lucknow city and thereby, empowering them.
Presently, Humsafar provides an array of support services to women – legal, medical, mediation, counselling, shelter, livelihood, financial opportunities, along with engaging with different sections of society through workshops and events to raise awareness about domestic violence cases. The institutional backing by Humsafar enables these women to litigate against their abusers.
As Richa Rastogi notes, in many cases, the fear of legal action is established more deeply within the abusive family members with Humsafar’s support, which results in most cases ending in mediation as most family members fear action and would prefer out-of-court settlements or resolution of the matters.

Domestic violence: Societal outlook

Most of the women that seek support from Humsafar are usually lower middle class women, living in older parts of Lucknow such as Alambagh and Dubagga where the mindset is still strongly patriarchal. However, it is worth noting, that the awareness and outreach conducted by Humsafar and several other NGOs has generated more understanding among women about violence.
According to Richa Rastogi, in the early 21st century, during the inception days of Humsafar, the awareness for low and often, women were not sure what constituted as physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse. Over time, this scenario has improved with more women becoming aware of their rights and judicial protections. However, one area that still remains grey for most women is understanding sexual abuse, often manifesting in the form of marital rape, and women have a tendency to hide this issue.
In order to address violence holistically, change in societal mindset is pertinent – the first step to this is awareness. To generate support and awareness, Humsafar works with different communities and with youth in educational institutions. Presently, Humsafar is working in over 53 neighborhoods with women and in 42 schools and colleges in the districts of Lucknow, Unnao, Sitapur and Hardoi.

Stigma of litigation

In numbers, the reality is quite discerning, where only 15% of the women actually go to court, 60% cases are settled through mediation and in case of the remaining 25% cases, women forfeit their complains. The reason for the high number of women opting for mediation is because of the failure of the judicial system. While as per the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 the cases have to be disposed of in 60 days, this is seldom the reality.
Most of the women that seek support from Humsafar are usually lower middle class women, living in older parts of Lucknow
There is also a strong stigma attached to the litigation process, especially for the survivors who have a job. There is tremendous backlash in employment opportunities for such women if they were to file a case, since they have to take leaves for judicial hearings from time to time which acts as a disincentive for small private employers to hire them. Ironically, even if they are successful in getting justice, the maintenance amount is usually nominal, to the tune of INR 500 to INR 2000 per month, which is hardly sufficient to even meet basic life needs.
Richa Rastogi notes, the only way in which the situation can be changed for the better is by delivering speedy justice. A higher conviction rate will automatically induce fear of crime amongst the families, and eventually lead to a mindset change.

Reluctance to file cases

Most women are reluctant to file a case against their husband or families in the first place due to huge financial dependence. They rely on their husband and families for everyday needs and do not have the necessary skillsets or training to be able to work. Humsafar recognized this reluctance and sought to take up the task of training and skilling these women in different professions, so that they can encourage them to take action against the wrongdoers and live with dignity.
In this context, Humsafar trains the women in livelihood skills such as driving and wood polishing. There is a twofold reason for adopting these two professions: (1) for financial independence of women, and (2) to take on jobs primarily performed by men in our society to challenge the misconception. This initiative has helped train and equip over 137 women so far.

Impact of lockdown

The lockdown has adversely impacted the fight against domestic violence, leading to a rise in cases. As research states, domestic violence incidents saw an alarming rise, reaching a 10-year high during the lockdown. While during the lockdown, Humsafar did not receive as many complains since women were in no position to reach out the any support groups or NGOs due to lack of access to a mobile phone or insufficient balance.
There was also a lack of private space from where they could contact or raise the issue with any support centre. It was shocking to know that even in the cases where they were able to reach out to the police, they were dismissed by the officers, who cited the pandemic to be a greater concern than domestic violence cases.
But in the immediate aftermath, Humsafar saw a rise in the calls for help that they received, up from the 1-2 calls they received pre-pandemic to almost double the number at present. The need of the hour is to push for speedy justice and implementation of the existing laws and rules for the protection of women who are survivors of domestic violence abuse.
Richa Rastogi says, Humsafar’s motivation to empower women is further advanced when there are examples of success stories that they can share with the women that come to them for support.
---
*Student  (PGP 2019-21), Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad

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