- South Asian gender equity advocates are bracing for an increase in reports of domestic violence cases once Covid-19 lockdown orders are relaxed
While shelter in place and lockdown orders have been ensuring the safety of millions of Americans and helping to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 pandemic, gender equity advocates say it’s putting a large number of women — survivors of domestic violence and abuse — at a greater risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four women and one out of every seven men go through physical violence at the hands of their partner. Women between the ages of 18 and 34 generally experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence, according to information from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
However, anti-domestic violence advocates note that while there has been an alarming rise in domestic violence cases since the start of the lockdowns, the number of calls made to the help lines or hotlines have significantly dipped. Data from the National Domestic Violence Hotline showed that there were 951 callers who mentioned Covid-19 while reporting their abuse between March 10 and 24. Typically, the hotline receives up to 2,000 calls per day.
Spike in Calls Expected
It’s a similar scenario at anti-domestic violence organizations working within the South Asian community. Advocates estimate that once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, their hotlines and helplines could get flooded.
Rachna Khare, executive director of Daya in Houston, Texas, is bracing for more calls once the stay at home orders are relaxed. She says that although calls to their helpline have increased, it hasn’t been “insane” yet. “People are having a hard time reaching out because they are in survivor mode” and taking care of the immediate crisis like getting food and staying healthy, Khare says.
Similarly, Narika, an organization based in California’s Bay Area, saw an increase in calls on its helpline before the shelter-in-place orders took effect. Women sought advice on how they should deal with the situation when locked in with their abusers, according to executive director Bindu Oommen-Fernandes. But once the lockdown began, calls decreased.
One of the main reasons for this dip is the fact that the victim is home with the abuser, usually within earshot. “More often than not, the batter monitors everything his victim does” — be it phone calls, screen time, outside errands and finances — “which has limited the victim’s ability to reach out for help and suffer in silence,” Priya Kulkarni, president of the Maryland-based ASHA for Women says.
What is Domestic Violence?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” It is not just physical abuse; it is mental, emotional, financial, and/or sexual, and could occur between people that live together, are dating, are married, or are related in some way.
UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, has called domestic violence a “shadow pandemic.” The UN has released a statement advocating for an immediate global action to end all forms of violence against women and girls in the midst of the pandemic.
Abuse Among South Asians
Although the nature of the abuse is not different within South Asian communities in the U.S., advocates say there are a number of elements like immigration, financial dependence, abuse by in-laws, and reproductive coercion, which play a significant role. Another important issue is the ability to access help. Many South Asian women in the U.S. have no support system. They are far from their families. Some of them, particularly new immigrants, are unfamiliar with American culture, accessing legal systems, or calling 911 to seek help. Language access is a huge barrier as well, and is closely linked to safety. Advocates share several instances where police have had to talk to the perpetrator instead of the victim, because of language barrier. In such cases, the police get a completely different version of the reality, as it’s through the abuser’s mouth.
These situations give men increased power and control that may escalate to abuse.
For women trapped in abusive marriages, continuing to stay in the U.S. can be challenging, because maintaining legal status could mean submitting to the abusive spouse. There’s also the taboo against divorce in most South Asian societies which forces women to stay with their abusers.
Some have to consider child custody as well, which is intermingled with immigration, especially when the children are born in the U.S. Advocates say that when faced with a choice between living at home with one’s abuser and homelessness, an average South Asian woman will choose to continue living with her husband.
“Sexual violence, dating and sex is taboo in many South Asian societies, and many young girls and women are thrown into a situation [like a marriage], without any preparation, without the knowledge of what consent is,” Khare says.
Advocates say these issues, including President Trump’s new executive order issued in April, barring some immigration to the U.S., add multiple layers to the rapidly expanding domestic and gender-based violence.
Advocates believe that there is an immediate risk for victims who are at home with their abusers. They are not anticipating new cases to spike. But at the same time, they note that confinement could foster tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries, which could alter the nature of the abuse. For example, a verbal or emotional abuse could become physical.
Advocates however stress that there’s no one plan that fits all victims. Oommen-Fernandes says that “each client’s needs are vastly different from another.” That could be because not all South Asian victims are similar. What sets most of them apart is their level of education. Nearly 95 percent of clients with ASHA for Women have a bachelor’s degree, Kulkarni notes.
In contrast, according to the New York-based Sakhi for South Asian Women, 95 percent of its clients are recent immigrants, 10 percent are undocumented, 80 percent are mothers and 75 percent reside below the federal poverty level.
New Patterns of Violence
In the U.S., advocates note that the pandemic is giving rise to new patterns of domestic violence. “There have been blatant violations of court orders happening, which have a direct correlation to Covid-19,” Oommen-Fernandes says. Battered women might hesitate to go to the hospital, a lot of times due to the abuser giving misinformation to the victims, she notes.
Along with the typical domestic violence victims, there is a need to reach out to women who are victims of abuse that could seem atypical. These women might not be dependent on their spouse for a visa or finances, but are still abused. Oommen-Fernandes observes that the trigger points for abuse could be different in those cases. Adding to that is the sophistication of the abuse, she notes. The abuser could also play it safe — no bruise, no force, or no evidence of any torture. For instance, the abuser might set a curfew time for the victim to return home or deprive the victim of some privileges.
In situations like this, South Asian anti-domestic organizations play a larger role, of connecting their clients seeking help to other resources and sister organizations in the area. Kulkarni says ASHA for Women is working with several clients who are struggling to make ends meet. They are helping their clients with filing unemployment, getting groceries, or medicines. Kulkarni gave an example of a client, a single mother, who was working two jobs. Now they are helping her get back to the workforce.
Adapting to the New ‘Normal’
Citing past data, advocates have noted that there’s a direct relation between a spike in domestic violence and times of prolonged stress and disruption, like financial crises and natural disasters.
However, advocates say the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t fall into that category.
These days organizations have been forced to think outside the box. Although South Asian anti-domestic organizations across the U.S. are still operating, the way they deliver their services has changed. “We have been leaning on technology like never before,” Khare says.
Both counselors and clients have adapted to creative ways of staying in touch, and there’s been an increase in emails and texts as opposed to phone calls. Along with ensuring the safety of their clients, advocates say taking care of their counselors’ safety and creating an environment conducive for remote operations, has been a balancing act.
At a time when the victims are spending time indoors with their abusers, counselors typically wait for the client to get in touch. “It is important to let them [the clients] lead the way,” Aparna Bhattacharyya, executive director at the Atlanta, Georgia-based Raksha Inc., says. “We have to be on our toes to keep adapting to changing and emerging needs,” Oommen-Fernandes says. “It’s essential to create a routine where they [the clients] don’t feel they are alone.”
Normally, domestic violence survivors who reside with their abusers get some opportunities to get away. These breaks could be for running errands like groceries or taking a child to school or an after-school activity. But because of the lockdown, the victim hardly has an opportunity to go out, which results in more time spent with the abuser.
Charting Safety Plans, Survivor Guidelines
At times like these, counselors are relying on safety plans and survivor guidelines to help their clients navigate in a changed landscape. Some of the safety plans devised by counselors include guidelines on creating physical distance with the abuser, designating a safe room, using virtual tools to ask for help, and deciding on code words when communicating with counselors.
Along with ensuring the physical safety of their clients, Gouri Sharma of Raksha Inc., stresses on the importance of focusing on mental health. The only South Asian organization in all of Atlanta has also launched tele mental health services.
Similarly, in partnership with the Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV), Raskha Inc. has released infographics with resources and tips for survivors during Covid-19. PADV is the largest and one of the oldest nonprofit domestic violence organizations in Georgia.
Through her NGO registered in India, New York-based Dr. Shruti Kapoor has designed a tool kit for survivors of sexual violence and abuse in India. Kapoor is the founder and president of Sayfty, which aims to educate women and girls as well as bystanders about the issue of violence against women by using digital media, storytelling and gender role discussions. Kapoor says that the safety tool kit for survivors combines all the tips and resources together, whether medical, physical, mental, social and psychological.
With so many victims trapped at home with their abusers, Kapoor observes there has been 100 percent rise in domestic violence in India since the lockdown began on March 30, and that “cases have been surging.” Citing data from India’s National Commission for Women, Kapoor notes that while 116 cases were reported from March 2 to 8, the cases reported from March 23 to April 1 rose to 300.
Shortage of Shelters
While clients’ are being counseled remotely, there is a large concern that many shelters are no longer accepting new entrants. Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter in Chicago, Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune that her shelter is also full. She told the newspaper that they had to cut the capacity of the shelter by two-thirds — from about 30 people to about 10 — in order to maintain safe social distancing policies. “It’s been frustrating and painful for those of us whose job is to help.”
Organizations like ASHA for Women, which don’t have a safe house, work with local shelters to house their clients. However, executive director Lakshmi Ayyapa, notes that it’s proving to be challenging as shelters are full, and not accepting new tenants because of the social distancing mandates.
Impact of Domestic Abuse on Children
An offshoot of domestic violence is child abuse. Children who are witnesses to abuse faced by a parent often show signs of mental trauma and distress later in life, and could themselves be victims of domestic abuse.
According to Prevent Child Abuse America, an organization working to battle the abuse and neglect of children, 30 to 60 percent of children from homes where domestic abuse is present are also victims of abuse themselves. Advocates note that people who beat their spouses often beat their children. According to Khare, the younger populations in the early 20s and 30s, who are victims of domestic violence — whether physical, sexual, emotional, or physical — have a history of abuse by a family member or a friend.
It is evident that domestic violence in the South Asian community is very much on the rise during the pandemic. Advocates and anti-domestic violence groups are tightening their reins despite their limitations and lack of resources and funds, and keeping all channels open for those requiring assistance. One cannot tell who in the community might be in distress and reach out for help. As Oommen-Fernandes puts it — “domestic violence has no boundaries, no predictions.”