As families around the world are quarantining together to stop the spread of Coronavirus, it’s crucial to remember that home is not a safe space for many folks. Measures such as lockdown are challenging for all of us — and for those experiencing violence at home, they can literally be a matter of life or death.
Within the first month of lockdown in India, data revealed an alarming surge in reported cases. Women are 17 times more likely to be assaulted by their spouses during the lockdown; the country’s emergency helpline for children received 92,000 SOS calls in the span of eleven days; and the National Commission for Women helpline reported that distress calls reporting domestic violence had nearly doubled. These numbers are disturbingly high, and keep in mind that this is not accounting for the 70 percent of abuse cases that typically go unreported.
“Members of a person’s community—neighbors or friends—are perfectly positioned to take action during lockdown and can play a powerful role in preventing violence,” says Suparna Gupta, the founder of Aangan, a nonprofit focused on protecting children from serious harm. “Neighbors have physical proximity to high-risk households and access to local intelligence, and usually have established relationships with other community members.” Research on bystander intervention shows that it is particularly powerful in geographically close-knit communities, and most effective when children are believed to be involved in the incident.
Communities across the country have been building violence prevention systems into their culture for decades. These grassroots efforts hold interesting lessons on what any concerned citizen.
Break the isolation.
Research shows a strong correlation between social isolation and abuse. During lockdown, victims might end up spending more time with abusers, alone and cut off from others. But even after lockdown, isolation could make women and children vulnerable. According to the World Bank, the average woman living in rural India has only three friends, and 80 percent don’t have friends of another caste. (In contrast, the average American woman has eight friends.)
What you can do: If you suspect that a friend or neighbor may be living in an unsafe environment, signal to them that you’ve noticed signs that someone in their home may be processing anger or frustration in dangerous ways. Ask them “do you feel safe?” Let them know you know.
Once they know they have an ally, you can get to work planning. Come up with a code word, and establish what it means. In what situation will your friend text you the word, and whom do they want you to call if they send it?
Establish with them that you will be taking action after an agreed upon amount of time passes. For example you can offer, “if I don’t hear back from you every 24 hours I will treat it like an emergency and reach out to authorities.” Ensuring the survivor’s consent and agency in the situation is key.
While assessing ways we can provide support as bystanders, we should not underestimate the power of just talking and making survivors feel like they are heard, believed, and understood. A citizens’ group or a neighborhood committee could also organize social media groups or live meetings (post-lockdown) to build rapport and support systems for women and children.
Help with planning.
Even during lockdown when options are limited, having a safety plan to leave home is a must to prepare for violent situations. Coming up with a plan on the spot during an emergency puts immense pressure on the survivor.
What you can do: Help your friend figure out the closest public point of safety they could go to in case of an emergency. Encourage them to keep money and identification packed in a bag at all times, in case they need to leave home suddenly in favor of a public place away from the perpetrator. You might also ask your friend to think about where they are keeping items that could be used as weapons. Would they feel safer if these were hidden?
On your end, keep a list of helplines functioning in your area saved on your phone, and encourage your friend to add them, along with your number, to their speed dial. These small steps can remove the burden of planning and responding from the victim of violence.
Show solidarity, and intervene if necessary.
In 2008, human rights organization Breakthrough launched Bell Bajao, an international campaign calling on neighbors to interrupt violence simply by ringing the bell and asking for something as innocuous as a cup of milk, for example.
Not only did this help concerned neighbors across India identify how they could intervene, but it also clearly signaled that men have a role to play other than as perpetrators of violence. The campaign changed the belief that domestic violence is a private family issue or a ‘women’s issue’ and placed it squarely at the center of communities, as everybody’s problem.
What you can do: You may become aware of violent situations taking place between folks you live in close proximity to, but do not know personally. If you hear neighbors engaged in an unsafe situation, one option is to ring the doorbell to disrupt the moment and defuse a situation temporarily. If you feel that a situation between neighbors is becoming violent, alert the authorities.
By viewing domestic violence as a community issue, providing space for people to share their experiences, and strategizing proactively to prevent and respond to harm, we can work towards disrupting the cycle of family violence.
About the author
Ratna Gill is the Head of Communications & Advocacy at Aangan, a Mumbai-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing child trafficking, hazardous labor, early marriage, and abuse & exploitation. Ratna graduated from Harvard University in 2016 with a degree in Economics. She is passionate about protecting the human rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children, and people of color.