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Stay Home Stay Safe

23 Apr 2020

By:- Tanuka Endow

Stay home, stay safe. Or so is everybody telling us. What happens when a home is not a safe place? Covid 19 has come uninvited into our lives, leaving in its wake sickness, fatalities, fear, and a prolonged lockdown. Evidently another impact, from all accounts, has been a spiking of violence against women after the lockdown. And here we are talking about women who are staying at home 24x7 with their families as a result of the lockdown, and not of the healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses, many of whom are women, and many of whom continue to face violence in the public sphere during the course of their duty.

The National Commission of Women Chairperson (NCW) hasreportedly said that domestic violence complaints were increasing by the day since the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25 (1). From March 24 till April 1, 257 complaints related to various offences against women were received, out of which 69 complaints are related to domestic violence. The NCW has since launched a WhatsApp number7217735372, as an emergency helpline for women facing domestic violence.

Women from US, UK and European countries have similar complaints, with the urgency of battered women increasing by the day. The UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge, has reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day (2).

As women spend the entire 24 hours in a day with their spouse, reportedly the chance of getting abused increases as men vent their anger and irritation on their spouse, while the women have no recourse to outside help and are practically trapped inside their homes.

It would be good to remember that this violence is not something new which has been produced by the lockdown. It has just been escalated. Domestic violence has always been a characteristic of many of the marriages in India and the statistics make it clear. As of 2015-16, nearly a third (31.1%) of the ever-married women aged 15-49 years have ever experienced spousal violence, which has declined slightly from 37.2% in 2005-06, according to NFHS rounds 4 and 3. However, there hasbeen no change in women’s experience of spousalphysical or sexual violence in the 12 months precedingeach survey (24% in both NFHS-3 and NFHS-4).

The 2015-16 data from NFHS 4 also reveal the distressing statistics that one-fourth ofever-married women who have experienced spousalphysical or sexual violence, report experiencing physicalinjuries. Among these women, 8 percent have had eye injuries,sprains, dislocations, or burns and 5 percent havehad deep wounds, broken bones, broken teeth, or anyother serious injury.Among ever-married women age 15-49 who have experienced physical violence since age 15, around 83 percent report theircurrent husbands as perpetrators of the violence and 7 percent report former husbands as perpetrators, according to NFHS-4.

The Crime in India statistics, maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau, shows that not only the total crime against women in the country, but the incidence of ‘Cruelty by husband or his relatives’ (3) as a crime head has been increasing over time, with a slight dip in the recent past after 2015 (Figure 1). The incidence of crime under this head was termed as‘Torture’ in earlier NCRB reports. It increased significantly from 15,900 in 1990 to 1,22,900 in 2014, and subsequently declined to stand at 1,03,272. The overall CAGR for this crime head was 7.55 percent, much higher than the CAGR of 6.3 percent for total Crime against women in the country.

The crime head ‘Cruelty’, encompassing both mental and physical torture, comes under the Indian Penal Code Section 498A and was and was brought into the IPC in the year 1983 as a criminal offence to curb the menace of cruelty to married women by the husband and relatives. This was often related to pressure on the married woman to bring more dowry. A later development in the form of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA), which came into effect in 2006, has been more effective in the sense that civil protections were now afforded to victims of domestic violence. The PWDVA not only provides a comprehensive definition of domestic violence but also recognizes marital rape and covers harassment in the form of unlawful dowry demands as a form of abuse.

Figure 1 Crime against Women (in thousands) All-India 1990-2018

Source: Crime in India statistics, NCRB, various years

Dowry deaths (Section 302/304-B IPC) is another major crime head in relation to domestic violence, and the incidence of dowry deaths stood at 7166 as of 2018, whereas it was 4836 in 1990. Dowry related deaths, a more serious offence than ‘Cruelty’, where the perpetrators have not stopped at violence, but have actually taken the woman’s life, had become a rallying point for the women’s movements around the country during the 1970’s and 1980s(Sen and Dhawan in Banerjee et al ed(2011)). Although the number of dowry deaths has been declining since 2011, there is no sign of these coming to a stop as we have seen thatmore than seven thousand dowry deaths took place in the country even in 2018.However, the overall CAGR for this crime head was 1.41 percent vis-à-vis the CAGR of 6.3 percent for total Crime against women.

In the total incidence of crime against women annually, thecrime under ‘Cruelty’ more than doubled its share of around 20 percent in 1990 to 44 percent in 2010. Even after it fell subsequently, it is still high at nearly 28 percent as of 2018 (Figure2).But the share of dowry death has declined from 7.1 percent in 1990 to 1.9 percent by 2018.

Figure 2 Share (%)in total Crime against Women All-India 1990-2018

Source: Crime in India statistics, NCRB, various years

It is interesting that the states which accounted for majority of the incidence of Cruelty cases in 1994 continue to account for a large share of the cases even in 2018, after the passage of 25 years. The overall share of these group of states is nearly the same in 2018 as in 1994, if we add the incidence of crime under the head ‘Cruelty’ for one additional state, Assam (Table 1).

Table 1 Share (%) of Major States for Crime under the head ‘Cruelty by husband or his relatives’

States 1994 2018
Maharashtra 7105 6862
Uttar Pradesh 3943 14233
West Bengal 3037 16951
Andhra Pradesh (Telangana has been included for comparability) 2295 13117
Rajasthan 2277 12250
Sub-total of states 18657 63413
Total cases under ‘Cruelty’ crime head 25946 103272
Share (%) of sub-total of 5 states 71.9 61.4
Assam NA 11136
Sub-total of states with Assam   74549
Share (%) of sub-total of 6 states   72.2

Source: Crime in India statistics, NCRB, various years

The very fact that domestic violence does not take place in a public domain, and rather happens within the confines of a ‘home’, makes it more difficult to combat. The dynamics within a household can be complex and many times the victims may be powerless or may not be willing to come out and confront their husbands (or partners) or his relatives directly.Apart from fearing for their own safety in case they choose to complain, the reluctance to confront the perpetrator may also stem from a woman’s financial dependence on her husband for her and her children. An important reason has also been found to be the traditional mindset or ‘gendered norm’ of many women whereby they feel that husbands have a “right” to control their wives in various ways, including through violence (4). The NFHS-4 (2015-16) survey shows that this kind of norm leads women to even justify their husbands beating them in the case of certain circumstances.

A staggering 52 percent of 15-49 year old ever-married women believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife in at least one of seven specified circumstances: the wife goes outwithout telling her husband, she neglects the house or the children, she argues with her husband,she refuses to have sex with him, she doesn’t cook food properly, he suspectsher of being unfaithful, and she shows disrespect for her in-laws. When the victim herself does not hold the perpetrator accountable, or, does not even seem to consider the violence as a crime, it is unlikely that she would seek any kind of redressal for the wrong committed.

It is no surprise then that there appears to be a conspiracy of silence around domestic violence. In 2015-16, of all women in India who have ever experienced any type of physical or sexual violence, only 14 percent have sought helpto stop the violence while 77 percent have never sought help nor told anyone about the violence they experienced. It is an alarming development that the percentage of women who have experienced violence who have sought help has declined by 10 percent sinceNFHS-3 (2005-06), when it was 24 percent.The majority (65%) of the 15-49 year old women who reported seeking help, sought help from their own (natal) family, while only 3 percent approached the police.

We saw that nearly one-fourth of 15-49 year old women in India have witnessed physical or sexual violence in the 12 months preceding the survey both during NFHS 3 (2005-06) and NFHS 4 (2015-16). Cases under the crime head ‘Cruelty by husband or his relatives’ stand at more than a lakh in the country and account for 28 percent of all crimes against women. Dowry deaths, despite widespread agitations, have not only continued, but number at more than seven thousand in the country today. Yet only 14 percent of the women who experienced physical or sexual violence in 2015-16, actually sought help.

Domestic violence is thus a hidden reality in many Indian homes, which only occasionally comes out of its hiding when an unfortunate woman loses her life and the truth cannot be ignored anymore. The beatings, the injuries, the abuses tend to become every day routine violence that household members including the perpetrator and the victim, accept, which the neighbours choose not to interfere in considering it a ‘domestic’ matter, where anecdotal experience indicates that the police are often reluctant to file an FIR upon complaint. In this light, although it is very disturbing that the present lockdown is accompanied by a rise in domestic violence within the supposedly ‘safe’ homes, it is also a positive signal that women are turning towards available helplines for reporting this crime. The efforts on the part of the government and the feminist and civil society organizations can be effective only when the victims gain the courage to step forward. Acknowledging the crime and reporting it may well be the most crucial step towards fighting this all-pervasive evil.


  1. National Family Health Surveys Rounds 3 and 4, International Institute for Population Sciences, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
  2. National Crime Records Bureau, statistics for ‘Crime in India’, various years.
  3. Sen, Samita and NanditaDhawan (2011), ‘Feminism and the Politics of Gender: A History of the Indian Women’s Movements’ in ‘Mapping the Field: Gender Relations in Contemporary India, Vol I’ eds. Banerjee, Nirmala, SamitaSen and NanditaDhawan.

End Notes:


2. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/12/domestic-violence-surges-seven-hundred-per-cent-uk-coronavirus

3. Henceforth Cruelty

4. NFHS 4 India full report accessed at http://rchiips.org/NFHS/NFHS-4Reports/India.pdf

By: Tanuka Endow, Professor, Institute for Human Development, Delhi

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