Jammu & Kashmir High Court: A Division Bench of Gita Mittal, CJ and Rajnesh Oswal, J. took suo motu cognizance of increasing domestic violence cases against women during COVID-19 lockdown and suggested measures to handle the situation. The Court also passed direction upon the Government and various authorities. The matter was directed to be listed as a writ petition in public interest (PIL).
“Even at the best of the time, women and girls face tremendous barriers in accessing means to meet for help and securing justice. Illiteracy, financial incapacity; ignorance of available assistance; family and societal barriers; fear of formal institutions like police; insufficient legal aid; lack of information, etc impede women and girls from accessing resources against domestic violence being faced by them.”
Observing that unfortunately all crises disproportionately impact women, the High Court noted that globally, while the pandemic is having a tremendous negative impact on societies and economies, the adverse social and economic consequences of the pandemic for women and girls are devastating. As the lockdown is implemented, societies as a whole are having reduced access to resources. There is increase in stress due to loss of jobs and strained finances. Lack of income, unemployment, insecurity about the future or the fate of children creates tensions amongst the adults leading to abuse of all kinds. This is exaggerated in families with prior histories of such behaviour. Women and children are found to be specially vulnerable to such domestic violence which has seen a worldwide spike.
“… the biggest obstacle to a woman seeking assistance against abuse and domestic violence is the fact she has to go against intimate domestic partners or her own family members.”
Looking at the stats, the latest data released by National Commission for Women, within a week after the lockdown began on March 24, a total of 257 complaints relating to crime against women, have been received by its Complaint and Investigation Cell. This data, shows a steep rise during the lockdown, compared with the figures available for the week between March 2-8, that stands at a total of 116 complaints. The cases of domestic violence, specially, rose to 69 from 30.
“The lack of enforcement as well as alternative source of residence also impedes women filing complaints with officials or the police. There is also a huge trust deficit.”
It was noted that one factor in the mode of lodging a complaint, which has been noticed in India, is the inability of women and children from the economic weaker sections of the Indian society to accessing online platforms for assistance. Any measure for assistance to victims of domestic violence must provide for women and children from this group.
Judicial notice was taken of the fact that plight of victims of domestic violence in the UTs of J&K and Ladakh must be no different as that of similarly placed victims in other jurisdictions. It was held that to ensure adequate means and tools to address domestic violence to victims in these two Union Territories, women’s leadership and adequate contributions must also be at the heart of the COVID-19 planning and implementation measures.
Adverting to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005: the statutory mechanism in existence for protection of rights of women who are victims of violence of any kind occurring within the family, the Court stated that a duty is cast upon the Government under Section 11(a) to take all measures to give wide publicity to the provisions of the law through public media including the electronic and the print media.
Considering gravity of the situation, the High Court suggested following measures to grant immediate assistance:
(i) Creation of dedicated funding to address issues of violence against women and girls as part of the COVID-19 response by the Union Territories of the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
(ii) Increased availability of call-in services to facilitate discreet reporting of abuse.
(iii) Increased tele/online legal and counselling service for women and girls.
(iv) Designated informal safe spaces for women, say grocery stores and pharmacies, where they can report domestic violence/abuse without alerting the perpetrators.
(v) Immediate designation of safe spaces (say for instance empty hotels/education institutions etc.) as shelters for women who are compelled to leave their domestic situation. These shelters must be treated as accessible shelters.
(vi) Giving urgent publicity to information regarding all of the above measures as also the availability of the facilities for seeking relief and redressal against the issues of domestic violence.
(vii) Increasing awareness campaigns on all aspects of the issues.
The Court also passed certain directions on various authorities:
(a) Secretary, Department of Social Welfare; Governments of UTs of J&K and Ladakh; and the Member Secretary, J&K State Legal Services Authority, will submit a report informing about the steps taken regarding domestic or any other kind of violence being faced by the women on account of the implementation of the COVID-19 lockdown.
(b) Secretary, Department of Social Welfare; Governments of UTs of J&K and Ladakh; and the Member Secretary, J&K State Legal Services Authority, will examine suggestions given by the Court as enlisted above as also the innovative measures taken by countries world over and the spotlight initiative taken up by the United Nations. The said authorities will take a view regarding requirements and steps to be taken to mitigate the sufferings of the victims of domestic violence in the Union Territories.
(c) A report of measures in place, steps underway, and those contemplated, be placed before the Court before 28th April, 2020, the next date of hearing.
(d) The Secretaries of the J&K Legal Services Authority shall call for list of all cases involving cases of domestic violence which are pending as complaints with the police stations in the Union Territories or in the courts and ascertain the safety and well being of the complainants.
(e) All the courts in the UTs of J&K and Ladakh shall treat cases of domestic abuse as urgent and proceed with the matters in accordance with the Circulars issued regarding the procedure to be followed ensuring social distancing.
Advocate Monika Kohli is appointed as an amicus curiae and the matter has been directed to be listed next on 28th April, 2020 for further consideration. [Court on its own Motion v. UTs of J&K and Ladakh, WP(C) PIL No. (unnumbered) of 2020, dated 16-4-2020]