Warriors keep fighting for women, even during pandemic

Seema Samridhi and Sunil Jaglan are just two of the many silent fighters who help women in staying safe as cases of domestic violence rise across the country, writes Pari Saikia

When three men in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum perpetrated the crime of raping a 12-year-old girl — resulting in her being pregnant and giving birth to a child, it didn’t echo in the mainland India nor made any headline. The family, not being able to bear the stigma, tried hard to marry her off to her accuser on several occasions.

Then, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur, a neighbour raped a 15-year-old girl with the help of his wife. When the girl tried to raise an alarm, the couple sprayed petrol on her, setting her on fire. Few days later, she succumbed to her burn injuries fighting for justice.

In Haryana, a 16-year-old girl was nearly killed supposedly to protect her family’s ‘honour’ because of her relationship with a man from Dalit caste. No action was taken against her parents nor was any assurance of protection given to the girl by the administration.

Again, an overwhelming 700 domestic violence cases were registered in Punjab during the lockdown period between March 20 and April 20.

Similarly, other cases like domestic violence, dowry harassment, sexual assaults, mental abuse, etc. have seen a thumping rise in Assam, West Bengal, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, and almost all over India. All these incidents are just a few examples of gender-based violence which don’t shake the conscience of the country.

The surge in gender-based violence is attributed to the lockdown where survivors are trapped in the same space with their tormentors, round the clock, leaving a bare minimum scope to escape the harassment. As a result, the women are becoming the only targets for the abusers to vent out their anger in the form of physical, mental or verbal assault.

In a report released in July, the National Commission for Women (NCW) said it received 2,043 complaints related to crimes against women in June alone, the highest since September, last year. Of the 2,043 complaints, 452 were of domestic violence, 603 were about mental and emotional abuse, 78 were related to rape and attempt to rape and 38 complaints were related to sexual harassment.

The NCW data also showed that there were 252 complaints of harassment of married women and dowry harassment followed by 194 complaints of outraging modesty of women and molestation. The commission also revealed that it had received 13 complaints of police apathy towards women and 100 complaints of cyber crime.

Warriors speak

In a brief conversation with Tehelka, Seema Samridhi, the lawyer who fought a relentless battle for seven years to get justice for Nirbhaya — the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case—shared that she has received as many as 400 complaints of crime against women during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“The Covid-19 lockdown has delayed the judicial processes in solving cases, especially, matters related to crime against women. Even though the virtual hearings are regularly going on, what has become more difficult than before is to get the gender-based violence cases to hearing,” said Samridhi, who is currently managing her work from Patna.

“I am constantly engaged in guiding vulnerable and affected women in approaching legal channels to get justice. I have also counselled a lot of women who have been the victims of violence and harassment during lockdown, and I do all of this without any charge,” she added.

So, what are the challenges women face while taking legal course?

According to Samridhi, in 50 per cent rape cases, police officials try to portray the complainants as accused by casting doubt on them, expressing disbelief, questioning their credibility and showing bias towards the perpetrators. “Rather than being empathetic and following their legal duties, they would cross-question the women alleging rape, making it difficult for them to even decide to risk approaching the police,” she adds.

Samridhi, who is a renowned Supreme Court lawyer, after completing her law degree quickly moved to take up the Nirbhaya case which had rocked the nation during 2012. Her resolve and determination to legally help women in distress has made her a messiah for the countless victims of violence and rape. Currently stuck in her home town Patna, Samridhi says she is being flooded with calls of distress from the state, from women suffering violence at the hands of their families. She came across a case from Gopalgunj in which a minor girl who had been raped failed to get any help from the police. The minor girl was being raped by her father continuously for four years. Similarly, she witnessed other cases where minors were raped in the districts of Bhagalpur, Jamui and Nawada, some of whom ended their lives due to the lack of apathy from their families and the police. Samridhi is fighting tooth and nail for their rights and justice now.

“It’s appalling to witness a failing system, in which the administration and police do nothing to help the hapless women being tortured by their families. I have come across a large number of cases where the authorities actually exacerbated the mental crisis of women escaping from torture, forcing them to end their lives. It’s painful to witness this as a woman, Samridhi says. 

No ‘honour’ in gender violence

The situation is similar in other states of the country. The state of Haryana is seeing rising incidents of domestic violence in the time of Covid-19. The state of women safety in Haryana continues to be in jeopardy, with the state grappling with one of the highest crime rates against women in the country.

The Covid-19 lockdown has only worsened the situation with hundreds of reports of violence and harassment against women being reported from the state. The lockdown has also given the harassers a free pass to commit offences and walk away with impunity. With most of the men restricted to their homes in these trying times, the gender-based violence cases have surged.

According to the data by Haryana State Commission for Women, the state has seen a 78 per cent increase in crime against women between March 22 and April 28. In April alone, there were 66 rapes incidents in Haryana (17 gang-rape, 45 rapes and four cases of elopement with rape).

During a webinar on rape culture in June, 25-year-old Asha*, a woman participant from Uttar Pradesh, revealed that her family members are constantly pushing her to end her life because she was raped in March. Instead of extending support in her fight against the rapist, her character and nature of crime is being questioned. Asha’s revelation encouraged many females from Haryana to speak about their ordeal on rape, sexual assaults and other forms of violence. And, in none of the cases, the survivors have received any kind of support, leave justice and respect.

Thanks to feminist and activist like Sunil Jaglan from Haryana, whose webinar on rape culture encourage woman like Aisha to come out of the closet and fight the world. Jaglan, who is better known for coming up with ‘Selfie With Daughter Foundation,’ the initiative which was later taken up by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the nation, says he faces a lot of resistance mainly from families for taking up the causes of women.

“The society here is orthodox and such an environment is deeply troubling for a woman. The gender-based violence is increased to such an extent that I get at least two distress calls in a day from the victims. The highest cases in Haryana relate to domestic violence, followed by honour killings, then rapes and sexual assaults,” he says.

Sunil says that in most of such cases, it is the family members itself who are the perpetrators, leading to a rise in suicide cases amongst female complainants in the state. He says in a highly male-dominated state such as Haryana, the time of the pandemic makes things worse when families spend all of the time together at home.

“I have been trying at my own level to spread awareness through video-conferencing with village men and women, youth, panchayats, social workers, etc. Currently, the digital medium is the only way to connect with people in the rural heartlands and far-flung areas. It’s a challenge to reach assistance to such places in these times. However, there has been an encouraging response to the endeavours and I am planning many more programmes in the coming days to educate men and women in such issues,” Sunil says.

The internet as the saviour

However, there is a silver lining even in these trying times. The proliferation of the internet with social media platforms has enabled more and more women to seek help online and share their ordeal with friends.The access to the internet has given women the power and space to report cases of violence and seek help.

The NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma was quoted as saying during a media interaction, “The complaints have increased because we are very active on social media now and we are registering cases from Twitter and other social media platforms too. We have a WhatsApp number for reporting cases which was not in place earlier. People know that we are helping and that’s why they have more faith in us.”

The digital platform is also helping Khaps in the states such as Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to participate in online Khap using Zoom app to address issues related to violence against women. The initiative to connect Khaps in the time of lockdown is being led by Sunil Jaglan. The initiative has brought together the representatives of various Khap panchayats to address the issue of domestic violence, honour killings, rapes and sexual assault of minors.

On being asked about the advice for vulnerable women in these times, lawyer Seema Samridhi gave a number of suggestions.

“Firstly, it’s important that a woman keeps sharing the events with a close and trusted person. She has to keep one person privy, so that that person can become the witness in case the woman approaches the court in the future. Secondly, all the women should keep the important contacts police helpline numbers, domestic violence helpline numbers, state women commission number, NGOs, medical emergency, or any lawyer and save some numbers as SOS (if the person has mobile phone) to use them during any untoward incident. Whether you are a victim or not, it is important for everyone to keep emergency contacts,” Samridhi adds.

Her third advice is financially empowerment. “Life after separation can be agonising and the victims often don’t get any compensation even after involving the courts. So, it is important for women to be financially empowered. Get into the job sector, engage in some activity which gains you money, or find a job suitable to your skills, hobbies. Also, women (including housewives) should learn to save money even if it is a penny, but it counts. This financial empowerment will instil confidence to face the world with pride and live with dignity.”

In the end, she says, we should all be supporting women who are suffering any form of violence or harassment at the hands of their families. The system has to ensure optimum participation of women in judiciary, administration, executive and other departments to make a healthy and conducive environment for equality, respect, safety and a fair trial.