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… of which 7 are men 

Yangchen C Rinzin

The nationwide lockdown that succeeded in saving many from Covid-19 has trapped those vulnerable persons at home with their abusers spiking cases of gender-based violence.

With the country reporting positive Covid-19 cases every day, more domestic violence helplines and shelters are also seeing more calls for help.

According to records with the Respect Educate Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW) and National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) show that there were domestic violence cases of emotional, physical and economic abuse after the lockdown.

RENEW received 41 gendered-based violence cases from 11 dzongkhags in the past 12 days. That includes seven cases where the victims were men and a case of sexual abuse.

Two cases were referred to mental health personnel for intervention and about three cases were referred to police custody, as it posed threat to the partner.

Of the 47 cases reported across the dzongkhags, NCWC saw the highest number of cases reported in Thimphu dzongkhag and thromde with 25 cases. Chukha and Sarpang reported the second-highest number of cases with four each.

NCWC saw 70 cases in the first lockdown which lasted 21 days.

Majority of the gender-based violence cases was as a result of harmful socio-cultural perceptions and unequal gender power relations within the household. Many cases reported and rescued were physical violence against women triggered by alcohol.

Some men reached out for help because of the emotional abuse at home and wanted to stay away to avoid quarrelling at home. One incident involved a brawl between husband and wife.

In many incidents, women were abused physically almost every day.

One of the victims was a 24-year-old woman. She was four months pregnant and had an 11-month old child. 

She was abused every day and had to seek help to get away from her husband.

In another incident, the woman was physically abused and was thrown out of the house in the middle of the night.

There are also cases where victims sought help from neighbours and a few ran away from home to escape domestic violence.

A few incidents also involved women and children stranded because of the lockdown and they were rescued to send back home.

Programme Director of RENEW, Meenakshi Rai (PhD) said that the record only shows those reported cases and that there could be many unreported incidents. “Because many women feel it is ok to bear it.”

“Many could be locked inside the house and unaware of how to reach for help,” she said.

Some cases show that women have been bearing physical abuse for a minimum of three years to a maximum of 15 years.

In such cases, women are advised to either get help quickly, hold on to the neighbour or run away to the nearest help centre if the violence is life-threatening.

Interventions

The increasing number of reported cases could be due to quick response and intervention, according to RENEW and NCWC officials. The intervention came as a quick response from both agencies working round the clock to protect such victims.

Most of these victims were rescued and kept at the temporary shelters established in 20 dzongkhags since the first day of the second lockdown. Those who did not want to remain at the centres were sent to their relatives and families.

The victims are given counselling at the shelter, livelihood support, and their other logistic needs are taken care.

The toll-free 1010 and multi-sectoral taskforce under the health ministry and community-based support system have also helped in reaching out to the victims.

NCWC also attends to their toll-free number 1098 that is open throughout the day. DeSuups and police help to rescue victims from their homes.

Meenakshi Rai said that shelters have come at the right time and have made a lot of difference where they are able to address the issue immediately.

“It was challenging in the first lockdown without proper shelter and no place to rescue women. The shelter is provided as a home where they cannot go anywhere during this lockdown,” she said.

These incidents have shown that it was time the government respond to the need for permanent shelters in all dzongkhags to address such cases in future.

NCWC’s protection unit, counsellor Tashi Dorji said that as much as possible, they first try to counsel the victims through the phone because of health protocols right now.

“Such interventions are making victims courageous or encouraged to call for help. There are women who cannot seek help, as they cannot move out anywhere because of the lockdown,” she said.

Shadow pandemic

The shadow pandemic refers to the pandemic that is occurring beside the Covid-19 pandemic, the gender-based violence. But the gender-based violence is often shadowed— under-reported and not receiving the attention it requires.

Many said it was time the government recognise this as a key issue and invest in terms of human and financial resources to address them.

NCWC’s officiating director Ugyen Tshomo said that with lockdown and movement restricted, loss of jobs, the tension in the house, lack of social activity, the violence has become rampant inside the four walls.

“We must stay resilient and respond immediately. Women are not aware of access to support and services,” Ugyen Tshomo said.

Former NCWC executive director, Kunzang Lhamu said that the violence-accepting attitude would only be compounded during these times when the perpetrator is on the edge with consumption of alcohol.

“Protection services especially gender-based violence and violence against children should have formed an integral part of the Covid-19 or any other emergency related mitigation and response framework,” she said.

She said that it was overlooked and not identified as critical service so, it must be part of the national disaster and emergency framework.

Depending on the situation and cases, if victims prefer, partners would be called and the issues sorted out for the victims to return home. 

However, if the case is severe, both agencies would not compromise and deal accordingly.

“We only aim to empower them for livelihood and ensure they are safe,” Tashi Dorji said.

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