Mitigating the risk of ‘Intimate Terrorism’ in the time of Covid-19 and other crises

“Stay home, be safe” is the mantra these days. Lockdown, work-from-home, physical or the social distancing, isolation and quarantine are the buzzwords. While we can distance from our friends, neighbours and strangers, can we distance ourselves from our families, spouses and partners? Is home a safe place for all of us?

During the outbreak of the epidemics, people are not able to go out much. It means confinement with the abusers; and being the victims of ‘intimate terrorism.’ Prolonged isolations and lockdowns means interpersonal conflicts grow bigger and more frequent. Psychological trauma may follow when people are kept together for a long time within a confined space. People are vulnerable as many are not at work and don’t have the protective cover of other family members and colleagues. The movement restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus may make violence in homes more frequent, severe and dangerous. The increasing tension may lead to escalation of tension in the relationship due to proximity and monotony.

As in every calamity and national crisis, His Majesty the King has been at the forefront of fighting the spread of the virus in Bhutan. His Majesty has commanded us to demonstrate solidarity and to take care of each other in these challenging times. The government, law enforcement agencies, De-Suups and our people should be commended for rallying behind the leadership of His Majesty the King in containing the menace of the pandemic and maintaining social order in the country.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called for an urgent action to combat the worldwide surge in domestic violence. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” he said. 

The renowned medical journal, The Lancet recently published data from around the world, revealing a stark spike in reports of domestic violence. There is anxiety over joblessness and economic hardship, which poses a threat to the masculine identity when men are no longer able to ‘provide’ for their families. Afflicted with a high level of rage due to losing income, abusers are likely to vent out emotions on the people around them. Studies show that some men will react with aggressiveness and force to regain a sense of power and control. Others resort to drinking more alcohol as a coping mechanism. 

Even in normal times, conflicts and domestic violence go up whenever families and friends spend more time together. Women and girls are at an increased risk of all forms of abuse-based violence as they are trapped with their perpetrators. Trends indicate when we lockdown our towns and cities we reduce crimes in the streets, i.e., there is drop in the crimes between the strangers and acquaintances; but at the same time, when we put people in close proximity at homes, we also ‘create’ opportunities for conflicts and crimes. Normally, the perpetrators might have been going out to work, playing sports, socialising, etc. The lockdowns close all these exits and compel people to spend more time together – exposing more people to violence. 

There will also be increased opportunities for perpetrators to exert control about leaving the house, access to financial resources or enforcing certain behaviours. What is worse, the crucial state and social support services such as the courts, police, NGOs, shelters and family members become out of reach; i.e., the resources and services that we usually rely on to tackle abuse and violence are likely to be hampered in times of crises. Moreover, victims may not want to go to a domestic violence shelter and live with fellow-victims and strangers during the public crisis. 

The common tools of abuse seem to be isolation from friends, family and employment; constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behaviour; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities. According to media reports, perpetrators use the isolation and fear about the coronavirus to control and intimidate their victims. Some abusers are reported to be telling their victims that if they leave homes they are going to contact the virus; some are even stopping them from visiting hospitals for medical check-ups. 

Since the lockdown-restrictions were placed, according to the media, the domestic violence figures have risen and women and girls especially are vulnerable to the increasing domestic violence – where husbands, fathers and partners are the principal suspects.  The question is, is the Corona virus to be blamed for the increasing domestic violence? Has the pandemic created more numbers of violent perpetrators?  Actually, the virus has not produced more number of violent people. But it has indeed changed the situations in which, especially men can indulge in the abusive conducts. Some men justify that they are pushed to violence due to ‘Corona pressures.’ 

People don’t seem to need serious reasons to hurt and kill these days. Telling our partners to leave the house for the suspected symptoms of Corona virus is enough. However, since Corona virus itself hasn’t created more killers we cannot exonerate the behaviour of violent men by blaming the virus. The media has rightly placed the blame on the violent men instead of the virus. Men’s controlling and domineering behaviour, their sense of entitlement and belief that women are there to serve them seem to exacerbate the situation. 

There has already been a spike in women seeking help and support from domestic abuse worldwide. But more than that, we can anticipate a rise in number of complaints of domestic cases when the lockdown measures end and normalcy returns. This is because lockdowns make it more difficult for women to seek help and access grievance forums. Often, it is difficult even to make phone calls when they are trapped in the same house as the abusers. In worst cases, some women might not even have access to telephone or the internet services. The face-to-face support services which they have been accessing are often not readily available during the crises. 

Our judiciary has also taken swift measures to adapt to the new situation by adopting a Covid-19 Response Plan. The Plan entails practical ideas how courts can continue to keep the ‘wheel of justice’ moving with minimal physical contacts between the judicial personnel and the consumers of justice. 

Furthermore, the judiciary is also developing rules and regulations for electronic litigations. It is envisaged that most judicial procedures from the registration and filing of a case, all the way through to the actual hearing and orders could be done remotely. This will not only minimise the risk of spreading infectious diseases, but it will also greatly enhance access to justice. In some respects, Covid-19 has accelerated our ambitions to move into a future in which we use less paper, travel less, and become far more efficient with both time and resources.

The Covid-19 crisis has also underscored the need to reinforce the resilience of our communities by nurturing our cultural practices of peacefully addressing and resolving the disputes. While our legal system continues to resolve disputes which reach courts and take swift actions against the perpetrators, it is perhaps even more important to seek to prevent the violence from occurring in the first place. Besides, we are not a litigious society. We have always resolved our differences and disputes amicably for ages with the help of Nangkha Nangdrig – a customary dispute resolution system with the help of community leaders. This assumes importance at a time when the state services and social forums are disrupted. We can mutually compromise our disputes swiftly with little or no face to face meetings and contacts, over the telephones between the parties or with the assistance of the mediators.

Perhaps Bhutan can prove to the rest of the world that we are, indeed a nation steeped in the timeless Buddhist values of compassion, tolerance and peace; that we do not have to accept that violence and abuse will inevitably follow in the wake of pandemics, earthquakes or floods. Most importantly, those suffering domestic abuse and violence should be able to seek emergency help and be able to leave house to escape an abusive relationship and ‘intimate terrorism’.

Contributed by 

Lobzang Rinzin Yargay and Marcus Baltzer