Between March 26 and April 12, the national emergency helpline received 769 calls related to violence against women
As the coronavirus makes the rounds across the country, claiming lives and hogging all the attention, another epidemic brews in its shadow.
On April 15, Feni resident Obaidul Haque Tutul painted a vivid picture of this social disease with blood. Despite having been married to the "love of his life" for five years, he murdered his wife Tahmina Akhter and streamed the whole incident live on
Facebook. Signs of agony, frustration and vengeance could clearly be seen on his face as he hacked his wife to death.
Neighbours assume Tutul, reportedly a drug addict, had been frustrated as his wife failed to fetch dowry from her family.
Another young and educated woman Rubaba (pseudonym) shared her experience with The Business Standard. Married to a schizophrenic patient undergoing psychiatric treatment, her life quickly turned violent when Bangladesh enforced a countrywide shutdown.
As her husband stays home all day and cannot go outside, he has turned paranoid, aggressive and violent. He often beats Rubaba and abuses her whenever he gets stressed, frustrated or when he panics.
Between March 26 and April 12, the national emergency helpline received 769 calls related to violence against women, which is higher than usual.
"The number of domestic violence related calls to our associated organisations has increased. Our field-level staff also observed a rising trend in domestic violence," said Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
However, he pointed out, the organisations are feeling helpless as they cannot provide the vulnerable with legal aid as the victim support shelters are not operating at the moment and chambers of legal advisors are also closed.
"We urge the Ministry for Women and Children Affairs and the Ministry for Social Welfare to make the local administrations aware of this issue and send directives to the field levels, including the upazila levels, to arrange support for these women," Debapriya added.
Although there is no particular data, Ain O Shalish Kendra's (ASK) report shows the number of domestic violence cases surged from 29 to 42 from January to March – it has been following a rising trajectory.
"When people with different opinions and views live under the same roof, violence happens," said Nina Goswami, senior deputy director of ASK. "This is not happening just in Bangladesh, but around the world. We do not have any reported cases as offices are closed, but we are receiving a lot of phone calls on our helplines."
To support these women, ASK refers the cases to the Victim Support Centre of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), or to local police stations, Nina added.
Advocate Fawzia Karim Firoze, president of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), said domestic violence was prevalent even before the lockdown, so there is no possibility of it declining during the shutdown.
"Violence always escalates during times of insecurity, frustration and crises. As the country has plunged into uncertainty, it is a common phenomenon. We are receiving calls for help in our hotline numbers.
"But we cannot aid or support them as we do not have shelters for them at this moment," Fawzia said.
Support in Bangladesh
Despite a shutdown, the Victim Support Centre of DMP is open to assist the victims.
Seeking anonymity, a senior police official of the centre, said, "We are receiving less complaints now. But we are always open to help the victims. The chambers of counselors and legal advisors associated with us are closed.
"But if any victim comes to us, we will certainly help them. We will connect them to the counselors and legal advisors over phone," the official said.
The centre will also refer serious or emergency cases to police stations closer to where the victims are located.
The Bangladesh Mahila Parishad has stepped up awareness building programmes on this issue through press conferences, TV talk shows and radio shows, informed Maleka Banu, general secretary of the organisation.
Just a few days ago at 2am, Fawzia Khandoker, founder of women's welfare NGO Pragroshor, received a phone call. A woman had been thrown out of her house by her husband at that hour.
Fawzia provided the woman with mental support and counselled her. She also informed the police, who then dropped the lady off at her mother's place.
Pragroshor has bolstered an online counselling service to support victims of domestic abuse. They also have a plan to open a hotline number and set up a shelter after discussing the matter over with the DMP Victim Support Centre.
Global spike in domestic abuse
The United Nations in a study titled "The Impact of Covid-19 on Women" has recently shown that all forms of violence – especially domestic violence against women and girls – have surged globally.
At least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings have been reported in the UK between March 23 and April 12 – three times higher than the average number of such murders over the last 10 years, according to The Guardian.
Complaints at the National Domestic Abuse helpline have gone up by 25 percent since the lockdown was enforced. And the UK government has announced a package of £750 million to support vulnerable victims during this period.
Even India's National Commission for Women (NCW) has registered 587 domestic violence complaints in 25 days in between March 23 and April 16 – which was 396 complaints received in the previous 25 days.
In France and Cyprus, cases of domestic violence increased by 30 percent since March 17, while in Argentina, the rate is 25 percent higher, and in Singapore it is 33 percent higher than usual.
People in first world countries like Canada, Germany, Spain, UK and the US are demanding emergency shelters and victim support centres during the lockdowns.
Bangladesh allocated $8.5 billion as emergency stimulus package to fight Covid-19 on April 5, but no amount has been explicitly allocated for emergency response to social crimes such as domestic violence.
Additional reporting by Sadia Rahman.