Over the past few days, pictures and videos have been flashing across social media and news channels showing heavy queues in front of BEVKO outlets. These are state-run liquor shops in Kerala that remained shut during the second wave of imposed lockdown. Since lockdown restrictions were lifted from 17th June, it meant liquor outlets could also start opening gradually. Liquor worth 52 crores was sold across the state after the first day of its reopening. It is important to note that Kerala still has the largest per capita consumption of alcohol in the country.
Reports from 26th June show how people from small villages along the Tamil Nadu border in Coimbatore were rushing to Palakkad district in Kerala to purchase alcohol. The closed shops in Tamil Nadu as part of the COVID containment protocol have induced border crossing solutions by the common man to fulfill the individual depravity for the drink.
The desperate faces with double masks and disguised smiles lining up in these beverages stores was an anticipated reality. A reality that could have been foreseen as part of the gradual opening up post the second wave of the coronavirus spread in India. A lot of these people will be returning to their own families and home after being exposed to crowded lines. These homes are intimate spaces where there are chances for alcohol-related violence to arise.
Before COVID pandemic- The time when there were no restrictions on alcohol sale
The stark reality that this helps us recollect is the relation between alcoholism and domestic violence across India and the world. A WHO report on 'intimate partner violence and alcohol' states the following:
“Alcohol use directly affects cognitive and physical function, reducing self-control and leaving individuals less capable of negotiating a non-violent resolution to conflicts within relationships”.
This statement is also societally verified through experiences around the world. WHO estimates that around 55% of domestic violence cases around the world involve the perpetrator being intoxicated before the assault. The same report also brings out an understanding of how alcoholism and domestic violence have been normalized to act together to such an extent that drinking alcohol is being used as a justification for hurting women in domestic spaces of the house.
It also mentions cases from around the world like Australia and Greenland where ‘restricted hours for alcohol sale’ and ‘coupon wise rationing systems’ significantly brought down cases of domestic abuse. Even mechanisms such as increasing prices, establishing treatment centers for alcoholism, and interventions as part of personal and professional care have been considered effective in reducing alcohol-induced domestic violence.
The temperance movement in parts of Europe and America which happened during the late 19th century and early 20th century promoted the need to ban the sale of alcohol. One of the pretexts here was to save family lives and reduce violence. It even influenced the prohibition of alcohol in some states and union territories of India namely- Gujarat, Bihar, Nagaland, Lakshadweep, and Mizoram from the year 1948.
The NCRB report from 2019 states that out of 4.05 lakh cases registered under crimes against women, 31% are cases involving spousal/husband-related cruelties. Alcohol abuse may not be the prime reason for all these cases but there is evidence that most of the abusers are drinkers.
Prices are currently hiked for alcohol in the states where alcohol can be sold legally in India, and most of the revenue from its sales goes to the government's pocket. Alcohol like petrol, diesel, and power does not come under the purview of GST and hence the government can directly tax them and earn huge cash inflows based on demand.
The advent of COVID - 19 Pandemic (2020)-Nationwide lockdown period
Considering the previous given context, people can insinuate an idea about how a lockdown with no sale of alcohol can potentially bring down cases of domestic violence, especially during a pandemic. In fact, some organizations suggested a further ban on the sale of alcohol after the pandemic lockdown to tackle domestic violence on a large scale. But this analytic is not true, especially if we are to consider the case of India specifically.
Data from the National Commission of Women, NCRB, and experiences of individual organizations indicate how there has been an increase in domestic violence since the initial lockdown period in 2020.
An article from May 2020 indicates how a Mumbai charity called Sneha saw a fourfold increase in calls regarding domestic violence propagated by unemployed husbands since the lockdown in March. This is also the same time when there were alcohol bans throughout the country. On the other hand, a decrease in domestic violence-related calls was found in organizations like Jagori, Shakti Stali, and AKS Foundation- all organizations working against gender-specific crimes.
Alternatively, a report published by the ‘Centre for Global Development’ about 'violence against women and children during COVID-19' indicates a research document that correlates the increase of domestic violence in India during the lockdown. This has concurred as a combination of three major factors- alcohol withdrawal, unemployment, and frustration. Here alcohol withdrawal is considered a factor rather than alcohol abuse itself for the increase in domestic violence.
But is it just the frustration of not having access to alcohol or a job that induced the increase in domestic violence during the initial lockdown?
Even though alcohol withdrawal is a factor, ‘the lack of visibility and alienation to the four walls of the house with a potential abuser is considered a reason for this increase in violence.
The same report, which made its conclusions by analyzing 59 nationwide newspaper articles about domestic violence during the pandemic made conclusions such as lack of accessibility to resources like NGOs, police force, and other organizations as a reason for this rise.
Women were mostly trapped in their houses and unable to run out and seek help, be it professional aid at organizations or personal help, this could be the neighbor residing across your street or even a friend, close family member. Also, those who used to work and be in professional spaces for long hours did not have access to their previous safe-havens. These spaces which distanced them from their abusive husbands turned virtual as a result of the pandemic.
Even being constantly monitored in a household becomes a factor for not being able to call helplines after being subjected to domestic violence- This could be a reason why organizations like Jagori saw a decrease in calls during the lockdown.
Role of the state?
The state is agentic in tackling societal issues at large and the issue of alcoholism and domestic violence are part of the same issues which have become enlarged during the pandemic. Will the state make efforts to reduce alcohol supply by jeopardizing its revenue stream from it? Even if they do, will it make a difference for the safety of women in intimate spaces? The pandemic situation suggests something larger than liquor or drug abuse. But it doesn’t mean that a blind eye should be turned to alcoholism. The issue of social justice and the state's duty to fulfill it through the ban of alcohol is at a paradoxical full stop when we consider the increasing reported cases of domestic violence during the alcohol scarce period of the pandemic.
A year after the first COVID-19 lockdown, the National Commission for Women (NCW) still receives around 2000 cases a month regarding crime against women. Out of this 1/4th of the cases are related to domestic violence. Another statistic reveals that 2383 domestic violence cases have been recorded from January- May 2021 with the NCW. This is the highest since 2001. Even then, NFHS data also reveals how about 70% of women still remain silent regarding their traumatic experiences with their spouses.
After around 3 dowries related to violence/ intimidation deaths being reported over the last week in Kerala, the government has decided to bring out a helpline called Aparajitha, a 24*7 telephone line that can be used to report or complain about cybercrimes, domestic abuse, or any form of crime/violence against women. The Kerala government has also taken steps to bring in separate courts to try cases regarding crimes against women faster. These plans were announced on June 23rd and June 27th respectively.
The central government has also taken heed in tackling the issue of domestic violence. Yesterday, Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare attended a virtual training program for protection officers at the NCW and stressed the need to make such domains more accessible for aggrieved victims.
India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS) reveals that 49% of men justify a husband beating his wife as normal. The question ought to be addressed is why a woman's body is inscribed as a space to propagate violence? The concern addressed here sounds more societal rather than policy-driven.
The issue of alcoholism, drug abuse, and its relation to domestic violence all intersect with the traditions and rituals that justify the norms of society. These norms still allow social evils like the dowry system (legally banned) to exist, even though it is under the presupposition of giving gifts for the daughter bride.
However, when you keep the whitewashed glossy ritualistic meanings out of it, all it signifies is a contract. A contract where a woman is exchanged with a set amount of monetary rewards by the father to another man. It might sound harsh but there are multiple layers of underlying traditional and societal norms that conform to such forms of structural gender inequality and patriarchy. It also allows for these practices to be rejuvenated when an entire society grows up conditioned through these norms. The issue of domestic violence and the crimes against women lies in tackling these social inequalities by not allowing them to grow further on. There should not be a need where women will have to succumb to societal restraint/stigmas and live through abuse or oppression. Progressive reform and education can bring the change India needs.
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