What It’s Like to Be a Social Worker Answering Domestic Abuse Calls During the Lockdown

Social Commentary

What It’s Like to Be a Social Worker Answering Domestic Abuse Calls During the Lockdown

Before the lockdown was announced, Divya Taneja’s life was busy enough. Having to shuffle between various Mumbai police stations, where she is tasked with answering distress calls, and shelters set up for domestic abuse victims, from where she must follow up on all the reports, is no job for the faint-hearted.

But since the lockdown was imposed over the coronavirus pandemic, Divya’s life has suddenly become a whole lot tougher. The 50-year-old social worker now must work a 24-hour shift from the confines of her Mulund home, having to answer distress calls that pour in at all times of the day and night.

Divya is one of the 200-plus employees of 123 special cells across Maharashtra who are tasked with answering calls for a helpline recently launched by the police, in association with the Akshara Centre. Callers dial in to 100 or 103. Some of these calls are from elderly folk, who live alone and have no access to food and medicine, others are made by women who just need someone to talk to.

But most, sadly, deal with cases of domestic violence and abuse.

There has been a sharp rise in domestic violence since the lockdown was imposed, not just in India but across the world. The National Commission for Women recently estimated that the number of cases had almost doubled in the first two weeks alone.

Divya concedes that the lockdown period has truly been the most staggering challenge in terms of domestic abuse.

No one is more aware of this fact than Divya and her colleagues. Having been a counsellor for nearly two decades, and hence very familiar with the constraints of her job, she concedes that the lockdown period has truly been the most staggering challenge in terms of domestic abuse.

“The calls to the helpline have increased because of increased awareness,” she says. “But the resources at our disposal have been severely affected. It is all new for us.”

One particularly disturbing call that Divya received one night was proof of this.

The call came in from a Mumbai-based woman, who said her husband had been getting increasingly violent since the lockdown came into effect.

Usually in situations like this, Divya makes detailed plans with the woman to ensure her safety. These plans could include anything from opening a window in the middle of the day and shouting for help, or keeping anything that could potentially be used as a weapon out of reach. In extreme cases, the woman is moved to a shelter home.

This call, Divya could tell, required immediate intervention. Since no one could leave their homes, Divya sent the police over to the house twice in the following week. But the violence didn’t stop.

So Divya tried contacting a shelter home, run by an NGO, before running into yet another roadblock. The shelter said it would need a Covid-19-free certification before they allowed the woman or her child to enter. Since the tests are notoriously hard to procure, the woman was left with no choice but to wait it out at home with her abusive partner.

Eventually once the lockdown restrictions began to ease, the woman managed to get back to her parents’ home. But Divya won’t forget that week, in which she felt absolutely helpless. To add to her woes she had begun taking as many as five distress calls a day.

Social workers, who are tasked with answering helplines, usually maintain a directory of numbers. This includes contact details of hospitals, NGOs, and shelter homes across the country that can be contacted in case of emergencies.

All through the lockdown, Divya has received dozens of such calls, from women as young as 19 to even men in their late 80s.

But the lockdown had rendered this directory almost useless, given that for the first few weeks social workers weren’t even considered essential employees. “It slowly changed once we spoke to police and sensitised them on the work we do,” Divya says.

This sensitisation ended up coming in use for another call, in which a woman from Dadar said she was driven out of her home by her abusive husband, who also claimed custody of their child. She had nowhere to go.

The woman eventually managed to find her way back to her parents’ home thanks to the police and Divya’s intervention. Weeks later, after the police paid her husband a visit, the couple said they had even managed to reach a consensus, and the woman moved back into her home. Divya still follows up with her every few days to make sure she’s okay.

But the police knocking on the family’s door is not always the best way to resolve a toxic situation, Divya concedes. In cases where the husband is an alcoholic, or likely to turn more abusive after a visit by the police, she says, the best case scenario is that a neighbour, or a family member, steps in. The woman is also advised to find an alternate number to call from, or a safe space from where to send the distress call.

In one such situation, where a Pune-based woman said she was being mistreated at her in-laws’ house, denied food, and subject to a great deal of emotional abuse, Divya decided to handle things slightly differently.

Rather than confront the in-laws head-on, Divya asked the police to surreptitiously correspond with the woman — whose neighbours were gracious enough to take her in — and provide her with daily home-cooked meals. Weeks later, during which a number of follow-up calls were made, the woman was able to leave her in-laws and the abusive home for good and move back to her parents’ home.

I need to empathise with each person, and offer them solutions that work for them.

All through the lockdown, Divya has received dozens of such calls, from women as young as 19 to even men in their late 80s. The callers had either no way to get access to medication and food, or had suddenly fallen ill, or were victims of violence in their homes.

It’s always a question, she says, on how we should react. “We have several strategies to deal with these calls. While some need serious intervention, some callers are just looking for someone to vent to. We need to take a call on what to do immediately.”

Divya tries to treat each call as a separate challenge. “These are not just ‘cases’ for me. I need to empathise with each person, and offer them solutions that work for them. Otherwise there’s no point in me doing this job,” she says.

Luckily, she adds, she has a family who is very supportive and understands the nature of her job, and hence don’t put much pressure on her to juggle home responsibilities.

“I live in a joint family with both children and elderly folk. Since everybody is at home, I need my own personal space to take these calls, and help these women.”

With the lockdown now close to seeing an end, Divya hopes that things may return to normal soon, and social workers will be able to once again make house calls, and escort women to police stations, where they will be safe. But, even when that happens, she isn’t likely to forget the unprecedented obstacles that the last few months have thrown up.

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