Log Kya Kahenge – “What would people say”

Log Kya Kahenge –
„What would people say“


Social scientist Pankhuri tells us about domestic violence in India, the effects of the Corona pandemic on the current situation and possibilities to escape violence.



Capital: New Delhi
Languages: more than 447 spoken languages; Hindi and English are the official languages
Population: approx. 1.33 billion

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The outbreak of the corona pandemic and the subsequent lockdown in many countries had and continues to have serious consequences for the economic situation of states, companies, organisations and individuals around the world. The IMF puts the expected global recession in June 2020 at around 5% – epicentres of the pandemic like the USA expect an economic slump of at least 8% 1. Nevertheless, the global economic downturn is not the only threat that the corona pandemic has brought to light: Cases of domestic violence – especially violence against women – have increased significantly due to changes in public and private life.
India is the country most affected by corona in the world, after the USA and Brazil, in terms of both infections and deaths. In the meantime, the number of infections has exceeded four million. In total, almost 70,000 people have died from the virus so far (as of 06.09.2020). However, experts assume that the number of unreported cases is higher, as there is little testing in India. Covid-19 is now being spread from the cities to the villages. The state of Maharashtra in the west and three states in the south of the country are most severely affected. However, infections are also increasing in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Several ministers and even indigenous people on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have already been infected. Social distance is usually difficult to enforce in India – especially in large cities like Delhi or Mumbai. In addition, cramped housing conditions, numerous slums in large cities and polluted water contribute to the spread of Covid-192.
Although the number of infections in relation to the population is not a world record, the pandemic is hitting India particularly hard. One of the strictest curfews in the world was imposed there for almost ten weeks in the wake of the corona outbreak. The whole country was divided into different zones according to the spread of corona cases. Air and train travel throughout the country was suspended. Schools, hotels, restaurants and shopping centres as well as temples, churches and mosques remained closed. The lockdown, which started at the end of march and has been in place for almost ten weeks, has caused difficulties, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises in India. Economist Devendra Pant said on behalf of ZDF: „A lockdown, stricter than elsewhere, was imposed. For 68 days everything stood still. This lockdown was necessary, but was it well prepared and implemented? No, it flattened the growth curve of the economy, but not the infection curve of the virus“3. The German government is supporting Indian medical personnel with 330,000 corona test kits and 600,000 protective equipment worth € 15 million. These measures are financed through the Ministry of Development’s Corona Emergency Programme. This is „one of the largest corona support measures worldwide“. In addition, the Ministry of Development is providing short-term loans of 460 million euros for food and bridging aid to people in India who lost their jobs in the corona crisis4.

To restore the economy prime minister Modi is continuing to scale back Corona measures – even though infection rates are rising sharply. On 1st of September, he announced the fourth stage of corona loosening: Public and private events will be allowed to take place again if they have fewer than 100 participants.

Restrictions on travel and goods traffic between the individual states will be lifted. With the general return to normal life, the economy should recover – but the recovery will take time. In addition, various indicators show that the recovery is slowly coming to a halt after the end of the lockdown. The government lacks the financial means for a comprehensive new economic stimulus package. Tax revenues collapsed by a third in the second quarter. According to several rating agencies, the deficit in the current fiscal year is likely to be around seven percent, roughly twice as high as planned, due to the Corona crisis. But the pandemic is not the only reason: India was already struggling with weak growth before the virus outbreak5.

In contrast to obvious and monetarily measurable changes, more hidden effects, such as the dangers lurking in the private sphere, are addressed comparatively little in public. According to United Nations (UN) Women, in the last 12 months about 243 million women between 15 and 49 years worldwide have been victims of sexual or physical violence. Studies show that this number has risen massively, especially during the lockdown or the corona eruption. In France there was a temporary increase of an estimated 30%. At the same time, those affected by domestic violence often find it much more difficult to get help due to the corona measures. Particularly in low- or lower-middle income countries, women, as the most frequent victims of domestic violence, are often affected by a „gender digital divide“ and thus have only limited access to – for example – mobile phones6. Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, especially against the background of the pandemic, it presents itself as perfidious and difficult to grasp and raises the question of how those affected can be protected and how preventive measures can be made effective.

For this reason, we talked to Pankhuri*, a social scientist from New Delhi. Both, during her studies and in the course of her later professional experience, she dealt with the topic of mental health, especially of children, adolescents and young adults. Against the background of personal experiences as well as her academic career, she sees the domestic and family space in India as a frequent scene of violence. This includes not only more obvious forms such as sexual, physical and verbal, but especially emotional and psychological violence. The reason for this is that the latter are normalised in Indian culture and that there is a general lack of awareness of this form of violence.
*Name has been changed

What is to blame is patriarchy, regressive societal beliefs and corruption



Even at a young age, children learn that violence and verbal insults are legitimate means of education and discipline. „People still normalise violence amongst males as ‘boys will be boys’“. Women, who usually move into the house of the man’s family after marriage, are given the impression that they have yet to learn and adapt to their way of life. The woman’s body itself is defined as „sacred“ or „godlike“ and – according to this classification – is exclusively available to the husband. Pankhuri points out, that this assumption can of course change from family to family and from region to region. „But the prevalent belief is still that when women do not wear dupattas then it is considered shameful by other family members – especially if she is married“.



Duppatas are scarves worn over clothing to cover the chest.

Pankhuri also blames corruption in the country for the continuing high number of cases of domestic violence. Politicians and police officers are part of society and thus reflect its views. Moreover, cases from the past show that every accusation of domestic violence, rape and even murder can be cleared up by political influence and money. Also, the Indian legal situation often makes it difficult for victims of domestic violence to bring cases to court: Rape within marriage is not punished as a crime. Similarly, the payment of dowry is officially prohibited, but is still a common practice today. „There are numerous cases of domestic violence where spouses and the in-laws torture brides and their families for dowry“ Pankhuri reports.

Education and economic stability is not a universal solution​

But who are the victims of domestic violence? Does gender, age, religion, caste, nationality or origin have an influence on the risk of becoming a victim?

Yes, says our interview partner. Most victims are women. This again shows the influence that socialisation in India has on social ideas about gender roles. „Females from a young age are taught to be modest, submissive and tolerant whereas male children are taught to be more hypermasculine and dominating“. According to Pankhuri, religion also plays a role – patriarchal ideologies are particularly strongly anchored in Islam and Hinduism. This is also evident in family planning: although determining the sex of a child before birth is prohibited in India, it is still common practice. Women who cannot bear a boy often have to suffer abuses from their families. Similarly, patriarchal ideas are more widespread in rural than in urban areas – women and girls are married at a younger age on average and finish their schooling earlier. The rate of violence against women is also higher in these areas. Moreover, the caste system in India is still strongly linked to social beliefs and hierarchies: „History shows that lower caste women, especially dalit women – one of the lowest castes – have been treated like servants and objects for sexual exploitation by upper caste men“. Nevertheless, Pankhuri emphasises: „Education and economic stability have not proven to be very helpful in reducing domestic violence. That is because the mindset of the society has not evolved“.

The caste system in India

The caste system in India

The caste system is a widespread phenomenon in particularly India of hierarchical classification and demarcation of social groups. The system is based on religious ideas, primarily originating from Hinduism. Among other things, it structures the division of labour and marriage within society. The social boundaries between the castes were also tightened by the colonial period and the British domination strategy of „divide and rule“. Since the Indian constitution of 1950, discrimination on the basis of caste membership has been prohibited – yet the caste system still finds its way into latent social structures and everyday life in India today.

"Log Kya Kahenge" - What would people say

According to UN Women6, less than 40% of all women who have experienced violence seek help. Less than 10% of them do so at the police. In India, these figures are even more impressive: between 2015 and 2016, 33% of all women in India became victims of violence by their spouse – only 14% of them tried to get help7. Thus, the majority of cases remain unreported and do not appear in official statistics. According to our interviewee, especially children under the age of 14 are often victims of sexual and physical violence within their own family. Those affected are influenced and threatened in order to cover up the incidents: „Victims of domestic violence of any form are manipulated into believing that their actions caused the abuse as they either wanted it or called it upon themselves „. The feeling of guilt prevents them from opening up to people they trust. Social ideas of family and cohesion make it even more difficult for the victims to seek for help: „There is this famous saying among Indians – Log Kya Kahenge – which means ‘What would people say‘. It is mostly used in situations of domestic conflict and basically represents the reality of how most abuse victims are forced to live under the same roof as their abusers and get abused their whole lives as it is considered more important to keep the family together for the sake of name and honour of the family as they cannot afford to lose their image in front of the society“. Furthermore, many victims of domestic violence are dependent on their abuser. According to Amnesty International India, women more often work in insecure working conditions, making it harder for them to escape from violent relationships. Especially against the background of the corona pandemic, women often have no realistic possibility to build up an independent life8.

Trapped in their own four walls

According to Pankhuri, the lockdown situation additionally fuels domestic conflicts: „Victims are in solitary confined spaces of their homes 24 hours of the day and they cannot escape from the abuse considering that most people with jobs are working from home and others have lost their jobs and the financial frustration is expressed by abusing one’s partner and using them as a scapegoat for their anger“. Again and again, new cases of men who have abused or beaten their partners appear in the media. Pankhuri tells us about a recent report by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) which indicates that the number of reported cases of domestic violence initially fell sharply at the beginning of the lockdown, but then increased significantly and continues to rise to this day. From the first to the last week of March alone, the number of complaints has more than doubled, the number of complaints about rape or attempted rape has increased more than sixfold in the same period. In an interview with the newspaper „The Hindu“, Indian women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover criticised the current situation: „Lockdown can’t mean that you save me from a virus, but you expose me to other forms of violence. The police is not the first port of call for victims of domestic violence and, therefore, alternative arrangements have to be put in place. This will be a very long lockdown and the government must ensure resources to help women in distress, health services to women and abortion are included as essential services“ 9.

Ways out of violence

The Indian government has recognised the problem of domestic violence and passed the Domestic Violence Act in 2006. More and more non-governmental organisations, celebrities and also filmmakers are taking up the issue.

Bollywood film tip from the interviewee: „Pink“ and „Thappad“ (English ’slap‘)

Social awareness has also increased, especially among young Indian women. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go: „I have numerous friends who are feminists and activists for domestic violence issues but are somehow blinded or complacent to the same issues in their houses as they are trained to believe that they are powerless in these situations and take responsibility for the anger and violence of the abuse on themselves“. Also, certain structures within the family often do not allow to openly address the violence: „These things are considered as Ghar ke andar ki baatein, which means talks that are not supposed to escape the boundary of the four walls of one’s house“. In most cases, the police are not seen as help: „I know of cases where victims have called the police for protection but the abuser has turned the blame onto the victim stating that they threatened or attempted harm and in response to that the abuser attacked as an act of self-preservation”. In addition, the police are often insufficiently trained in this field and react insensitively or inappropriately to calls for help from those affected. „Hence, the problems and reports get dismissed at the earlier stages itself. Most people will encourage women not to fall into the process of law and divorce for small incidents like slapping and verbal abuse and just adjust as divorces and court cases can turn ugly and take years to get resolved, especially if there is lack of evidence“.

Opportunities for people seeking help

For this reason, there are special helplines and so-called „SHE teams“ – a subdivision of the police force – which are the first points of contact in cases of domestic violence and can offer support. According to Pankhuri’s assessment, however, the responsiveness of these teams is often rather questionable: „The only thing I can suggest on a personal level, is to get psychological counselling, inform a trusted adult who can give you financial support and shelter in a bad situation and prepare an escape plan for immediate safety. One can take support of social media platforms to alert their friends and family and identify a local guardian for immediate safety“.

It remains to be hoped that social activism as well as attempts by the state to regulate domestic violence through legislation and awareness campaigns in India and around the world can gradually curb domestic violence not only during the Corona period. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there is still a long way to go.

Within the context of the interview, Pankhuri has produced a video with information about and current cases of violence against women in India, which you can watch here:

Video: Summary of news reports on domestic violence in India


  1. Tagesschau (2020): Weltwirtschaft in der Corona-Krise. IWF rechnet mit noch stärkerer Rezession. Online available here: https://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/iwf-prognose-corona-101.html#:~:text=Weltwirtschaft%20in%20der%20Corona%2DKrise%20IWF%20rechnet%20mit%20noch%20st%C3%A4rkerer%20Rezession&text=Der%20Internationale%20W%C3%A4hrungsfonds%20bef%C3%BCrchtet%20wegen,Deutschland%20erh%C3%A4lt%20ein%20gutes%20Zeugnis
  2. Deutschlandfunk (2020): Auch in Indien übersteigt die Corona-Virus Infektionszahl die Vier-Millionen-Marke. Online available here: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/pandemie-auch-in-indien-uebersteigt-die-coronavirus.1939.de.html?drn:news_id=1169882
  3. ZDF (2020): Indien: Corona verschärft die Krise. Online available here: https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/wirtschaft/coronavirus-indien-lockdown-100.html
  4. FAZ (2020): Bundesregierung weitet Corona-Hilfen für Indien aus. Online available here: https://www.faz.net/2.1677/kampf-gegen-die-pandemie-bundesregierung-weitet-corona-hilfen-fuer-indien-aus-16940343.html
  5. Handelsblatt (2020): Indiens Konjunktur bricht ein wie nie zuvor – Virus breitet sich in Rekordgeschwindigkeit aus. Online available here: https://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/international/coronakrise-indiens-konjunktur-bricht-ein-wie-nie-zuvor-virus-breitet-sich-in-rekordgeschwindigkeit-aus/26144054.html?ticket=ST-13126436-HZ1YqpbPxV3kXmWHR4Hj-ap6
  6. UN Women (2020): Covid 19 and ending violence against women and girls. Online available here: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006
  7. BBC (2020): What India’s lockdown did to domestic abuse victims. Online available here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52846304
  8. Amnesty International India (2020): COVID-19 in Asia: A Closer Look At Women’s Unpaid And Underpaid Work During A Pandemic. Online available here: https://amnesty.org.in/covid-19-in-asia-a-closer-look-at-womens-unpaid-and-underpaid-work-during-a-pandemic/
  9. The Hindu (2020). National Commission for Women records a rise in complaints since the start of lockdown. Online available here: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/national-commission-for-women-records-a-rise-in-complaints-since-the-start-of-lockdown/article31241492.ece

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