How to provide legal support to GBV survivors during lockdown

Written by Ashif Shaikh, Jan Sahas, India

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your work has highlighted these learnings?

Jan Sahas promotes the development and protects the rights of socially excluded communities, with a special focus on girls and women. We have worked many years with six partners and 200 civil society organisations (CSOs) to support 18,000 survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) in nine states of North India. With the COVID-19 lockdown, GBV has skyrocketed whilst police and courts’ attention has been redirected to COVID-19 matters. We recorded 700 incidents in April 2020, when the statistics are usually around 400 per month. Not only are these cases left unaddressed but thousands more perpetrators are being released from prison due to COVID-19, adding to the distress of survivors.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

A state of emergency doubly hits vulnerable communities: hardship goes up and help goes down. We have seen GBV increase due to stress within households, opportunistic and released perpetrators and riskier situations, e.g. returning migrants. Meanwhile, police and courts are focusing on COVID-19 related offenses, are afraid to intervene because of infection risk and only the Supreme Court has a virtual courtroom. It can take police up to a week to respond, and often without further action. No new cases were heard by the courts for two months. Medical examinations and care of rape victims are essential services being excluded.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

We are working with our partner CSOs to address the increased impact of GBV during this time. Our 700-strong team responds day or night as needs arise, and we support our team too during this difficult time with two mental health professionals.

Firstly, we provide telephone-based mental-health support with eight trained full-time counsellors (we actually need 28) who are fielding 200 calls per day for 30-60 minutes per session.

In addition, we also provide on-the-ground support through our network of 3,500 community-based Barefoot Lawyers (trained lay volunteers). They are a vital resource, speaking to survivors, recording incidents, filing police reports, preparing cases and following up. We provide transport too where required. We also support survivors with basic needs such as food and with psychological and emotional support, as they are often marginalised and stigmatised.

On another front, we are also supporting the vast numbers of migrant workers (c. 280 million) now returning home from their work in large cities because of lockdown. Many are women and are subject to sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking, as they are short of food and emergency supplies and far from home. Our dedicated hotline for them has already taken 28,000 phone calls, and we established 50 physical support centres across the country to try to ensure everyone could reach support whereever they were.

Finally, we are collecting evidence of the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations and sexual and reproductive health and right (SRHR) issues in these areas – e.g. migrant labour, female farm workers, GBV and will use this for policy advocacy.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

  • Invest in survivors and build their capacity. The police and judiciary are dysfunctional whilst survivor groups are powerful and more sustainable.
  • In the search for justice we have overlooked emotional and mental-health support needs. This is very important.
  • Build a support system within local communities. When unable to reach communities ourselves the support from within them was invaluable. 
  • Digital technologies were invaluable in connecting and continuing our support; we will invest more in these low-cost techniques.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Work is more effective through partnerships. Try to build a collective of survivors and CSOs.
  • In times of crisis, appeal to smaller organisations as they are closer to the ground and can act more flexibly and swiftly than large NGOs.
  • Don’t neglect the mental health needs of people in crisis.

Ashif Shaikh, Jan Sahas, India

Ashif Shaikh and his organisation Jan Sahas have been working to end sexual violence against women and children in India for over a decade.  Ashif is also the convenor of National Forum for Survivors, a watchdog for justice and rehabilitation of survivors. Ashif and Jan Sahas are generally known for their ‘Dignity March’, a national campaign to end sexual violence led by 25,000 survivors of rape and their families, covering 10,000 kilometres across 200 districts of 24 States/Union Territories (UTs) in India.