Unintended consequences of lockdowns, COVID-19 and the Shadow Pandemic in India

Violence against women is a problem worldwide, with economic costs ranging from 1% to 4% of global GDP. Our study shows that domestic violence and cybercrime complaints increased, while rape and sexual assault complaints decreased, in districts with the most stringent Covid-19 lockdowns in India.

One in three women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) worldwide, and the economic costs of this violence range from 1% to 4% of global GDP (gross domestic product) (Devries et al. 2013, García-Moreno et al. 2015, Ribero and Sánchez 2005). UN Women has referred to the rise in violence against women during the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdowns as the “Shadow Pandemic” (UN Women, 2020). In our study, we focus on violence against women in the country that has been ranked the world’s most dangerous country for women: India. In particular, we investigate if the magnitudes and types of violence against women have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns in India.

Data and methods

We use variation in the intensity of government-mandated lockdowns in India to examine the effects on complaints of domestic violence, cybercrime, rape and sexual assault. We use data on complaints received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) from across the country. These are public-access administrative records given by district and month. The data are disaggregated by categories of complaints, which we broadly group into: (i) domestic violence, (ii) cybercrime, and (iii) rape and sexual assault. We focus on the period January 2018-May 2020 in our baseline analysis because frequency of violence varies throughout the year with some months experiencing greater amounts of violence. By including two years of data prior to the COVID lockdowns, we are able to control for this seasonality of violence in the analysis. 

Figure 1. Complaints received by the National Commission for Women

Source: Complaint & Investigation Cell, NCW, India. Notes: The figure plots the district mean number of complaints received by the NCW during October 2019-May 2020, by lockdown zone colour category (red, orange, and green). India imposed a nationwide lockdown on 25 March 2020.

In addition to the variation across time, we also exploit spatial variation in lockdown restrictions based on the classification of all districts into red, orange, and green zones in April and May 2020. Districts in the red zone saw the strictest lockdown measures, while orange and green zone districts saw fewer restrictions. Using data from the Google Community Mobility Reports, we verify that the severity of lockdown measures by zone colour categories affected mobility most strictly in April and May 2020 in red zone districts, as expected by the policy.

We employ a difference-in-differences empirical strategy to study the differential impact of complaints in districts most affected by the lockdown measures relative to districts least affected by the measures. In our research design, we use the classification of districts and lockdown measures by red, orange, and green zones, and show the results by month. We flexibly account for country-wide trends in complaints made to the NCW over time, using variation within a given month and year across districts, in addition to variation within a given district over time.

Main results

Figure 2 shows event study plots of the differential impact of red versus green zone districts in a given month relative to the monthly mean from January 2018 to September 2019, as well as analogous plots for orange versus green zone districts. We show that domestic violence complaints have increased 0.48 SD (135%) in May 2020 in districts with the strictest lockdown rules. Red zone districts also experienced a 0.71 SD (186%) increase in cybercrime complaints relative to green zone districts in May 2020. Interestingly, rape and sexual assault complaints have decreased by 0.39 SD during the same period in these same districts, consistent with decreased female mobility in public spaces, public transport, and workplaces (see for example, Borker 2018). Importantly, these results show that women face a portfolio of danger, and the same policy can improve certain types of violence outcomes while exacerbating others.

Figure 2. Event study plots of differential number of complaints received by zone

Source: Complaint & Investigation Cell, NCW, India. Notes: The black circles depict the differential impact of red versus green zone districts in the given month relative to the monthly mean from January 2018 to September 2019 (the omitted months). The grey diamonds depict the differential impact of orange versus green zone districts in the given month relative to the monthly mean from January 2018 to September 2019. 95% CI bars are shown.

The role of attitudes toward violence against women

We also explore the role of attitudes toward domestic violence in explaining the changes in domestic violence complaints during the lockdowns using data from the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-2016). The survey asks – separately to husbands and wives – whether a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife in a number of circumstances, including neglect of the house or children, improper cooking, disrespect for in-laws, and refusal to have sex. We average and aggregate individual-level self-reported responses separately across women and men to the district level, to obtain district-level attitudes toward domestic violence.

We find that districts where a greater proportion of husbands report that hitting or beating his wife is justified, experienced greater increases in domestic violence complaints in April and May 2020 in red zone districts relative to green zone districts. On the other hand, districts in which a greater proportion of wives report that a husband hitting or beating his wife is justified, see fewer domestic violence complaints in May 2020 in red zone districts in comparison to green zone districts. Overall, these results highlight the important role of attitudes toward domestic violence in the incidence and reporting of domestic violence complaints.

Medium-term impacts

Next, we extend our analysis to study the impacts of the lockdowns in India up to a year after they were first introduced. This analysis should be interpreted with caution, as state governments and local bodies were given autonomy for the demarcation of zone colour categories under the phased relaxation of lockdown measures. Furthermore, lockdown measures were implemented below the district level, such as in containment areas and buffer zones. As we use the central government’s zone classification for districts announced in April 2020, we interpret our results as reflecting the medium-term impacts of the central government’s lockdown measures from April to May 2020. Overall, the impacts of the lockdowns on cybercrime, rape and sexual assault complaints fade out approximately 6 months after the end of the central government-mandated lockdowns in May 2020. However, domestic violence complaints continue to increase after the introduction of lockdown measures and remain significantly different from the pre-lockdown period up to 1 year after the lockdowns were first imposed.

Discussion and policy implications

While most studies only focus on domestic violence, we study a portfolio of potential violence outcomes faced by women (domestic violence, cybercrimes, rape and sexual assault) and show that the same policy can have variable impacts depending on the outcome of choice. While the Indian lockdown did cause a shadow pandemic in which violence against women increased at home and on online platforms, it also decreased complaints related to rape and sexual assault, highlighting how the same policy can impact violence against women in different ways.

Our findings that attitudes toward domestic violence play an important role in the incidence and reporting of domestic violence during the lockdown suggest that additional interventions are needed to reverse the trends in violence against women. For example, Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing physical violence in Bangladesh (Roy et al. 2019). Shah et al. (2023) show that a soccer intervention to empower and change social norms targeting boys and young men decreases adolescent female reports of intimate partner violence. Dhar et al. (2022) also find that a school-based intervention in India that engaged adolescents in classroom discussions about gender equality saw programme participants reporting more gender-equitable behaviour. Social norms and attitudes around violence are important drivers of both violent behaviour and reporting.


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