When home is no refuge

When home is no refuge


A survey finds that professional, educated and independent women also experience domestic violence in India 

TELLING STATISTIC According to a survey, about 40 per cent of married women across the country had  experienced domestic violence.  PIC for representation only. Last month, two women’s stories, told courageously, helped to underline the reality of domestic violence in India. Nita Bhalla, a journalist, wrote for the BBC about being physically assaulted by her partner.

Meena Kandasamy, a poet and writer on social issues, wrote movingly in Outlook, of surviving a violent marriage: “My skin has seen enough hurt to tell its own story.”
Both Kandasamy and Bhalla are, in Bhalla’s phrase, “professional, educated, independent” women, but as surveys of domestic violence in the country indicate, their empowerment was no protection against abuse.

In 2005-6, the National Health and Family Survey, conducted by the Ministry of Health in households across 29 states, mapped domestic violence in India. It found that about 40 per cent of married women across the country had experienced domestic violence; the survey called it a serious public health problem.

Kandasamy, who found shelter with her sister when she left the marriage, was atypical in that she explored the possibility of legal action. Only one in four Indian women who had experienced domestic violence in their marriages sought outside help, according to the Health Ministry survey, and even these tended to turn to family members, not to the police or social welfare institutions.

Others, like Bhalla, have had to deal with what she called “the incomprehensible silence of others —  family, friends, neighbours and even passers-by — who choose to turn a blind eye.”

Vidyut Kale is a corporate trainer and blogger who has written extensively about witnessing domestic violence in her family as a child, and then confronting abuse — emotional, financial and sexual — in her own marriage.

“There is a silencing — from the family or from well-meaning friends who fear for the woman’s safety,” she said in an interview. “The abuser never wants a spotlight on their actions, but breaking the silence is liberating. I stopped owning the shame when I spoke out.”

In the six years since the Health Ministry data were published, some progress has been made, on the legal and social fronts. More women have begun to talk about domestic violence 1 per cent of reported violence and abuse is instigated by women against their male partners, according to the survey findings. In 2011, the popular Hindi television series “Dil Se Di Dua-Saubhagyavati Bhava” told the story of a woman married to a man who is alternately charming and abusive.

Perhaps the most significant change has been in the application of the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act, a landmark piece of legislation that took effect in 2006. For the first time, it formally recognises a woman’s right to protection from violence at home and addresses verbal, emotional and economic abuse as well as physical and sexual abuse. Significantly for India, it includes unmarried couples and “sisters, widows and mothers” living in shared households.

In annual reports, the Delhi-based Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative monitors the working of the domestic violence act. The 2011 report suggests that the courts have begun using the act to issue protection orders for women threatened by violence and residence orders, to shield women from being evicted from a shared household.

A major problem identified by women’s rights organisations and the Lawyers Collective report is police attitudes toward domestic violence. The police are often the point of first contact for women who want to report violence in their homes. There is confusion among police officers as to what constitutes domestic violence. For instance, some officers think that verbal abuse or a slap is acceptable and does not need to be reported.

But the surveys conducted by the Lawyers Collective across several Indian states also show a shift in the attitudes of police officers since the passage of the act. One critical change, in Delhi, was the rise in the number of police officers who disagreed that domestic violence was merely a family affair — suggesting that it may become easier over time for women to file complaints with the police.

Another important development might be in the role played by hospitals. Since 1995, a few hospitals and rural clinics have attempted to record incidents of domestic violence, especially in the case of women who come to emergency wards with bruises and other injuries. In 2000, a nongovernmental organisation called Dilaasa began work in one of Mumbai’s general hospitals, training doctors and hospital staff to identify and treat victims of abuse.

Their experience over 10 years found that women were more likely to share their experience of violence with medical professionals than with the police. This year, some activists have suggested that their in-hospital crisis centre approach be replicated in hospitals across India — a much-needed space in a country where there are few shelters for victims of domestic violence.

“Most Indian women are in an unequal environment,” Kale said. “You go from your parents’ house to your husband’s house. If they are no longer welcome in their parents’ home after marriage, what do they do when there’s violence in their husband’s home? Why should they end up homeless?”

The changes in the law and the social environment in the last decade or so have enabled a discussion of these issues and on the changing dynamics of the Indian family. As more women share their experiences, it is clear how widespread domestic violence is, cutting across community, caste and economic lines. For women trapped in violent homes, the solutions may not be obvious or easy. But India has begun, at least, to acknowledge the problem.

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