Ending domestic violence

The recently released Bollywood flick Secret Superstar brings to focus the darker and gruesome side of domestic violence against women in India. The movie portrays the pain, trauma and agony women suffer in a male-dominated society.

Domestic violence can be defined as violence between members of a household where one member of a family assaults or uses force and intimidation against others. As many as 90% of domestic violence cases are generally against women, especially by a husband against his wife. Many a time these violent assaults lead to murder, marital rape, physical and mental torture, and above all humiliation.

According to UNICEF, violence against women is present in every country, cutting across boundaries of culture, class, education, income, ethnicity and age. Though most societies prohibit violence against women, the reality is that violations against a woman's human rights are often sanctioned under the garb of cultural practices and norms, or through misinterpretation of religious tenets. Moreover, when the violation takes place within a home, as is often the case, the abuse is effectively condoned by the tacit silence and the passivity displayed by the state and the law-enforcing machinery.

Perhaps the single biggest cause of domestic violence is the belief in values that gives men proprietary rights over women. Indian society, which has a strong religious and traditional influence, gives the notion of a family under the control of a man, cementing the belief in the inherent superiority of men. The isolation of women in their families and communities is also known to contribute to increased violence. The lack of awareness about legal rights, particularly among the poor and illiterate women, gives the male members of a family the license to subjugate women.

The consequences of domestic violence can be physical and psychological. Physical injury is the visible form of violence against women resulting in bruises, fractures and disfigurement. The impact of violence on a woman's mental health could be fatal. Battered women have a high incidence of stress and stress-related diseases like depression, high blood pressure, alcoholism, drug abuse and low self-esteem. Many times depression culminates in suicide.

Children who have witnessed domestic violence or have themselves been abused exhibit health and behavioural problems, including problems with their weight, their eating and their sleep. They may have difficulty at school and find it hard to develop a close and positive friendship. They may try to run away or even display suicidal tendencies.

International human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948, the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979 and the convention of rights of the child (CRC) adopted in 1989 affirm the principles of fundamental rights and freedom of every human being.

The CEDAW and CRC are guided by a broad concept of human rights that stretches beyond civil and political rights to the core issues of economic survival, health and education that affects the quality of daily life for most women and children. The two conventions call for the right to protection from gender-based abuse and neglect.

In India, the thought process to combat domestic violence against women emerged a little late. The Union government enacted the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act in 2005. The objective of the law is to provide effective protection to women who are victims of violence of any kind occurring within a family. The Act provides for punishment for any physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse against women by their husbands. The Act goes a step further to include economic abuse, such as deprivation of economic and financial resources to women as a penal offence.

Apart from this, the government enacted the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in 2012 and amended Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code to provide for stringent punishment for any sexual abuse against minor girls.

These enactments provide tough measures against the perpetration of violence against women and girls after the crime is committed. Prevention of such crimes involves a series of measures to be undertaken by the government, civil society, NGOs and all stakeholders.

Intervention strategies

Human rights education and information regarding domestic violence should be provided to women, because this is a matter of their absolute right. Apart from this, women need to be empowered through education, employment, legal literacy and right to inheritance.

Legal services in the form of free legal aid, legal counselling and redressal mechanism should be made available to women victims by the state and NGOs. The intervention strategies should include assistance to help women to rebuild and recover their lives after being victims of violence through relocation, counselling, providing employment opportunities and moral support to achieve self-reliance.

Formal agencies like the police, judiciary, health services and the women welfare departments should have proper coordination to ensure that their effort is directed to provide an environment free from domestic violence. Informal networks such as NGOs, women help groups, community organisation should be trained to identify women and girls, who are at a greater risk of domestic violence and harassment. Once identified, they may be referred to formal support centres for remedial action. Early identification of risk families will help in timely intervention to prevent physical and mental traumatic suffering to a large extent.

Finally, it is the responsibility of government agencies like the criminal justice system, health and welfare organisations, local community, civil society and families to ensure zero tolerance towards domestic violence to achieve gender equality in letter and spirit.

(The writer is Inspector General of Police, Eastern Range, Karnataka)

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