As India debates ‘capital punishment’ for rapists, millions of men maintain that ‘corporal punishment’ is the right sentence for a wife who serves chai gone cold. Since it is often invisible, violence committed by husbands has escaped public outrage. Crimes such as beating, punching and forced sex usually go unpunished because it is common belief that a husband has the right to punish his wife.
Though we do not have good data on the incidence of rape in India, we do have reliable data that point to the prevalence of violence against women. India’s National Family Health Survey found that more than one in three Indian women (35%) has suffered physical and/or sexual violence in her marriage. The Youth in India survey found that even the young aren’t spared: one in four married young women had experienced physical violence, and almost half had experienced forced sex perpetrated by their husband.
To better understand the behaviour lying behind these numbers, the Population Council held discussions with groups of women and men in rural areas of the country. This is what we learned.
First, violence is pervasive. In every discussion, women and men agreed that marital violence takes place in many homes, and takes place frequently — some said in six of 10 homes and some said it occurs in every single home in their village.
The violence is often brutal and includes beating with a stick, belt or similar object. It involves punching, often in the parts of the body that hurt most. It starts early in married life (“because then girls don’t know what is the correct thing to do in their new home”); it happens in pregnancy (“if she tries to get out of work by making excuses of being too tired or unwell”); it happens in front of children, and anything, at all, can trigger the violence.
Second, violence is widely justified. Although there were a few voices of dissent, women and men alike agreed that violence against women is acceptable. Why? In their words: “If she makes any mistake, he will beat her, because he is her guardian,” said a group of adult women.
Sexual violence is acceptable too, with men forcing sex as a matter of right. Many believe that if a husband forces sex on his wife, it should not be considered rape, because providing sex to her husband is one of the responsibilities of a wife (“for what else has he brought us here?”).
Finally, options available to women who suffer violence are limited. Women and men both recognised that a woman’s only option is to tolerate violence silently. Some suggested that if the violence is excessive and frequent, women might seek help from family members, neighbours and friends. Others suggested that they could seek help from the authorities, including panchayats, police and the courts.
However, they admitted that they had not heard of a single woman who had taken these measures. What they had heard about was a chilling option, repeatedly voiced: suicide. “She can burn herself, hang herself.” “She will commit suicide under the train.”
It’s time for this invisible form of violence to be recognised, condemned and eliminated. Action must be multi-pronged. There is a law in place, the 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, but it’s infrequently enforced. More needs to be done to raise awareness of women’s rights as indicated in this Act and to ensure that those in authority enforce the law.
They cannot keep maintaining that what happens within the home is outside their jurisdiction. In addition, it is essential that women be empowered through skill-building and employment opportunities. They must know their rights and ways to claim them. Most importantly perhaps, it is time to change the attitudes of men and women about what it is to be a man. Boys (and girls) must learn that being a man does not make one superior and that inflicting physical and sexual violence on his wife is not a man’s right. Being a man must mean respecting women. So when speaking out against the horrific December 16 rape, let’s speak out against all violence committed on women.
Shireen Jejeebhoy is with Population Council, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.