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At home and behind bars, she dies silently

It is one of the least known crimes against women: their confinement by their families, writes Neha Mehta.

india Updated: Oct 15, 2006 04:15 IST
Neha Mehta

- Kirti, in her mid-20s, is unlike others her age in her North Delhi neighbourhood. She does not Orkut, has never heard of iPods and has no contact with any of her friends. A law student, she has not stepped out of her house for two years, and lives under the intimidating glare of her two brothers, who make sure that she has no contact with the outside world.

- Thirteen-year-old Sunita would never step out of her Dhaula Kuan residence, where she stayed with her uncle and aunt. Her only ‘outing’ was to her balcony, where she would stare bewildered at the world outside. A well-meaning neighbour raised an alarm about the girl’s strange countenance. When police reached her, they found that she was being confined and used as a child prostitute by her uncle.

It is one of the least known crimes against women: their confinement by their families. The reasons could vary from the assertion of patriarchal values, property disputes or even a prelude to prostitution. Shockingly, many of these cases go undetected, even as the moments of imposed solitude turn the women into nervous wrecks.

Says Dr Rajat Mitra of Swanchetan, an NGO, who has counselled several confined victims, “Women who have been confined for long often suffer from low self-esteem, extreme fear, delusions, hallucinations and a total withdrawal from society. They have a tendency to resort to self-mutilation, as the sight of blood makes them feel alive.” In a majority of the cases, they were found to be living for long periods in conditions worse than prisons, with no sense of personal hygiene, he adds.

The indifferent middle class

The confinement of women is not restricted to Delhi’s urban villages. It is happening in middle class and even tony neighbourhoods, where the victim is ‘safely’ sequestered from public view. In the last year, the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) has seen a nearly 20 per cent increase in the number of confinement cases from middle and upper middle class homes.

Says Dr Mitra, “Anonymity and confinement go together — the reason why such cases are harder to detect in such areas.” The problem, says DCW chairperson Professor Kiran Walia, is that “people in Delhi are not concerned about what is happening to others. They hardly ever think of intervening.”

Study in forced solitude

The strongest evidence of the harmful effects of confinement has come from mental health research done decades ago, says Dr Nimesh Desai, medical superintendent of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences. “The conditions of persons with mental illnesses was found to be far worse if they had been confined. In a large number of cases, patients were found to be in vegetative states.”

The finding turned psychiatry on its head, and triggered the process of de-institutionalisation worldwide. “We can thus infer that confinement is damaging those who are not mentally ill," he says. Not surprisingly, women who have been confined often need long-term treatment. Says Dr Mitra, “Hospitalisation is necessary as the victims need to be in a protected environment. They are also in need of counselling to come out of their isolation.”

The onus lies on the victim

While confinement is a violation of fundamental rights, it is hard to prove. Says chief public prosecutor B.S. Joon, “Sections 342 and 344 of the Indian Penal Code define confinement as an offence. The harassment of a married woman leading to her mental distress and driving her to commit suicide is dealt with under Section 498(A).” However, he adds, “Women are often not able to give statements and the law is helpless unless there is evidence.”

Agrees Tajendra Luthra, additional commissioner of police,  Crime Against Women. “Owing to social pressure, women often dither from supporting their initial statement. It is like a witness turning hostile. A statement is a legal requirement, and we cannot proceed without it.” The first effort of his cell, he says, is to reconcile the woman and the family. “In our society, an FIR is a big social taboo. In the interest of the family’s welfare, we have 5-6 hearings per case. In case rapprochement is not possible, we file an FIR.” However, things are not as systematic at local police stations, says Prof Walia. “Half the DCW’s job would be done if the police were sensitive. When women go to the nearest police station, they are not taken seriously.” The commission, she says, has to intervene very “effectively, at times screaming and shouting for the registration of an FIR".

Love thy neighbour

Mental health professionals believe that we need to start blowing the whistle on confinement in our neighbourhood. Says Dr Mitra, “People generally know when something is amiss in their neighbour’s home.” As Dr Rajesh Sagar, associate professor of psychiatry, AIIMS, puts it, “Neighbours, friends and relatives need to seek out the confined person and trying to solve the problem. They can also be instrumental in getting professional help for the family or informing the police.” 

(Names of victims have been changed)