Opinion| Domestic violence has not got the attention it needs
On an enforced period of medical leave recently, I watched a disturbing documentary on domestic abuse in the Thames Valley area in England called Behind Closed Doors. It was worrying on many counts – the first being that seemingly loving partners can turn almost overnight into violent monsters. The second is that the victim continues in the abusive relationship till it becomes life-threatening. But the most heartening aspect is the efficiency of the official support system once a complaint is made. The police are quick to respond, often making the difference between life and death for the victim; the State provides legal support and domestic abuse counsellors talk to the victim on the nature of the violence; the victim’s home is put on priority for the police to respond; and the victim is provided a round-the-clock alarm mechanism to summon help. None of this is foolproof, but in the majority of cases, it has helped the victim rebuild her life away from the arena of abuse.
Domestic abuse is an area of women’s rights that has not got the attention it needs in India though it is one of the many problems that women face daily. Our system can in no way match that in the UK, but there are not even rudimentary systems in place for victims of domestic violence. The National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS-4) says that every third woman in India faces some form of domestic violence, 27% of them since the age of 15. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, is a comprehensive law, but as with many other such laws, it fails in the implementation. Of all the women abused, only 14% have sought any form of help.
There are many reasons for this. One is that many women in India do not even know that there is a law to support them. Many abused women take it as normal to be beaten or emotionally abused for a variety of issues, ranging from not looking after the home well enough to failing to pander to her husband’s needs. Surprising, a sizeable number of women are supportive of domestic violence. The NFHS-4 survey found that 54.8% agree that the violence is justified, with 47.7% of women in the age group of 15-19 saying that the husband had a right to beat his wife.
Domestic violence in middle and upper class homes is often kept under wraps so that the family name is not undermined. Women who have been exposed to their mothers being abused, or who lack economic means, go to great lengths to justify staying on in abusive marriages or relationships. He is a good provider; he only gets this way when he drinks; I am also to blame are some of the excuses women give to avoid making a break.
We have very few domestic abuse counsellors in India, and the police, who are the first port of call for a victim, often do little more than warn the husband and then send the woman back to the abusive home. This has often proved dangerous in many ways. The abused woman suffers serious health problems, sleep and eating disorders, mental trauma and even suicidal impulses. In the worst case scenarios, she is killed or maimed.
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One avenue to help women, especially those who live in the rural areas, is the panchayats. However, studies by the International Centre for Research on Women show that women do not approach the panchayat as an institution, but would rather go to the sarpanch in a personal capacity. But the system is rooted in a patriarchal environment that upholds male privilege and the woman is usually counselled to ‘adjust’, that terrible omnibus word that cloaks a multitude of abuses, and go back home for the sake of the family. Four-fifths of all abused women in India do not seek help from anyone except, in the odd instance, their families.
There have been so many positive legal reforms in the area of women’s rights, but they remain largely inaccessible to abused women. The Bollywood kind of abused woman who rises to seek vengeance is not the answer. This is a problem which needs specialised redressal, at least starting with domestic abuse counsellors attached to police stations. With a dynamic women and child development minster in place, we could make a start on this now.