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Here’s why most domestic abuse victims don’t file complaints

Lack of support system or economic dependence along with the fear of losing face in their social circles prevent victims of domestic violence from filing complains

health Updated: Feb 02, 2018 22:15 IST
Anonna Dutt
Anonna Dutt
Hindustan Times
abuse,health,violence
Representational image.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Four in 10 women have faced domestic violence, three in 10 during the past one year, shows a meta-analysis of all studies from India on domestic violence between 2004 and 2015. Yet fewer women are reporting violence today than a decade ago, with complaints dropping 10 percentage points to 14% over the decade ending 2015, reported the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NHFS-4).

What prevents women from speaking up against their abusers? It’s a state of “learned helplessness” that keeps most women in abusive relationships, say experts.“A lack of support from family and society can make a woman feel helpless and feel she has no other choice but to stick to a relationship. Often, the cycle of abuse becomes so permeating that she cannot think of a solution, can’t assert her rights or seek help,” said Dr Smitha Deshpande, head of the department of psychiatry at Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, New Delhi.

Ten years after her marriage, Shama*, 36, a housewife, decided to leave her husband. “It started with him calling me names because I am dark. Then he started saying he was forced into the marriage. Next came abusing me about not doing this, not doing that, or simply shouting and throwing things at me for no reason at all,” she said.

It was only when he started yelling at their 5-year-old son that she decided to leave him and go back to her parents’ home. She sought therapy while undergoing the divorce proceedings.

Economics has a major role to play in preventing women from leaving abusive husbands. “In cases where women are dependent on their husbands, even if they report abuse, do we offer decent shelter homes to keep her safe?” said Manisha Dalabehera, the communications and fund-raising head at Maitri-India, an organisation that supports women who face domestic violence.

So, what constitutes abuse? “Abuse is anything that is done without your consent. Abuse is whatever causes distress, discomfort, anguish and pain – physical and emotional,” said Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioral sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

“Apart from physical violence, derogatory remarks, dismissing the partner’s views, ignoring her, being condescending and abusive in the social circle, commenting on looks or intelligence, withholding money also constitute abuse,” he said.

More than 20% women face verbal and physical abuse during pregnancy, found a study done at Delhi’s Maulana Azad Medical College. And abuse increases as the pregnancy advances – 28% during the fifth month, 29.1% during the seventh month and 34.1% during the ninth month.

“This increase may be due to increase in violence due to the fact that women are unable to do many domestic chores or perform their ‘wifely duties’ during the advanced term of pregnancy,” said Dr Suneela Garg, one of the authors of the paper.

Things are little different for couples in long-term relationships or living together without getting married. And the long-term psychological impact of even transient abuse runs deep.

“In the short term, women are constantly on the alert, not knowing when to expect the abuse. There is a social aspect too; the woman might feel that she has lost face in her group. Neighbours and peers may comment, which heightens psychological harm,” said Deshpande.

“In the long term, it puts survivors at risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, problems of self-image and self-esteem,” said Dr Parikh.

Vidya*, 22, did not recognise what was happening as abuse. She had to seek treatment for depression when her doctor figured out that the cause was her controlling boyfriend. “He would tell me what to wear, where I could go, where I couldn’t, who I could go out with. He would also tell me what I should put up on my Facebook. And he would keep nagging me for not doing things right,” she said.

Do men face abuse too? Yes, doctors say. “But I can count the number of men in my clinic who faced abuse on my fingers. Women are usually the victims because that is the kind of social structure we are brought up in, violence is not condoned in women. It is usually men who are taught to be aggressive and the women are taught to be docile,” said Deshpande.

Helping people who don’t want to publicly acknowledge abuse should take the form of offering support without judging the situation or forcing the victim to take action, say experts. “A woman who is facing domestic violence needs support from her family and friends, who can help her vent without pushing her to take action. She must be given time and space to act on her own,” said Dr Parikh.

“Rather than putting the onus on survivors who fail to report, we should focus on building awareness and institutional capacity to respond to abuse to create an enabling environment,” said Dalabehera.

(*some names have been changed on request).

First Published: Feb 02, 2018 21:16 IST