Contrary to popular belief, the problem of domestic violence has not gone away. Nor is it restricted to the poor and poorly educated. It is rife in over a third of the households and seems to be Indian society’s best kept secrets. Is it time for a #MeToo movement that openly shares the trauma of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by the partner who is supposed to nurture and cherish the wife for eternity.
Earlier this month, 32-year-old Porukudi was found beaten and burnt to death in Rudrapuram in Tamil Nadu. Around the same time, Anita from
Uttarakhand was found dead in mysterious conditions. Annapurna from Odisha, a new married bride was found dead. In all the three cases the parents accused the in-laws of torturing and killing their daughter for dowry. Extorting dowry is a crime under the Indian penal code, yet the custom continues, often accompanied by violence, abuse, and in extremes cases, death.
In India, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on the global study on homicide, between 40 and 50 percent of all female homicides recorded were because of dowry. The report further says that the most dangerous place for most women is the home.
Overall, dowry related violence is the most visible part of violence faced by women in the home in India. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), domestic violence is a part of almost a third of all families. 33% of married women in India have said they have faced physical abuse in the household. The predominant part of domestic violence is spousal abuse, though other members of the husband’s family may also contribute to the violence.
The NH4 Survey is detailed in its research into domestic violence. It divides up spousal abuse into three types -- physical, sexual, and emotional abuse (including the threat of violence) -- and further look at the type of violence that emanates.
For example, some people may not consider pushing or pinching as violence, while others may not consider threats as violence. Yet both, by the government’s own definition, are most definitely classified as violence.
Source: National Family Health Survey
While the Indian state has been relatively progressive in the adoption of laws against dowry demands, and domestic violence – the smallest unit of society, the family, has not been equally progressive in reducing the problem of violence. The only place where the Indian state is lagging is on the issue of criminalising marital rape. But that is going to be an uphill task both from the point of view of the backlash from those who believe that a law criminalising marital rape will destabilise the family; and those who believe that given the nature of sexual contact within a marriage, rape will be impossible to prove in a court of law.
There is a glimmer of hope here, and that is, as the NFHS4 survey shows, that as education increases, the level of domestic abuse decreases. Men who have studied till the 12th standard are far less likely to hit their wives than men who have not studied at all. Along with education, what is needed is awareness and a breaking of the wall of silence that surrounds domestic violence. We neither speak about it nor do we acknowledge it.
Part of the problem with domestic violence is that happens behind closed doors, and it is too shameful to talk about in public. Most casual violence, such as being slapped for there is less salt in the food, or tea being too hot, is not even considered by many as violence.
Also, for very many women, domestic violence is normalised by witnessing other women in their household facing violence. And, it is this normalisation that leads to a staggering 51 percent of women who faced physical abuse, asserting the husband was justified in hitting them.
Just as the #MeToo movement broke the silence on sexual harassment and abuse of power at the work place – we need a movement that shatters the omerta on domestic violence. An outpouring where ordinary women can stand up and say, “I was hit. I will be hit no more” and receive support from others. Domestic violence is not a rarity. A third of all women in India face it. Children in one-third of the families grow up seeing their mother being battered. It is time that declines rapidly.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
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First Published: IST