Violence against women in India

Neeta Lal | 16 Apr 2020

For a country on a dizzying upward economic growth trajectory, India's treatment of its women is abysmal. Dowry deaths, rapes, molestations and a swathe of other crimes against women are commonplace even amongst the socio-economic elite. But what lends this scenario a surreal twist are the shocking findings of the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS), a pan-India survey conducted by 18 research organisations (including the International Institute for Population Sciences), according to which a whopping 37.2 per cent of married Indian women regularly experience spousal violence.

The latest NFHS, the third in a series since 1992, reports that gender discrimination is rampant in Indian society with boys having better access to education, food and other amenities and girls comparatively being given short shrift. The NFHS database -- conducted on a representative sample of households throughout India --- is designed to strengthen India's demographic and health policies and provide national-level information about infant/child mortality, maternal/child health and the quality of health and family planning services.

The health survey -- which contains disquieting revelations about the iniquitous status of Indian women – also highlights that India trails in a number of health and development indices, with growth benefits not percolating down to the fairer sex even in urban areas. In fact, women's "empowerment" still remains a chimera, with only half of Indian women -- 61.4% urban and 48.5% rural – participating in household decisions.

The survey, for instance, found Bihar (population: about 82 million, literacy rate: 47 per cent, the lowest amongst all Indian states) to be the most retrogressive address for its women, with a whopping 59 per cent of its women facing regular (and often extreme) matrimonial abuse. Intriguingly, 63 per cent of these cases were reported from urban, well-to-do families rather than backward rural ones. Madhya Pradesh --with an abuse rate of 45.8 per cent and Rajasthan and Manipur with 46.3 per cent and 43.9 per cent respectively – came in a notch below Bihar. The survey also reveals that uneducated women were far more likely to have experienced spousal violence than their educated counterparts.

Interestingly, the worst affected women in the survey are in the age band of between 20 to 40 years, though in some cases even those above 50 report regular spousal battery. Shockingly, though the figure of 37 per cent spousal violence is itself high, experts reiterate that the numbers are underreported and could be higher still, somewhere in the realm of 65 per cent.

The sobering findings lends itself to the question -- why does the land of the Mahatma, that has traditionally viewed "stree" (women) as the embodiment of "shakti" (power) -- ill-treat them thus? Perhaps the answer is embedded deep in the national mindset. Indian women, especially the rural folk, have deep-rooted fears about losing their economic support and shelter if they rebel against a violent spouse. There is also a lurking fear of ostracism which makes them put up with abuse as their "destiny". Interestingly, urban women – educated and economically independent – too, suffer spousal violence though in their case, it usually in the interest of progeny that they stay married. By extension, in the predominantly patriarchal Indian society, the stigma of divorce is still a large cross to bear for battered women, as are the responsibilities of single motherhood.

Also, a strong "martyr" image association – and the pathos generated by the suffering underdog – prevent battered Indian women from fleeing abusive situations. The consequences are damning as nearly 74.8 per cent of abused women, report surveys, are propelled towards committing suicide. But even if they are not driven to such extremity, it spousal violence can negatively impact a woman's mental and physical health, triggering off a slew of psychosomatic disorders.

Unfortunately in India, more national economic prosperity has led to a corresponding upward spiral of crimes against women. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that from an average of 125 women who faced domestic violence everyday in India in 2000, the number has ratcheted up to 160 in 2005. Also, more than 19 Indian women are killed for dowry everyday, 50 are raped and 480 subjected to molestation and abduction. The Bureau stated that 45 per cent of Indian women are slapped, kicked or beaten by their spouses with India also having the highest rate of violence against women during their pregnancies – nearly 50 per cent women were kicked while expecting babies with nearly 74.8 per cent attempting to commit suicide.

In a recent study of 3,000 women aged 18-50 years conducted by a pan-India NGO - Sangath - in nine villages in Goa, a popular tourist destination in western India, 14.5 per cent women complained of having an abnormal vaginal discharge due to verbal, physical and sexual violence and psychosocial distress. Depression and anxiety were common complaints amongst these women. Women who complained of vaginal discharge also reported that due to stress, they had meager interest in their daily lives.

According to a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report, one in six women around the world suffer from domestic violence. Based on a survey of 24,000 women from rural and urban areas in 10 countries, the report noted that female victims of domestic assault were twice as likely to suffer poor health than other women. This kind of abuse was also responsible for the spread of HIV amongst women, as abused women were not in a position to demand safe sex.

A 2005 WHO publication 'Addressing Violence Against Women and Achieving the Millennium Development Goals' defines violence against women along four identifiable acts. These are physical violence (slapping, pushing, choking, burning, threatening with a weapon); sexual violence (forced sex or degrading sexual acts); emotional violence and finally, intimate-partner violence (specifically, domestic violence). The last, says the study, is the most common and universal form of violence experienced by women.

The WHO recommends that prevention of violence should be integrated into health care programs. Indeed there is an urgent need for reproductive health programs to acknowledge the role of gender-based violence and psychosocial distress in addressing the reproductive health needs of women. But health professionals themselves need training to detect victims of such violence and extend psychological counseling to them. This would certainly be a good start as grassroots activists and healthcare volunteers - who work closely with India's victims of spousal violence and hospital personnel handling their cases - report that hospital staff, including doctors, often do not perceive domestic violence as a "health issue" but rather as a "private family matter". Hence, scarcely, if at all, are they willing to go beyond their formulaic role of providing medicine to physically battered women.

However, in a belated but welcome move, the Indian Parliament has, for the first time ever, passed the path-breaking - Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act this year. The Act defines "domestic violence" as all forms of abuse -- physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic. Physical violence is defined as "beating, pushing, shoving and inflicting pain" while sexual violence covers a slew of offences such as "forced sex, forced exposure to pornographic material or any sexual act with minors".

The Act also seeks to offer women victims civil remedies hitherto unavailable to them. Until recently, Indian women could only seek recourse in Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to file a complaint against an abusive spouse (which did not give the woman the right, for instance, to stay on in her matrimonial home or to demand maintenance from the abusive partner), the new law now provides her with a civil panacea. The Act also lays down stringent rules to prosecute men who harass/beat/insult their spouses. Partner abuse can now land a man in jail for one year or a fine up to Rs.20,000 (about US$470) or both.

But while the Act, a landmark legislation no doubt, augurs well for human rights, there is skepticism that it may offer little succor to the rural poor (70 per cent of India's populace) who do not place much trust in such laws in any case. In fact, to many illiterate Indian women, "human rights" legislations challenge the well-entrenched notions of individual and community identity. Another fear is that the Act – despite the current ballyhoo swirling around it – may well remain a paper tiger as India has the most abysmal rate of conviction in spite of possessing the world's most exhaustive and complex set of laws. Small wonder, since its passage in January, only one conviction has taken place under the Domestic Violence Act.

So where really does the solution lie to the malaise of spousal violence lie? In quick punitive action against the barbaric male who batters his wife/partner? In enlightening women victims to not suffer in silence and speak up against their injustice? Or with the police/courts who ought to catalyse the delivery of justice? Indeed, the solution is multi-dimensional. In the meantime, the Domestic Violence Act definitely kindles hope by bringing this important issue from the periphery of people's consciousness to the center of national development discourse.

Neeta Lal is an Indian columnist whose pieces appear in 21 national and international publications that include The India Today Group, The Times of India and The Indian Express.

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