“The manifestations of violence against women are a reflection of the structural and institutional inequality that is a reality for most women in India.” Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
Everyone has heard of someone amongst their families, friends or acquaintances who has suffered some form of domestic violence, i.e. some form of verbal, physical, sexual or economic abuse. We understand “domestic violence” here as it is defined under the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (‘DV Act’).
We implore you to, if you have not so far, reflect on whether you are a person who has created an open environment around them; a safe space – where people feel comfortable about sharing such information. There are also plenty of statistics substantiating these unfortunate realities.
- 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual abuse from their intimate partners or non-partners (WHO 2017). In India, the definition of a ‘domestic relationship’ includes a woman’s relationship with her husband or live-in partner and with his relatives.
- As per the National Family Health Survey IV conducted in 2015–2016, 31.1% of married women aged 15-49 years experienced spousal violence at least once in their lives. To add to this, 27.3% women were married before the age of 18.
- The National Crime Records Bureau reports that, “Majority of cases under the category of ‘crimes against women’ as recognized by the Indian Penal Code were registered under ‘Cruelty by Husband or His Relatives’ (31.9%).”
These statistics go on to show how widely prevalent private violence is and how grave and urgent an issue it is, requiring our collective attention as a society.
During the COVID lockdown reports of domestic violence have increased. There is a lot written linking the COVID lockdown and the surge in domestic violence cases here, here, here and here. The Indian government has recognized this connection and the National Commission for Women has launched a Whatsapp helpline. This also shows the gravity and prevalence of the issue at hand. It has been reported that the number of complaints of domestic abuse rose by 53% in the first week of the lockdown (March 23- April 1) in India. Several states have launched their own helplines and you can find a good collection of central, state and NGO helplines here and under the story archive ‘Helplines’.
It is clear that addressing domestic violence has become an urgent issue not only for the government, as it is a public health crisis and a criminal act but also for the society.
While the law can provide the ropes for victims to hold on to, it is only through a change in societal attitudes that victims can be empowered to reach out for those ropes, to hold on to them and to find their way out.
Laws on Domestic Violence - A Summary
There are several laws protecting a married woman from abuse from her husband or her husband’s relatives. Under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, harassment for dowry by the husband or his family is considered a crime. This harassment can be either mental or physical. Even though marital rape is not recognized as a crime in India, forced sex with one’s wife can be considered cruelty under this section. Section 498 A has a wide scope. It also covers any and all wilful conducts against a woman which drive the woman to commit suicide or grave injury or risk to life, limb or overall health. Again, health includes the mental and physical health of the woman.
The practice of dowry itself is outlawed under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. Despite this, if dowry has been given to and taken by anyone other than the woman, she is entitled to that money/property as the case may be under this Act.
Furthermore, the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act 2005 prohibits a wide range of abuse against women — physical, emotional, sexual and economical and all these are extensively defined under the Act. The scope of the Act covers women who are in a live-in relationship and are not married. A woman has the choice to be free from violence and has various options under this Act. She has a right to get an order of protection against her husband and his family, to continue living in the same house i.e. she cannot be thrown out of her matrimonial home even if she reports her abusers, to claim maintenance, to have custody to her children and to claim compensation. Under the DV Act and also under section 125 of the Indian Penal Code, a woman does not have to necessarily file for a divorce to have a right to receive maintenance from her husband. The nature of a married relationship is such that it makes it incumbent on the man to provide maintenance for his wife (in some cases if she is unable to provide for herself and in some cases even otherwise). A petition for maintenance is maintainable even in the absence of one for divorce.
If you look at these laws in action, you will be able to spot many practical difficulties with their implementation such as the refusal of the police to file a case in some cases, the low rate of conviction in cases under Section 498A or the delays in the criminal justice system. It is clear to us that from the point when women decide ‘enough is enough’ till the point they can receive an apt legal response, they have to go through a long and arduous journey. The sheer toll of explaining one’s story again and again, the burden of appearing like a powerless victim to be believed by the society is a high burden to bear in addition to the loss of dignity and hurt that one has faced in their marriage/live-in relationship. Sreeparna Chattopadhyay, a cultural anthropologist who has studied this issue closely and has published widely, writes that “legal language, procedures and discourses attempt to normalize domestic violence by deploying discursive strategies such as consistent and pervasive use of the passive voice diminishing perpetrator responsibility, trivializing violence by avoiding the use of violent attributions in describing violent acts, and shifting blame to victims.”
There are many empowering laws as well, apart from those offering redress of wrongs against women, which aim to bolster her social, economic and legal status to make her confident and less prone to abuse as well as less likely to tolerate should such instances happen. It is quintessential to foster economic independence in women and to address the “root causes of violence- women’s powerlessness”.
For instance, the Hindu Succession Act, after its 2005 amendment recognizes that women have an equal right in ancestral properties of their families: this is their legal right which is to get the same share as their brothers may get. The brothers don’t even have any special or overarching rights in properties of their parents as compared to their sisters. For their self-earned properties, it is upon parents to divide or bequeath it in the manner they deem fit but the law does not create any fetters against women receiving the same. We find that women are unaware of this property right and even if they are, they would not want to use these rights. Another link we make is with the issue of ‘Equal pay for equal work’.
The Equal Remunerations Act, 1976 makes it mandatory for employers to not discriminate only on grounds of sex when it comes to paying their employees. The Act also mandates that employers cannot discriminate in matters of appointment on grounds of sex unless the employment of women for the job in question is prohibited by law. Similarly, the Act outlaws discrimination in matters of promotion, training, transfer, etc. There is another specific law against sexual harassment at workplaces so women can feel safe in their workspaces and can can report any violations. It is also a provision to encourage the economic independence of women by ensuring they feel safe to come out of their houses to work.
Change in societal attitudes is critical
Intimate partner violence is a problem which needs to be addressed from multiple angles. While important changes are needed in the law and policy, there are several expectations from the wider society as well. We were shocked to learn that 52% women and 42% men surveyed in the National Family Health Survey (‘NFHS’) - 4, conducted in 2015-2016 believe that it is justified for a man to beat his wife if the wife goes out without informing the husband, neglects the house or the children, argues with him, refuses to have sexual intercourse with him, doesn’t cook properly; or when the husband suspects that she is unfaithful or shows disrespect for in-laws. The survey further shows that 17.1% of the men think it is their right to get angry and reprimand their wives if they refuse to have sex with them, 10.7% think it is their right to deny financial support in such cases and 9% think it is their right to force sex. These attitudes have only changed 3% for women and 9% for men in one decade, since the survey was last conducted!
Societal attitudes justifying domestic violence from men as well as women have a huge impact. Acceptance and understanding of the simple facts i.e. what counts as violence and that it is not acceptable behaviour towards women can prompt more women to recognize it, report it to their friends and family even if not immediately to the authorities. For victims, who are lucky enough to have a loving and supportive natal family and a circle of friends, it is important to not lose touch with them after their marriage regardless of how much their abuser wants them to. Cutting out personal connections is often the first step that isolates women. As a society we need to strengthen our social support system to create safe spaces where women feel comfortable to discuss these issues. In this vein, humour, memes, songs, advertising around acceptable behavior towards women also plays a role in forming their psyche. This is our aim:
- Simplify the laws for all audiences.
- Connect victims to people/organizations that can help (including through our own networks)
- Break the silence and change the narrative that leads to domestic violence by way of light cartoons, quotes, stories, etc.
We believe that if 1 out of 3 women in India faces this problem, there must be an even bigger number of people statistically who witness this problem and have the capacity to act. We expect that our followers will inform themselves through this page and will take a moment to reflect on whether they can be an important connection for a victim- the one person who starts a series of kind actions that can pull someone out of distress.
India Against Domestic Violence is a collective on social media.