Indore, Madhya Pradesh: As Jyoti Shinde, 22, recalled the harrowing evening more than a year ago, she lay frozen in bed, her legs showing little sign of life, the toes curled in, as she struggled to sit up with the help of her two hands.
Troubles started soon after she married a hotel worker; arranged by her family, she says.
First, there were flaring arguments. Then the beatings followed, as her husband, suspecting her of infidelity, grew violent. Then, one fine evening, he was unusually calm, asking her to join him on the roof of their building for a breath of fresh air. She regrets today she ever agreed.
Without any provocation, her husband pushed her off the third-floor terrace that had no protection railing, she claims. Like a stone, she came crashing down and fell onto the veranda on the first floor. She was barely conscious when she was rushed to the hospital.
Today, Shinde’s world is confined to a tiny ground-floor room overlooking a narrow lane in her family home in this city’s Dalit colony of Murai Mohalla. She needs assistance to sit on the wheelchair, or to go to the bathroom.
Orphaned as a child, Shinde, who studied till class VI, was raised by her two uncles, both sweepers in government institutions. Her late father, like her grandfather, too, was a sweeper. Her family has been a huge source of emotional support, but already burdened with Rs 40,000 in medical bills, they have little resource to pursue justice.
That’s when the government stepped in.
Madhya Pradesh, which is among the country’s top three states reporting the maximum number of crimes against women, launched a unique scheme in 2008 for poor women facing domestic violence, arming them with legal assistance, counselling and shelter homes. Shinde is one among the 5,402 aggrieved women who sought state help under a policy called Usha Kiran last year.
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The scheme has been primarily modelled to implement the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, the country’s first gender-specific piece of legislation—hailed by activists fighting against male violence in a movement that goes as far back as the early 1970s, when a tribal girl raped by police in the northern town of Mathura became the mascot for the women rights campaign.
As violence against women rises, India has several legislative provisions for protection from dowry and rape crimes to sex trafficking and forced abortions. Advocacy groups say the existing legislation addressed the criminal nature of a case, but did not offer civil remedies.
“The criminal law does not take into account the need of a woman for financial support, nor emotional and verbal violence,” says Indira Jaising, who is the country’s additional solicitor general. As an executive director of Lawyers Collective, a not-for-profit legal support group that was instrumental in pushing the domestic violence Bill in Parliament, Jaising has been campaigning for protection of women for several decades.
Experts have often drawn close parallels between gender violence and poverty, pointing out that education could reduce discrimination in India’s male-dominated society, where women play second fiddle in every aspect of life, from health to property ownership. Nearly two out of every five women experience physical and sexual abuse by their husbands, according to the government’s 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey.
Rising assaults against women in Indore, dubbed as the country’s top “crime capital”, has state officials worried. As more troubled stories tumble out of homes, it says women are slowly asserting their rights, thereby leading to higher reporting.
“We are seeing a confidence among women that was not there earlier,” Vishal Nadkarni, Indore’s district programme officer in the women and child development department, says. A toll-free helpline, for which a Rs 14 lakh contract has been signed with public sector firm Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd will be expanded across the state this year.
In Snehlataganj colony, the All India Women’s Conference, a national women’s organization, has been running a helpline service for nearly two decades. It gets at least 200 distress calls a year—women wounded in domestic fights, falsely implicated as mentally unfit by families, and, occasionally, cases of forced abortion in towns and adjoining villages.
“We attempt at reconciliation first. When that’s not possible, we arrange for advocates and a place for the women to stay,” says Meeta Wadia, a counsellor at the centre.
Battered women at Sitaashray, a shelter home in Vigyan Nagar, share a common past. Jyoti Gokhale, a maid, and Reena, the wife of a vegetable seller who gave only her first name, left behind their families, unable to tolerate beatings and life threats. The worst was when a woman arrived with blade cuts all over her body; another had cigarette burns, says Anjali Khatri, founder of Vama, a not-for-profit group that runs the shelter, and keeps the 22 residents employed by teaching them to prepare local food such as papad.
In some cases, attacks can be extreme. Even after a decade of marriage, Shamina Bi’s husband, a toy seller in a village near Hoshangabad, used to hit her with red-hot iron rods. She was hoping he’d change, until she became a prisoner in her own house. For six months, she was locked up in a room, then slapped for every chapatti she ate. Her two daughters, aged nine and four, were not allowed to meet her, and her mother-in-law, too, beat her occasionally. She grew weak, disoriented, and lost bodily functions, defecating in her clothes inside the dark room. Finally, she managed to escape, when she found the door ajar one morning.
Shamina’s story became public when TV channels began streaming her plight. She begged for money on the street, she lived in a railway station, and hitched a free ride to reach her parents’ home.
“My husband’s work was to beat,” Shamina, says, her eye filled with tears, as she shows the burns on her back and legs in the two-room home in Chandan Nagar she now shares with her parents, two brothers and their wives.
“None of us recognized her when she came wearing tattered clothes. Her face was all bony,” says Zubeida Bi, her aunt. State lawyers are fighting Shamina’s case, who now works as a sweeper in a local school, to win maintenance of Rs 1,000 a month from her estranged husband.
Detractors of the domestic violence law have pointed out that the legislation has the potential for misuse and will abet false allegations. Women groups, on the other hand, believe it’s not being transgressed any more than anti-corruption or income-tax laws. The critical part, they say, is that violence within homes, including rising marital rape, has never been addressed as a human rights violation.
The Act now protects women from being thrown out of homes through a “residence order”. With complaints now possible to file before a magistrate as a “domestic incidence report”, instead of a “first information report” with the police, it’s crucial to raise awareness about the law, whose implementation across the nation is still erratic, they add.
Lawyers Collective’s women’s rights initiative wing, for example, analyses court orders to figure whether the judges are sensitive to the law, covering more than 3,000 orders last year. India is a signatory of Cedaw—the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women—that demands member nations to promote gender equality.
Still, many abuse survivors continue to avoid contacting police for fear of public shame, even though they visit hospitals to seek medical help. This prompted a not-for-profit organization called the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (Cehat) to open a crisis management centre inside Indore’s Maharaja Yashwantrao hospital three years ago. The project, known as Dilaasa, or “reassurance”, assists victims in seeking counselling, and its two-person staff located within the campus records burn cases and accidents. After several rounds of counselling, victims open up on conditions of confidentiality, according to Padma Deosthali, a coordinator at Cehat, which is now planning to take its hospital programme to Delhi, Bangalore and Shillong.
Gender crime transcends boundaries of the rich and poor, says Liyi Marli Noshi, an advocate with Lawyers Collective in New Delhi. Her clients live in slums and in high-end residences. Out of the 100-odd cases she’s currently handling, “90% involve forced sex by husbands”. These men include “gold medallists and engineers”, and cruelty can range from the emotionally painful to deep humiliation. One sports star husband wants to have sex with her client in the morning, afternoon and at night every day, she says. “He doesn’t come home for lunch; he comes for sex. She doesn’t have any right over herself,” Noshi remarks. Another lives in a plush south Delhi home; the husband beats his wife behind closed doors, then asks her to put on make-up to go out partying together.
“Violence in any form isn’t acceptable,” says Jaising. “You don’t have to wait for help till you are beaten black and blue.”
This is the last of a six-part series that examines key challenges faced by women throughout India and attempts to overcome them, drawing on experiences in Madhya Pradesh, which has among the worst indicators in the country as far as women are concerned.