No safe havens for victims of domestic violence

Many women stuck in abusive marriages as financial dependence, stigma of divorce leaves them with no options


Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

New Delhi: She married him at 14. It was a love marriage. Within two years, she was pregnant. She didn’t know she was marrying an alcoholic. And that her 18-year-old husband would spend all the money he earned on drinking and sell whatever little the family had to buy alcohol.

In no time, the house she lived in had nothing in it except a cot, some pots and pans and her clothes. Every night when he came back home, he beat her up. When she asked him to quit drinking, he said he would rather quit living.

A few years later, the two got divorced. Who sought the divorce is not very clear by the way she talks about it, but she says they split because he would beat her.

In 2010, she moved to Delhi from West Bengal and married again, this time as an adult. The sindoor (vermillion) in her hair parting, the mark of a Hindu married woman, is bright red and matches the round bindi on her forehead. All this doesn’t really show the precariousness of her marital life.

Her husband is a government employee earning more than Rs.30,000 per month. After the couple built a house in south Delhi, the husband, who had so far claimed to be single, said he was already married and that his wife was returning from abroad.

More importantly, it was time for the new wife to leave. He stopped giving her money for her personal use and verbally abused her. But when she declined to leave his house, he tried to give her electric shocks and more than once slipped in a knife or a coffee table wheel under her bedsheet.

Recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data show that one in three married adolescent girls have experienced physical violence from their husbands. The survey of more than 83,000 women aged 15-49 showed that 34% had suffered physical violence—ranging from slapping, punching and twisting of the arm to severe assaults such as burning, choking or attacks with weapons. Besides this, nearly 15% have experienced emotional and 9% sexual violence.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says a total of 244,270 incidents of crimes against women were reported in the country in 2012, compared with 228,650 in 2011, an increase of 6.4%.

Lawyers Collective, which was instrumental in the drafting of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, conducts an annual monitoring and evaluation survey on how effectively it is being implemented across the country. Based on orders analyzed for the recent report, the primary reasons for violence appear to be dowry harassment followed by alcoholism, extra-marital affairs, the birth of a female child, or a woman’s inability to bear children.

A 2012 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) found that 57% of Indian boys and 53% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified. A recent NFHS suvey also reported that a sizable percentage of women blame themselves for the violence suffered at the hands of their husbands.

When she describes her first marriage, the 30-year-old stresses that her first husband used to “just” punch or hit her, implying that it was something she could bear. But her present husband threatens to insert a rod inside her private parts and also throw acid on her face. “I fear that he might kill me some day. But I have nowhere to go. I can’t go back to my parents after so many years,” she says.

In India, divorce is literally kept as the last option by women because of several “cultural and economical reasons”, says lawyer Asmita Basu.

In 1983, domestic violence was recognized as a criminal offence in India chargeable under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code that relates to domestic violence as an act of cruelty by a husband towards his wife. However, till recently, there was no separate civil law to deal with the specifics of domestic violence.

That situation changed when the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (DVA) 2005 came into force on 26 October 2006, recognizing domestic violence as a civil offence.

Among other things, the law clearly defines domestic violence and widens the ambit to verbal, economic and emotional violence, and takes into account a woman’s need for financial support. It also protects women from being thrown out of homes through a “residence order” and has a provision for an interim order, protection order, orders for monetary relief and temporary custody of children.

“In most cases, women are financially and economically dependent on men. Since it (DVA) is a civil law, in many cases women say ‘what happens when I file a case? The man will go to jail but who will take care of me’? Women quite literally have no place to go. In the patriarchal world we live in, property is mostly owned by men. It is the fear of destitution that stops her from wanting a divorce,” says Basu.

The special police unit for women and children’s website lists seven shelters and six short-stay homes for women in Delhi. All of these together can accommodate almost 238 women.

“There are just a few shelters and their quality is very dubious. The state needs to set up safe, clean shelters for victims of domestic violence,” says Kalpana Viswanath from NGO Jagori.

Unlike what is commonly believed, gender crime is not just limited to a certain class or caste.

A recent study analyzing the responses from more than 60,000 married women in the nation’s 28 states shows how Indian women who experience economic and social gains in the form of employment and education are often at a greater risk for domestic violence.

The study published in the peer-reviewed journal Population and Development Review said women with more education than their husbands had 1.4 times the risk of domestic violence and 1.54 times the risk of frequent violence, compared with women with less education than their husbands.

“A domestic violence victim can be any average, middle class, working, well-educated woman of any age. It cuts across class and caste and the urban-rural divide. And adolescents are the most vulnerable. The weakest person in the world is the last girl. A female from a low caste and if she is an adolescent, becomes the most vulnerable,” says anti-trafficking activist Ruchira Gupta.

When she married again, she was an adult; but things took a turn for the worse. Despite everything, she still doesn’t want a divorce. She wants to live with her husband, even if they don’t live as a couple, and even if her husband’s previous wife returns. “If she wants, she can come and stay here, but why should I leave? Where will I go? I know she is his wife, but so am I. I hardly went to school, am not skilled. I have nowhere to go now. This home is where I have to live,” she says.

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