India: Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 covers violence beyond the physical Print E-mail

 Sunday Magazine ~~ March 30, 2008

The right to live with dignity


Even laws will not help unless entrenched attitudes change.

The Act redefines the content of domestic violence, from the point of view of the abused, not the abuser.

We have often been asked: what was the need for a new law on domestic violence? Did we not have enough laws on the subject?

To understand the issue, one needs to have a clear idea of the role of law in society. First and foremost, it is a declaration of official policy of the state, translated into legal entitlements. It sets norms for behaviour; in that respect it has a normative role to play. The State, in a manner of speaking, is indicating the behaviour expected from citizens in their domestic relationships.

Protecting women
This new law, The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, protects, as the title says, women facing violence in domestic relationships. This is not limited to matrimony alone, but also includes relations in the nature of marriage, between brothers and sisters and mother and some who live in a common shared household.

Most importantly, the law contains a declaration that it has been made to protect the rights of women under Article 14 and Article 15 of the Constitution of India, to equality and non-discrimination and under Article 21, to life and liberty. This brings us to the question, what is the content of these rights? If anything, they must mean the right to live with dignity and free from violence.

The critical definition that the Act provides for the first time is the definition of domestic violence. It is here that the violence of silence becomes relevant. Domestic violence is described as an act of “omission or commission”. Omissions cause as much heartburn as acts of commission. Since the mandate of the Act is to protect the dignity of the woman, it must cover acts of violence beyond physical violence, and this is the critical breakthrough made by the Act.

The act of omission or commission may be physical, mental, sexual or verbal and emotional abuse. A known form of emotional abuse is social boycott or withdrawing from the society of the person with whom you are in a relationship, with the intention of causing emotional pain, normally, a form of blackmail, intended to get your own way or make the other person succumb to an unreasonable or unlawful demand. .

Another form of violence may be withdrawal from sex. Women after all are not supposed to demand sex, only consent to sex, particularly in marriage. All these are not considered forms of violence. However, the law has its limits and no law on earth can make a person talk to another or compel sex. In such situations, the Act provides for the relief of compensation.

The Act redefines the content of domestic violence, from the point of view of the abused, not the abuser. Defining solves half the problem, if done rightly. For a country that used non-violence as a form of protest and fight for justice, it is surprising that we have lived for so long with very limited concepts of violence, mainly physical violence. Women have not been taken seriously unless they break an arm or a leg, or committed suicide.

The implementation of the law is, however, in the hands of the judiciary. No definition can guarantee relief, no matter how explicit it is. The judge can always find a way around it. The true guarantee against domestic violence is the internalisation of the norm of respect or dignity of the other of a progressive judiciary which lives in the 21st century literally and metaphorically and does not throw back to the stereotype of the ‘Indian woman” the ever suffering devoted sati savitri, to be worshiped. After all, who communicates with a sati savitri, except in a temple?

The writer is a well known Supreme Court lawyer and women’s activist.

 Sunday Magazine ~~ March 30, 2008


Under a cloud of abuse

 A marriage ritual: What happens later? (AFP )

As someone who suffered abuse throughout a 15-year marriage and beyond, I would like to share what I believe to be some sure signs of emotional abuse. My partner attacked my very soul using words and mannerisms that caused much pain and suffering. Over time, he systematically eroded my self-confidence and self-worth and created hurt so deep I could no longer bear his presence in my life.

My partner never took responsibility for his own actions. He blamed me incessantly, even for his own abusive behaviour. He created constant power struggles with me over everything. He controlled my actions and undermined my dignity before our kids and his family members.

Constant humiliation 
At his hands, I was subjected to insults, put-downs, shouting, threats and sarcasm. I was criticised, humiliated, intimidated and given ultimatums. He isolated me from my family members and also friends. Sometimes, he disguised his snide or cutting comments as humour. I found that even his subtlest comment could hurt me as much as his stronger, more denigrating statements. He typically ended by accusing me of provoking his abuse or telling me that I deserved it.

My partner was also secretive and dishonest with me. He would lie and withhold information about important issues such as our financial affairs. Often he made plans or commitments affecting both of us, without my knowledge or consent, and refused to answer my questions.

Typically, my partner would not communicate with me without being abusive, and would never listen to me. He was intolerant of any opinions that differed from his own. Moreover, his constant accusations and dogmatic way of speaking always made me feel like an unequal, rather than equal participant.

I learned the hard way that living under a cloud of emotional abuse affects one’s health and well being. I made many attempts to alert him to how his words and actions made me feel. Sadly, he rejected them all. He became deeply entrenched in denial over his own abusive behaviour. He was convinced that I was to blame for his inability to relate to the children and me in a loving, accepting and non-abusive way. Eventually, I saw that I would never be able to end the cycle of abuse and the anguish it brought me and my children, and I began to implement my options for breaking free.

I want to warn all women who face emotional abuse, please don’t go through it silently. Share your feelings with trusted people and well wishers who can help. When you notice any signs, react and act wisely. To face any kind of abuse you should not be economically dependent and should have strength and courage to discuss this issue. Confrontation is a must to solve this problem. Don’t hesitate and hide your emotions under the traditional household mask. In more severe situations approach helpline hotlines and women’s organisations.

The writer’s name has been withheld to protect her identity.

Some tactics

Isolate a woman from her friends, family, cultural or faith community, care providers

Prevent her from being independent

Act jealous or possessive, accuse a woman of having affairs, coerce her into sexual activity to prove her love

Criticise a woman constantly

Threaten, intimidate, harass, or punish a woman

Use the children to control

Make all decisions in the family, withhold information and refuse to consult her or about important matters

Control the money, not allow a woman access to financial resources or conversely not contribute to household expenses.

 Sunday Magazine ~~ March 30, 2008

The violence of silence


When a woman is unable to identify emotional abuse, how and to whom can she describe it?

Darkness within: Only when a woman values herself will things improve (Shaju John )

I am a 62-year-old housewife. My name is Trisha. It hardly matters what my name is. What does matter is that I was a singer with a bachelor’s degree in music and a music teacher in a reputed college. After my marriage with two kids in four years, I had to leave my job as my husband wanted me to take care of our kids. From a stage singer, I reduced myself to a bathroom singer.

My husband always used to shout at me for no specific rhyme or reason. Once when I was sobbing, my son said, “Why are you crying? At least Papa doesn’t beat you up!” Later, he told me that his best friend’s father would beat up his wife, so it was okay if Papa just shouts and does not raise his hand.

I developed high B.P., thyroid problems and peptic ulcer. I knew something in me was dying. At the age of 45, I felt like singing and started my riyaz. One evening, in a fit of anger, my husband broke my tanpura.

Now, for the last two years, I live alone. I am happy and enjoying the music I lost in that homemaker’s journey. My sons stand with me. I have started taking music classes at home. I wish I had realised my worth earlier but better late than never.

In most women’s organisations, ‘sexual violence’ or domestic violence gets great publicity. However, ‘mental torture’ or emotional abuse is not as prominent because other forms of harassment are ‘visible’, ea sily detectable and identifiable.

In my 15 years of counselling, we did not handle a single case of ‘mental torture’, a complex, painful, and unrecognised form of abuse that has no visible solution. A strategy of silence and non-communication is a form of violence. Rarely is the victim able to identify the problem and so it is all the more difficult for a third party to intervene.

Certain social, psycho-social and economical issues are involved. In India, a boy grows up internalising patriarchal views of male superiority. When he fails to acquire the desired status or prominence in his career, he compensates by trying to control his domestic life.

Another situation occurs when he enjoys a high status at work along with the sycophancy that accompanies it. The problem arises when he is unable to leave behind the ‘halo’ and ‘aura’ of the workplace. As a result he tortures his wife finding a sadistic pleasure in crushing her personality.

Constant compromise
Generally these couples appear to be very happy and fulfilled because women from comparatively conservative backgrounds gradually learn to adjust to every kind of environment. It has been deeply ingrained in her that a woman must learn to compromise.

When the woman gets used to the shouting and screaming, she does not see it as torture. When unable to identify her problem, how and to whom can she describe it? Over time, she begins to believe herself lacking and unworthy. And her self-esteem takes a nosedive.

If she raises the issue the response usually is “What has he done wrong?” Because there is no physical violence, everyone fails to recognise the damage caused by silent negligence or verbal abuse.

There is one significant difference between mental torture and physical violence. The aggressor in the latter case knows he has done wrong. The situation is just the opposite in the case of mental torture. Because the husband does not raise his hand or leave scars on her body, he does not bear the burden of guilt. Such men have a split personality.

As well-known writer Mannu Bhandari wrote about her celebrated writer husband in her autobiography: “As such there is a private and public face of every person… I do not know how many people are even aware of two aspects of their personality but Rajendra (Yadav) seems to be almost obsessed with it. The reason too is quite clear because there is such a vast difference between these forms (Rajendra is quite conscious about it) that the people familiar with his external form would never even believe that there is another person deep inside his personality which is extremely cruel, hardened, almost inhuman. This aspect of his personality has been borne by those who have been living under the illusion of being loved by him.”

Stress-related ailments 
This kind of unidentified stress gives rise to a number of physical ailments. Some women suffer from asthma while others suffer from indigestion or acidity leading to unexplained loss of appetite and weakness. Piles, ulcers in the stomach, sinus, migraine all result from the negative effect of mental stress. Some women suddenly feel breathless and worry that they have a weak heart. Many opt for expensive investigations and tests but are disappointed when the results are normal. They are unable to link the cause of their sicknesses to mental stress or neglect.

Counselling a victim of mental torture is difficult. Rarely do outsiders come face-to-face with the man’s actual personality that the woman has been dealing with. Firstly such men never visit counselling centres even when called. When they do they wear the mask of being socially well placed and cultured. They insist that it is the wife who needs to change her attitude. Or they keep mum trying to project the opposite image of that projected by the woman.

Dealing with it
A woman needs to choose her own strategy to deal with mental violence. It is not enough to attribute it merely to her husband’s nature or environment or his traditional upbringing. It is also important to recognise and define the frustrations caused by this lack of communication. Economic independence does not succeed fully in changing this kind of violence, but it certainly enhances a woman’s decision-making power. Many equations change due to economic independence.

The first and most important thing is attaching maximum importance to the woman’s own existence or individuality. In Indian society, the happiness or sorrow of a woman does not depend on her own mood. It is determined by the expression on her husband’s face. The day she understands that her life and moods also have value or when she builds her own independent space, she will acknowledge her control over herself and things start improving.

People today often look down on a divorcee. Older women think it is better to suffer the excesses of one man and stay under his guardianship. In fact many do not even believe in an equal and loving marital relationship. Times have changed. Not every woman stays quiet forever. They have begun to recognise the phenomenon of ‘Silent violence’ or ‘mental harassment’. They have started exhibiting the courage to come out of it. They have begun to nurture their lost self-respect and existence.

The writer is associated with the Vasundhara Counselling Centre for Women and is based in Mumbai.