Nidhi Gupta's suicide reminds us yet again that violence does exist inside closed domestic spaces and continues to be shrouded by silence…

A 31-year-old chartered accountant caught Mumbai's attention last week. That morning, she went about her tasks as she did every other morning. She got her two children, aged three and six, ready for school. Then, instead of going down, she took the lift up to the 18th floor of her building in a Mumbai suburb. She then climbed up one floor to the terrace. There she carefully placed the school bags on the floor, and one after another flung her children down 19 floors to their deaths. Even before they died, she also took the plunge.

Nidhi Gupta's suicide has shocked people. But it has also forced us to ask a number of questions. Why would a professional woman, who also taught on the side, kill her children and herself? What drove her to take such a drastic decision? Her father believes she was tortured in her marital home where she lived as part of a joint family. But even if that was true, how is it that an educated woman could not think of another alternative? Did she not know that the law now provides options to those who are victims of domestic violence? Was there no one in whom she could confide? Did her parents turn a deaf ear to her story while she was alive? Did they tell her to ‘adjust', as do most Indian parents?

Grim reminder

We might never know the truth about Nidhi's suicide even as fingers are being pointed at her husband and her in-laws. But her death reminds us yet again of the theatre of violence against women that exists behind closed doors, inside the four walls of what should be a secure place, the home. It also speaks, yet again, of the silence that surrounds such violence, the reluctance of women to talk about it, the pressure on them constantly to accept, to adjust, and even to internalise the violence.

In India, the National Family Health Survey established in its very first report the extent to which domestic violence presented a real health hazard for women. Over 50 per cent of women reported experiencing some form of violence in their homes, often leading to injury, sometimes even to death.

The National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) notes that there has been a 10 per cent increase in one particular crime against women between 2008-09, and that is torture and cruelty by husband and family.

To add to all this available data comes a survey by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Instituto Promundo, titled ‘International Men and Gender Equality Survey', which throws an interesting light on Indian men's attitude towards gender equality. Based on questions asked of 8,000 men and 3,500 women in six developing countries – Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India, Mexico and Rwanda – the three-year study looked at attitudes among men and boys in the age group 18-59.

Of relevance in the context of domestic violence was the finding that 68 per cent of Indian men believed that women should tolerate domestic violence in order to keep the family together and 65 per cent said that there were times when a woman deserved to be beaten.

Behind the times

Indian men stood out in other ways in the survey. For instance, 40 per cent of them believed that it was the woman's responsibility to avoid getting pregnant and 47 per cent said they would be outraged if the wife asked them to use a condom.

Wait. There is more. Only 16 per cent of Indian men shared household chores with women compared to around 50 per cent in the other countries. Also, while 87-90 per cent of the men in the other countries in the survey were supportive of gender equality, the exception was India.

Indian men were also the exception in displaying high levels of homophobia. For instance, 92 per cent of the Indian men surveyed said they would be ashamed of having a gay son and 89 per cent said that they felt uncomfortable in the company of gay men.

Not surprisingly, Indian men were at the bottom of the ‘gender equitable scale' with only 17 per cent of the men surveyed qualifying as being ‘highly equitable' in their attitudes.

None of this information is particularly remarkable. There is enough evidence all around us that illustrates what this survey documents. But incidents, such as that of Nidhi Gupta's suicide, force us to ask what can be done to change attitudes.

Changing mindsets

It has become increasingly evident that laws alone do not change attitudes. The Domestic Violence Act 2005 was the result of campaigning by women's groups who argued that a specific law of this nature was needed. Yet, even women who know of the law do not use it. And millions of women do not even know about it.

Even if the campaigns to inform women about their rights under the law succeed, and large numbers of Indian women come to realise that they need not accept violence in their homes, will that bring about a change in the situation? Going by current evidence, it is unlikely. Because essentially, what needs to change are the attitudes and mindsets of Indian men. Until these change, until Indian men accept women as equal human beings, deserving of the same rights and privileges as them, stories like Nidhi Gupta's might continue to be repeated and shock and shame our sensibilities.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com