Violence has no place in a partnership of equals…

In a country that won its independence on a platform of ahimsa, it is amazing that some spouses still engage violently with each other. Domestic violence, as it is officially called, has been happening for centuries in our country and is very much part of ‘Indian culture’. It has caused immeasurable grief, much damage to dignity and self-esteem and even incalculable loss of life and limb. Yet it continues to exist and has now reached almost epidemic proportions, thereby shaking even the government of India out of its customary stupor to enact, in 2005, a law to respond to the phenomenon — The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. Though it is debatable whether legislation is the final solution to social problems, in the absence of anything else, I hope the law serves at least to highlight the growing menace of domestic violence.

Specific reference

When I talk of domestic violence here, I am referring only to the type of violent behaviour and abuse that takes place between married partners, although social scientists use the term to refer to a larger range of violent acts at home — against spouses, children, elders etc. There are four ways in which spouses abuse each other. The first of these is the most basal of them all—physical abuse, where one partner slaps, hits, kicks or beats up the other. Equally basal is sexual abuse, where the dominant partner engages in marital rape, or forces the partner to engage in perverse sexual acts. Then there is verbal abuse, where the abuser regularly resorts to shouting at the partner, using foul and vulgar language. And finally, there is emotional abuse wherein one partner subjugates the other through persistent demeaning, insults, threats, and intellectual battering.

Many people think that abuse happens only in lower socio-economic backgrounds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Middle-class as well as wealthier homes see large amounts of domestic violence too. Since we live in a patriarchal society, most spouse abusers are men. Since men have been taught ever since they were boys that they should ‘control’ their wives and since, more often than not, they are physically bigger and stronger, they tend to resort more easily to using violent means to take charge of their marriages, if they find their wives challenging their authority. Having said that, it is no longer uncommon to see men, particularly in urban areas, being victims of spousal abuse from their wives. Typically verbal and emotional abuse are more common, but physical abuse also does take place. Women who feel the need to dominate their spouses may tend to, particularly if the man is generally soft natured and easy to push around, intimidate their husbands by constantly belittling them in private and public, thereby establishing dominance in the marriage. Also, some of them, if they are physically strong, may lash out physically at their husbands by slapping, scratching, kicking and throwing things at them. Since very few men want to acknowledge publicly that they are being abused by their wives, cases of spousal abuse of males are largely under-reported, although in recent times, abused men have been coming together in support groups and have formed associations to help each other deal with the situation.

Welcome legislation

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act has provided succour to many women who have been victimised by their spouses. It is a well-intended and welcome piece of legislation, but, unfortunately, doesn’t provide men who are victims of domestic violence any space for redressal of their grievances. Another important legislation that needs to be touched upon here is Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code which covers any act of cruelty committed upon a woman by her husband or his relatives. Sadly, one of the more distressing by-products of both these laws is that they are abused. Unscrupulous legal professionals as well as acrimonious wives and their relatives try and either intimidate the husband or extract their pound of flesh by filing cases under these laws. I do know of men who have been threatened under Sec 498A of the IPC, merely because the wife and her family want a better divorce settlement than he originally offered. Sometimes where the wife wants a divorce and the husband is unwilling to grant her one, Sec 498A is used as a sword of Damocles over the latter, and it is not unusual to see petitions filed under these laws on falsified charges. More often than not, a messy legal battle ensues that, from what I have seen, no one wins. The whole process leaves everyone scarred, angry and frustrated with wounds that take ages to heal.

Dealing with abuse

All I can say is this. If there is no violence at home, don’t file a petition under the Domestic Violence Act. If there is no cruelty, don’t go anywhere near Sec 498A, whoever advises you to do so. But, per contra, if there is violence or cruelty, don’t hesitate to take recourse to the law, for, that is the best protection available to you. However, do so only after the matter has been escalated to other members in the family and assistance from mental health professionals has been sought. The way I see it, there is only one way to deal with spousal abuse. Don’t accept it. Approach it with a zero-tolerance policy, for even once is too much.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com