No safe haven for women at home

Gender-based violence against women is at an all-time high in Tamil Nadu. For a State that is counted as progressive otherwise, the latest National Family Health Survey findings are a sobering call to action against spousal violence primarily spurred by alcoholism. Even as the State’s coffers are regularly filled by selling alcohol, it is important for the government to devise multi-pronged strategies to protect the women of this State from violence. 

April 16, 2022 10:48 pm | Updated April 17, 2022 12:25 pm IST

Tamil Nadu has the tag of a ‘progressive State’ because of its achievements in various human development indicators. However, the recently published findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) have revealed some deep-seated contradictions that necessitate collective soul-searching.

Consider this data: 44.7% of ever-married women experienced physical or sexual violence in the State, the second-highest in the country. Nearly 80% of the women think a husband is justified in hitting his wife, the third-highest in the country. 81% of women never sought help and never told anyone when they faced domestic violence. Even among the remaining who sought help, 81.6% sought help from their own family, while only 2.8% went to the police. The fact that only a tiny percentage of women sought help from the police is corroborated by the extremely low number of cases registered in Tamil Nadu under Section 498A of the IPC, which deals with cruelty by husbands. The previous NFHS surveys have also indicated the same.

While a contradiction of such a degree between educational and financial indicators and the indicators on gender-based violence is almost unique in Tamil Nadu, activists and experts say it need not come as a surprise.

Swarna Rajagopalan, founder, Prajnya, says the numbers are not surprising as it is only a myth that better education, economic progress or an ideology that espouses something different would automatically yield a gender-equitable culture.

A survivor’s struggle

Thirty-nine-year-old Amudha*, who is now pursuing a Ph.D in geriatric health, suffered an abusive marriage for more than 10 years. Her inability to seek help and end the abuse at the beginning itself is emblematic of everything that is wrong in Tamil Nadu when it comes to domestic violence.

For Ms. Amudha, the struggle started even as a child when her father broke up with her mother and married another woman. “I was treated differently by both my father and stepmother. It was an unreasonably strict and disciplined environment,” she says. Despite being a studious child, she had to fight to get her father’s permission for joining college.

Poet and writer Meena Kandasamy says the problem lies in society’s approach towards violence, which is seen as a corrective disciplinary force. “Parents think it is completely okay to whack a child. Since childhood, violence within the family is seen as a virtuous force because the ‘intent is good’,” she says, adding that within a patriarchal society, women are infantilised and husbands are later given the ‘obligatory’ role of a disciplinarian.

Education for marriage

Just when Ms. Amudha completed her postgraduation in social work and was dreaming of taking up a job, she was coerced into a marriage. “My parents were an inter-caste couple. My mother’s side was keen that I should not marry anyone from my father’s caste, since they considered him lower in the caste hierarchy. So, when there was an alliance from a man from another upper caste, both my mother and father were keen that I accept the proposal,” she says.

S. Anandhi, professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, says spousal violence is very much related to compulsory marriages. She points out that though the percentage of women accessing higher education in Tamil Nadu is high, a majority of them drop out of the job market after that. She says higher education in a way becomes a step, not towards jobs, but towards marriage, in which women have a limited choice.

Work for family

Ms. Amudha’s husband, who turned out to be a school dropout contrary to his claim of being an undergraduate, was deeply insecure about his wife working elsewhere despite the family’s financial struggle. 

She was allowed to work in the small photocopy shop run by him. She had to do a 12-hour shift while he would often be absent from the shop. “I was not given a chair to sit. I had to sit on a stool without the back since that would apparently help me attend to the customers quicker,” she adds.

The responsibility to make the shop financially viable fell on her. “I was able to make a turnaround, but he did not like that. I was repeatedly insulted,” she says. Unable to bear the insults, she managed to take up a job elsewhere. “However, I was asked to take care of all key family expenses. Of the ₹8,000 salary, I had to pay ₹6,500 in rent and save up the remaining for my son’s school fee,” she says.

Professor Anandhi says the purpose of educating women often turns out to be to prepare them for the economic mobility of families and not their own. The purpose itself is patriarchal. She adds that to address gender-based violence, society has to address the crisis of masculinity in the context of neo-liberal economic policies and the lack of quality jobs, particularly for men.

Prasanna Gettu, managing trustee and co-founder, International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), says that contrary to assumption in a highly patriarchal society, improvement in education and economic independence may in fact increase domestic violence.

“Empowered women are seen as a threat by men who feel they are losing their power and control over their partners and therefore resort to violence,” she says. She adds that the push and pull between progress and sticking to traditional norms meant that women were often made to pay a big price for accessing such empowerment measures.

Guilt trap

Over the years, Ms. Amudha’s marriage turned more violent, physically and emotionally, with no help available even from her own family. She underwent two abortions. Her fidelity was constantly suspected by her husband, who even made her family believe that she was mentally unstable. 

“I tonsured my head once to make myself less attractive, thinking that it will assuage his [husband’s] doubts,” she says. She was taken to religious places, where she was beaten up to be ‘cured’ of her mental illness.

All through this period, Ms. Amudha says leaving the marriage never occurred as an option as she was repeatedly made to feel guilty that it was all her fault. “I had to think about my children and my emotional, physical and social needs. Living as a single woman in this society never occurred as an option then,” she says. 

Ms. Anandhi says it is the result of the constraint in women’s choices. ”If she leaves home, there is no good alternative. No public collectivity to sympathise with women who abdicate familial responsibilities because of violence,” she says.

U. Vasuki, national vice-president, All India Democratic Women’s Association, says that despite all the violence, the majority of women see husbands as a necessary social cover.

Ms. Kandasamy, who herself is a survivor of spousal violence, says Tamil Nadu has not fully absorbed ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy’s ideas of emancipation of women. “Periyar saw marriage as a social contract just like how we enter into a contract for employment. If we see it so, we will not have this holier-than-thou attitude about marriage, which makes women put up with any violence. If it is not working, women should be able to leave,” she says. 

Help a mirage

When Ms. Amudha felt enough was enough and decided to seek help, it was not easy. “When I go to the police, I am the first suspect. I have to prove that I am not the cause of the problems,” she says. Her efforts to get justice through court were not fruitful as well. Though she eventually managed to get a divorce after a protracted battle, she lost custody of her two children. “It has been four-and-a-half years since I last met my children,” she says. 

While Tamil Nadu takes pride in pioneering the concept of all women police stations, Ms. Rajagopalan says people in such institutions are not sensitised adequately. Ms. Gettu says shaming and re-victimisation by institutional players are major reasons that pushed victims away.

Concurring about lack of sensitisation, Ms. Vasuki says there is inadequacy in the capacity as well. She points out that protection officers are available only in the district headquarters. “It is difficult for women from villages to travel to seek help from them,” she says. She stresses that the role of alcoholism in violence should not be ignored. “While the State sees liquor as a source of revenue, it is completely absent when it comes to mitigating the ill-effects of liquor through deaddiction centres, support groups etc.,” she argues. The NFHS data show that consumption of alcohol by men in Tamil Nadu is among the highest in the country.

Way forward

Ms. Amudha says it took her nearly 15 years to accept that it was okay to live for herself. “I am so determined to complete my Ph.D. I want my story to help women come out of violent relationships,” she says.

Professor Anandhi says the intervention should begin by focusing on gender equality in education since the quality of education received by women has not equipped them to question the patriarchy.

Ms. Gettu says the government should understand and recognise domestic violence of any form as a crime and not just a ‘family issue’. Trauma-informed institutional response, revamping of the support systems based on impact assessments and increasing the number of one-stop centres with adequate professionals are some of the other measures needed, she adds. 

While the recent draft policy for women released by Tamil Nadu touched upon some of these aspects, Ms. Vasuki feels it is still inadequate. She says there is a need for sustained and intensified campaigns and strengthening of institutions like the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women with wider representation.

(*Name changed to protect identity.)

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