Four walls and the cry for help

Published - May 22, 2013 01:17 am IST

Every hour 25 women fall victim to crimes; 11 suffer cruelty by husbands and other relatives; three are raped; and there is one dowry death.

Horrific crimes against women have, in fact, continued unabated. What is worse is that there has been an acceleration of such crimes in recent years, with the annual rate rising from 5.9 per cent in 2006 to 7.8 per cent during 2006-2011. Cases of domestic violence against women by their husbands and other relatives comprised over 43 per cent of all crimes against women in 2011. Domestic violence also accelerated, with the annual rate rising from 8.25 per cent in 2006 to 11.41 per cent between 2006-2011 despite a landmark legislation in 2006 declaring “wife-beating” a crime (National Crime Bureau Report).

Violence is rooted in dowry issues — women are beaten, threatened, burned and even killed to extract gifts of money, jewellery and consumer durables (e.g. a television set, fridge) from their families. Such cruelty is not confined to cases around dowry, however. Negligence of domestic duties, poorly prepared food and going out alone without permission, a sign of independence, are often dealt with just as cruelly.


Our analysis, based on the India Human Development Survey 2004-05 , throws new light on the perceptions of patterns of domestic violence as well as some correlates. Since perceptions may not accurately reflect actual cases of domestic violence, the margins of error are difficult to assess. By contrast, actual cases are likely to be underestimates for fear of provoking further violence. Therefore, neither the National Crime Bureau nor the National Family Health Survey data on actual cases can be taken at face value. Another issue is the overlap between seemingly distinct forms of violence (e.g. marital rape, dowry-related, stemming from neglect of domestic duties). Hence, occurrence of multiple forms of domestic violence is typically more likely (e.g. dowry-related violence and that associated with the neglect of domestic duties) than any specific form alone (e.g. dowry-related). To circumvent this difficulty, we have constructed, for example, categories such as whether dowry-related violence was perceived as occurring with any other form of violence (e.g. associated with going out alone, neglect of domestic duties). This allows us to compare the incidence of a few dominant forms of domestic violence but without an unambiguous and mutually exclusive classification.

Out of the four categories considered, the highest incidence of violence was associated with going out alone without permission (about 39 per cent), followed by neglect of household duties (about 35 per cent), badly cooked meals (about 29.50 per cent), and dowry-related (about 29 per cent).

Political factor

If we classify States by the party in power, i.e., Congress-ruled, BJP-ruled, a coalition of either with other parties, and regional/State parties, the variation in domestic violence reveals a mixed pattern. Dowry-beating was highest in Congress-ruled States, and lowest in regional party-ruled States while violence resulting from going out alone was highest in BJP-ruled States and lowest in regional party-ruled States.

Locational differences are striking. Slums show the highest incidence of all forms of violence, followed by rural and urban areas. Violence associated with neglect of domestic duties was over 44 per cent in slums, over 37 per cent in rural areas and about 27.50 per cent in urban areas. A similar pattern is observed for bad cooking, with the highest violence in slums (over 33 per cent, 32 per cent in rural areas and about 21.50 per cent in urban). Dowry-related violence was also highest in slums (about 33 per cent), followed by rural areas (31.50 per cent) and then urban (22 per cent).

In the metros

A disaggregation into six major metros (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad) does not corroborate the north-south divide that has been the staple of demographers. Dowry-related violence was highest in Bangalore (48.55 per cent), followed by Chennai (about 33.50 per cent) and lowest in Delhi (about 18 per cent). Violence associated with neglect of household duties follows a slightly different pattern, with the highest incidence in Chennai (53 per cent), followed by Bangalore (over 47 per cent) and lowest in Delhi (about 11 per cent). While Bangalore overtakes Chennai in violence associated with bad cooking (about 47 per cent and over 35 per cent, respectively), Delhi exhibits the lowest incidence (6.20 per cent).

As these are perceptions, associations with economic conditions, household endowments including educational achievements, employment and earnings, and cultural characteristics (whether affiliated to SCs/ STs, OBCs and others) unravel a few key correlates but are not necessarily causal inferences.

At the State level, in all four types of violence, there are strong negative correlations between State GDP per capita and the incidence of such violence. The higher the State GDP per capita, for example, the lower was the incidence of dowry-related violence. A comparison of incidence of this between the lowest and highest (physical) asset groups suggests that dowry-related violence in the latter was 67 per cent of that in the lowest group. Similar findings are obtained for other forms of violence — neglect of domestic duties (72 per cent), bad cooking (66 per cent), and going out alone without permission (67 per cent). So States with larger shares of highest asset group exhibit lower domestic violence. That (relative) affluence has a dampening effect on domestic violence is plausible.


Educational achievements of women make a significant difference too — the higher the proportion of women with 10 years or more of education, the lower is the incidence of violence. Comparison of dowry-beating between this group and another with lower education reveals a large difference — 10 percentage points. Differences in other forms of violence are large too — neglect of domestic duties (9.50 percentage points), and going out alone (16 percentage points). Higher education expands the fallback options for women outside the home and thus lowers domestic violence.

Women’s empowerment is often measured in terms of outside wage employment and earnings relative to those of men. Our analysis confirms these links but in a nuanced way. At low ratios of female wage employment to male wage employment, the incidence of dowry-beating rises slightly but falls thereafter quite sharply. A similar relationship is observed between the ratio of female earnings to male earnings and such violence, pointing to thresholds below which neither ratio lowers domestic violence. Rather, at low values, it rises. So high levels of female employment and earnings are critical to lowering domestic violence against women.

Whether domestic violence is cultural too is examined in terms of variation across SCs/STs, OBCs and Others. As these groups also imply a ranking in terms of economic status, with SCs/STs as the most disadvantaged, OBCs as less disadvantaged and Others as least disadvantaged, any association between domestic violence and these groups is likely to reflect both differences in cultural practices and economic conditions. Subject to this caveat, the higher the proportions of SCs/STs and OBCs, the higher is the frequency of domestic violence in its multiple forms.

In conclusion, while judicial activism has a limited role in curbing domestic violence, expansion of economic opportunities for women, higher education facilities, asset accumulation, and curbing of gender-related discriminatory practices in the labour market hold promise.

(Vani S. Kulkarni is a research associate, Department of Sociology, Yale University; Manoj K. Pandey, a doctoral candidate in Economics, Australian National University, and Raghav Gaiha, a visiting scientist, Department of Global Health and Population, Harvard School of Public Health.)

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