Thirty-two-year-old Sumita Chavan* never saw her husband’s everyday assaults as a form of violence until she walked into Room No. 101 at the OPD in Mumbai’s K.B. Bhabha Hospital. “My husband loves me very much,” a visibly bruised Chavan told the counsellor, “but he just can’t control his anger.”
A mother of two, Chavan was referred here from the hospital’s casualty department where she sought pain relief for multiple contusions on her body. Chavan was reticent at first, but when she finally began talking to the counsellor, what emerged was a long history of verbal and physical abuse over 10 years of marriage.
She spoke of doing housework from morning to midnight; she was not allowed to visit her parents or even step out for a walk; her husband would beat her for the slightest reason — if he was not served food on time, if the food was not hot enough, if his mother was not served fresh rotis or if she happened to talk to her relatives. But he also bought her clothes, gave her enough money to run the house. “So Sumita did not realise her husband’s behaviour was abusive,” said counsellor Chitra Joshi.
Room No. 101 was the country’s first Dilaasa crisis centre for domestic violence, which was set up in 2000 in collaboration with Cehat (Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes). Here, counsellors are trained to help women open up about the violence they may face in their homes — abuse they often don’t recognise as abuse. The counsellors work closely with doctors and hospital staff, who are sensitised to detect possible traces of domestic abuse — whether in seemingly mundane ailments like a recurring urinary tract infection or something more serious like frequent miscarriages. They are trained to ask questions, but to never press; then, if needed, to discreetly refer the women to a Dilaasa counsellor.
According to recent National Family Health Survey data, one in three Indian women is subjected to physical, sexual or emotional abuse by her husband at some point in life. And yet, domestic violence remains a hidden phenomenon, and few women ever seek help. Today, nearly a decade after the Dilaasa centre at K.B. Bhabha Hospital was set up, the model has been replicated in 12 other civic-run hospitals in Mumbai and in 30 centres in Kerala, Meghalaya, Gujarat, Haryana and Goa.
“We have created a place that is non-threatening. A place where women can simply sit and vent their heart out,” said Joshi, who is in charge of Mumbai’s Dilaasa centres. Joshi, however, notices a disquieting tendency among women to rationalise the abuse. “They tell us they were beaten because they did something wrong: ‘I did not cook on time, I made tasteless food, I did not clean the house well’.” This also explains why a mere 10% of women who come to Dilaasa centres file complaints of domestic violence. “We have to explain to them that nothing is an excuse for violence.”
In the one year since Dilaasa became operational at the bustling Hospicio hospital in Margao, Goa, 182 cases have been referred to it. Apart from referring female patients with inexplicable injuries, doctors also lean on the centre for medico-legal advice in cases of sexual violence. “As doctors, we are afraid of getting caught up in legal tangles,” said Lawrence Gomes, a junior gynaecologist at Hospicio, who helped set up the centre. “But a course by Cehat changed this mindset.” It also streamlined the process of examining sexual violence survivors.
In this small, unremarkable room with bare walls, a table, and two chairs, a session lasts around 40 minutes, and follow-ups are encouraged, though they happen too rarely. The centre has to maintain a fine balance: it seeks to help, but must also ensure that its efforts do not result in further violence against the women.
“Some women first deny that their husband beat them, but if their husband does so again, they remember that we offered to listen, and they come back,” says a counsellor. “We are like a friend they can turn to,” said Celine Miranda, a paediatrician and the point of contact for both counsellors and doctors with Dilaasa in Margao. She is now making ‘emotional treatment’ a priority. “Whenever there is an illness or injury, we generally just look at medical aid, not at the possible emotional impact.”
Emotional succour is exactly what is offered to the 25 survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse who gather once a fortnight in a nondescript centre at a hospital in Shillong, to meet Dhanmaya. She isn’t a professional counsellor, but the women relate to Dhanmaya more than anyone else, and she to them: she sees her past in their stories. Dhanmaya works at Iohlynti, a support centre set up by NGO North East Network (NEN) with Dilaasa’s help at Shillong’s Ganesh Das Maternal and Child Health Hospital.
Meghalaya’s three principal communities — Khasi, Jaintia and Garo — are matrilineal, but that does not insulate their women against violence. Police records say the cases have increased from 172 in 2007 to 594 in 2017. “Cohabitation without having to get married has been a major cause of violence. In rural areas, 15-year-olds get pregnant and live with the man who has no obligation to support her, who can walk out, or get married to someone else,” said Joy Grace Syiem, the programme manager for the Meghalaya unit of NEN. Between 2011 and 2018, Iohlynti handled 398 cases of domestic violence. Four or five cases of physical, verbal, and financial abuse are reported here every day.
But the interventions by Iohlynti and fieldworkers of associated government departments have increased awareness tremendously. “Domestic violence continues, but unlike in the past, women do not take years to report. The tolerance to violence has reduced — and that’s been our biggest impact,” said Syiem.
*Some names changed to protect identity.
Shireen Azam is a freelance writer based in Goa.