Battling the odds...

TWENTY YEARS ago if a woman started proceedings for divorce the lawsuit made it to the civil court and the news to the press. Today, crowded family courts arbitrate 2,500 broken marriages annually, a plurality of which trace their origin to domestic violence. Between their mandir or mosque squabbles, our MPs have found it necessary to shine the light on matrimonial violence. The result? A law to protect women from licensed abuse.

So will the battered bride now wake up to a dawn of an abuse-free actuality? Vijay Nagaswami, author of `Courtship in Marriage' is hopeful. No, not because efficient enforcement will turn men into kindly gods. ``The new law,'' he admits,``recognises the problem of violence and may act as a deterrent but will not change the situation.'' But because society is in transition from ancient family norms to the need to view woman as an individual.

Why do men resort to this cowardly act? The doctor takes a `Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' line. The break in domestic bliss is due to the control games couples play. ``Each tries to control the other perhaps unconsciously, creating fear in the spouse's mind.'' In a joint set-up this fear would be absorbed while in a non-communicative nuclear family, the situation goes ballistic. He also talks of the constant tussle between intellect and emotions. ``Women are closer to their emotions and so are at an advantage. But men retreat from displaying them. They replay parental parameters and count societal sanctions and patriarchal assistance as allies. Cornered when nagged by the wife they lash out. The woman may be justified in her demands but chooses the wrong method to establish her authority. If bullying is wrong, so is nagging," is his contention. What about unprovoked assault? ``We follow ritualised patterns of behaviour. Aggression is in-built. Parents cling to their children. If the mother is willing to let go most mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law wars will vanish. But she has been a martyr in her own marital home.'' Translated, it means married men are mama's boys who take refuge in `tradition' to justify abuse. And jump when there is an emotional `boo'.

The psychiatrist sees increasing signs of sensitivity among men to women's aspirations. ``Three out of ten men are SNAGS (Sensitive New Age Guys).''In true psycho-parlance he warns, ``Women are developing the masculine side of their personality and tend to go overboard. Men are beginning to exhibit womanly traits but are still uncomfortable with emotions. Soon both will reach a balance. Earlier without the social luxury of separation, couples stayed emotionally divorced."

Another reason for the tinder-box status of marriage is the emphasis on success at work. Affirmation of self-worth cannot come from outside, he says, it should spring from within. Work can give economic independence but it won't offer an intimate relationship which all of us hanker for.

The prescription? More counselling agencies on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous to provide beleaguered couples with the framework and tools to set right the merger. Others are more down-to-earth about the husband's inability to bridle his barbaric side. Absence of friends they can confide in, low self esteem, lack of social networks to support him in trouble, abusive fathers given to alcoholism and violence are factors that justify wife-beating in his eyes. ``When men do not know what they want in a marriage their threshold of tolerance gets very low,'' says Sheila Jayaprakash, lawyer. ``With fragile egos they cannot sustain themselves when the going gets tough and the wife is the convenient whipping post.'' One counsellor advocates karate lessons for self-defence.

Manjula Ramesh, whose Agony Aunt column in Mangayar Malar regularly dispenses words of comfort to beaten and bruised women, has no quick remedies. ``In this changed society torture comes in sophisticated forms,'' she explains. She finds the educated girl's plight much worse. ``She is now mobile, travels alone, has excellent corporate skills and even has better physical strength. She puts in long hours of work and takes hard management decisions but seems to lack the resilience and courage to manage a husband at home. She scientifically solves problems at work. How come she backs out of a psychological warfare?"

Manjula would like parents to rollback the pressure on doing well and teach children to face failures. ``Teach your daughters to be courageous,'' she says. ``And not rush out of a marriage. It is not easy to be a single woman. Is she ready to face consequences?"

But once she leaves she should find shelter in government hostels. Manjula sees a major role for Ladies Clubs in the physical and mental rehabilitation of battered women generally prone to depression and suicidal tendencies.

Kuppamma bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kannagi statue in exile. After 15 years of physical violence from her carpenter husband she is at the police station demanding justice. She read a message for battered women flashed on a movie screen and reached for the help line. She surprised herself (and the husband) by registering a complaint. She hopes the policewomen at the station will nail him for assault and abuse.

At 2 a.m. one November day, a man noticed a young girl at a bus stand near Greenways Road. He remembered a handbill with a telephone number for help. He dialled 1091, gave the particulars. The high school girl lost in Chennai in pursuit of a popular actor was restored to her parents.

In the six months since women's helpline 1091 has been in operation, 52 calls have been registered at the Adyar police station. Sadly, 70 per cent of them pertain to domestic violence.

The victim profile varies. Women who have been thrown-out-of-the-house, unbalanced, enticed to the city-but-abandoned-later, harassed or thrashed for dowry... Once the vehicle reaches the spot a woman police officer makes a preliminary assessment. (A male colleague accompanies her if drunkenness has been reported). She talks to the husband and in-laws to resolve the conflict. If there is a threat to the victim's life she is whisked away to a shelter ("Abhaya Illam on Kutcheri Road, Avvai Home, Udavum Karangal and Banyan are ever ready to take them in,'' says Rajalakshmi, SI).

Follow-up procedures include calling the families for statements, long hours of questioning, FIRs, lawsuits and in extreme cases `lock-up' for the offender. Counselling is a must. It is given either by the senior officers or by the permanently attached counsellors of the Social Welfare Board. Saraswathi and Rajalakshmi are emphatic that their aim always is to bring couples together. ``We take action against the husband only if the wife insists.''

``Our laws are not oriented towards victims,'' rues Tripathi, Joint Commissioner of Police, Law and Order. ``There are no effective measures to prevent crimes against women. But it is obvious police action alone is not the panacea for this scourge," he adds.

``We are trying to involve more NGOs, philanthropists, industries and above all women's associations for the follow-up work in rehabilitating the destitute and the deserted. We can only remain as facilitators.''

(The names of the victims have been changed)


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