Wedded to violence

Myth: Domestic violence occurs only in poor families.

Reality: It happens everywhere.

The truth is as disturbing as it is horrifying.

The statistics of the State Crime Records Bureau on domestic violence show a rise in such atrocities in recent years (In 1990, 186 such cases were reported. In 1995, the number rose to 676. During 1999, it was 2,416, while the year 2000 reveals a slight decrease in the number of these incidents, with 1,019 cases). It comes as no surprise that a survey on domestic violence, conducted in five States in India, by the International Clinical Epidemiologists Network (INCLEN) and the International Center for Research On Women (ICWR), found that women are unequivocally the primary victims of domestic violence.

And here's the most damning fact of all: `Kerala is ranked first among the five States in India, in the prevalence of domestic violence, both physical and psychological' (see table on MP-3).

Legally speaking, there is no all-encompassing definition for domestic violence. Generally speaking, domestic violence can be described as "the misuse of power by an adult to control his spouse". Both men and women can get abused, but in most cases, the victims are women. Violence may also be directed toward children.

Wedded to violence, these women have been suffering in silence for years. Women trapped in a marriage where domestic violence is predominant become emotionally and physically insecure. They buckle under intense societal pressure and remain apprehensive about the future of their children. Some have learned to live with it- for fear of ostracism.

Society has a tendency to ignore `domestic violence'.

"The social response to domestic violence had earlier prevented women from talking about the violence they face at home," observes social activist and writer, Sugatha Kumari, who runs Abhaya, a non-Governmental organisation for women. "One of the main reasons for domestic violence is the inability of women to participate in the process of decision making both at home and in society. Moreover, economic dependence also makes women vulnerable to domestic violence. Even economically independent women, from well-to-do families, do not speak out because they do not wish to mar their status in society," adds Sugatha Kumari. "A middle-aged woman, senior officer in a Government department, was continually beaten up by her husband, who himself holds a post of authority in another Government department. An alcoholic, he would beat her up regularly for inane reasons. The lady finally approached the State Women's Commission for assistance. She was unable to go to office for days together. She later sought divorce from her husband."

Domestic violence against women has serious health repercussions that extend far beyond immediate physical injuries. It invariably leads to mental problems such as depression, anxiety, post - traumatic stress-disorder and asthma. The victims even contemplate suicide.

R. Vanaja, a victim of domestic violence (now undergoing counselling), says, "I was totally broken. I was locked into the relationship. I hoped that he would change. I thought he'd eventually realise and stop assaulting me, but... "

Abused women need assistance in knowing how to handle domestic violence and seek counselling.

With most women's organisations focussing on legal and social support for such `battered' women, very few organisations have taken into consideration their mental problems. Moreover, there is not much effort to counsel the perpetrator and work towards resolving the conflict. However, not all NGOs have qualified personnel to counsel the victims of domestic abuse.

Women who suppress their anguish may become prone to panic attacks and suffer from insomnia. And they consult a doctor who sends them back with some medicines, most probably sleeping pills. The real issue of anxiety or fatigue would remain unaddressed. Take the case of this 36-year-old who had been subject to domestic violence by her alcoholic husband for more than 16 years. She finally walked out of the relationship with her two children. The decision to do so was prompted by a "repugnant" act by which her husband would spoil the children's food. She had been undergoing treatment for depression and now sleeps with a broom kept under her pillow.

"Such men need psychiatric treatment, but they refuse to be counselled. The paradox, however, is that many women who seek counselling, prefer to live on with their abusive husbands," explains Dr. Elizabeth Vadakekkara, psychiatrist and coordinator at the Thrani-Centre for Crisis Control, in the city.

Take the case of a 38-year old software professional, regarded as the quintessential `nice guy' at office. He is a tyrant at home. He has an unshakeable belief that the wife is unfaithful to him. As a result, he forces her to admit to her alleged `affairs'. Their quarrels often take violent turns. On one such occasion, he stabbed his wife. She was fatally wounded, but survived to face more assaults. She still lives with him. But today, she is a mental wreck. "Timely and proper counselling, along with medical treatment and societal support, alone, can help such women lead better lives," points out Dr. Suraraj Mani, psychologist, General Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram.

Wedded to violence

Certain abusers suffer from delusion of infidelity, which leads to paranoia. This, in turn, leads to violence.

Repression is cited as the main reason for such bestial behaviour. The victims often turn masochistic.

"However, there have been many instances wherein abusers and victims have been helped out of the mess to lead normal lives through intervention programmes such as individual psychotherapy," says K. R. Binu, a student of clinical psychology at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College.

In cases of severe depression and violent behaviour, pharmacotherapy (medicines) is sought for cure. The modality of treatment depends on the type of psychological problem and its severity.

The children in such families suffer too. The instability at home affects their ability to socialise. And it affects their personality.

It may also lead to aggressive behaviour. Young boys may turn to drugs and alcohol for solace.

They may also indulge in anti-social activities.

Girls become extremely depressed, and are prone to tantrums.

SUCH CHILDREN may develop unhealthy relationships and in certain cases may even show sexual deviation.

D. Sreedevi, former head of the State Women's Commission, points out that in almost 70 per cent of the homes, women go through some form of psychological, physical or verbal abuse. "Only a few come forward to voice their grievances, because they are not aware of what the law can do to protect them. Society needs to be sensitised on the gravity of domestic violence as does the police and judiciary. The National Commission has started programmes to create more awareness," she says.

But it is not as though men are always the abusers and never the victims. There are incidents, say psychologists, when "men seek counselling on grounds of abuse by their spouses". Some women are paranoid by nature and constantly accuse their spouse of being unfaithful. They are prone to violent outbursts and may even attempt suicide to `punish' the spouse for his `alleged affairs'. "A lady who suffers from paranoia is in the habit of locking the gate with two big locks. She keeps the keys in an almirah. And she keeps the almirah's keys beneath her pillow. Yet, every morning she accuses her husband of having sneaked off at night to meet the `other woman'. The husband is now undergoing treatment. Some men become alcoholics or end up in extra-marital affairs due to the spouse's abnormal behaviour," says Dr. Mani.

"Women need to be made aware of their legal rights and the need of the hour is women's empowerment and economic independence. The `Prevention of Domestic Violence Act' Bill, in its present form, requires a few amendments to safeguard the rights of abused women," explains D. Sreedevi. The Bill possesses certain intrinsic flaws such as the absence of a sound definition of domestic violence, the non-specification of the nature of relief or compensation to a victim of domestic violence. The aim of the current Bill -- " to preserve the family and regulate and improve matters for the future, rather than to make judgements or punish past behaviour... "-- needs to be modified to safeguard the legal rights of the victim. Worse still, the Bill condones violence that is committed in "self-defence".

According to Aleyamma Vijayan, director, Sakhi Resource Centre for Women, these women (victims of domestic violence) "should be helped to deal with the sense of betrayal and hurt and look at life with optimism".