By Anita Panda
On May 24, Roma Thakur, a freelance writer based in Pune, wrote on Twitter, “Normalise divorce. Denormalise domestic violence.” The tweet went viral and created a huge controversy, with both men and women commenting on it with their approval or criticism. The impact was that the insidious way that society works to enable domestic violence was laid bare.
Roma, who is co-author of the book My Mom Is a DJ, says she was angered by the fact that divorce is “such a big word” even today, “especially in smaller cities and villages, where a lot of women have started supporting themselves and their children but are afraid to leave their abusive husbands because of the stigma associated with it,” she says.
Roma adds, “Women can only be completely free when we’ve shed all expectations of conforming to the ideal of a ‘good woman’ in society and stop taking mental and physical torture lying down.” Her tweet comes at a time when the National Commission for Women (NCW) has reported a spike in reported cases of domestic violence during the lockdown.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore various fissures in society when it comes to gender inequality in homes. In her new short film Listen to Her that has been endorsed by UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and the South Asia Foundation, actor-director-producer Nandita Das portrays a powerful message of abuse, violence and discrimination in Indian families.
In the seven-minute nuanced film, she portrays a mother who – despite being an executive herself – must shoulder the burden of childcare and housework, even serving her husband coffee, while the world is in work-from-home mode.
Her world accidentally clashes with another woman – a poor one, who is being beaten brutally by her family for not cooking well enough and for taking too long to get foodstuff from the market – and the viewer is shown both the similarity and the contrast in their lives.
In India’s contradictory universe, most women would fall on either side of this privileged-underprivileged divide, both with their own versions of gender bias intact.
Misogyny starts at home, and domestic violence is rooted in power and control. As the world spirals down in lockdown, women in abusive relationships are suffering a silent pandemic at home. The spike in cases of domestic violence during the lockdown is only a grim reminder of the brutal truth that when it comes to gender and sexual violence in India, the perpetrator is not always a stranger but the one at home.
The NCW recorded a more than two-fold spike in gender violence pan India, with 315 cases being reported on its special WhatsApp number 7217735372 in April alone. Layoffs, salary cuts, an uncertain future, global recession and anxiety have made homes into nightmarish hell-holes.
Vasundhara Sanghi, counselor at Dhirubhai Ambani Internationnal School, Mumbai, says intimate partner violence leaves women struggling to access support due to fear and social stigma. “They are stuck with violent partners 24/7 not allowing for a reprieve,” she notes.
Ankita Kohirkar, programme coordinator for the women’s rights non-profit Urja Trust, says that ever since the lockdown began, 21 women from diverse communities have reached out to them for help.
“National helplines are buzzing with the highest number of cases. The current situation is leaving women with no access to ration, economic support, sexual and reproductive health care and sanitary products. Instances are higher in lower income groups and the stigma makes it a nightmare for women,” she says, adding, “If she tests positive for COVID, it is worse! She becomes the vulnerable recipient of male anger, frustration, and physical, mental and verbal abuse.”
Urja’s work has found that while women of all social strata and caste face discrimination and domestic violence, the types and forms differ. Access to education, health and contraception is deficient in lower-income, marginalised sections.
The women reaching out to Urja hail from varied backgrounds: a 33-year-old single woman being harassed by her sexist father for stepping out of home to work; a 34-year-old homemaker with two kids living with her parents after being beaten up by her husband who neither wants to work nor be responsible for her and their kids; a suicidal woman in her second marriage being tortured by her new husband and mother-in-law, and so on.
Flavia Agnes, eminent Indian lawyer, author, activist, and co-founder of MAJLIS, a forum for women’s rights discourse and legal initiatives in Mumbai, agrees with Roma’s call to “denormalise domestic violence”. She says, “Earlier, society accepted domestic violence as divorce was a stigma. In a situation of domestic violence, women [now] prefer divorce rather than prolong a violent marriage.”
“But,” she adds, “this option is mainly for highly qualified young women. If you are a housewife, economically dependent on a husband, then you need a Protection Order from the court to safeguard your rights within your matrimonial home and seek protection from domestic violence. It will protect you for your right of residence there.”
But domestic violence is not limited to physical violence. Emotional and financial abuse also takes a toll on the victim in the long term. Flavia says, “The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act enacted in 2005 defines domestic violence very broadly as physical, mental, sexual and economic. We have to look at the remedies provided under the Act such as injunction protection order, right of maintenance and compensation, right to child custody and the right to reside in the matrimonial home free of violence. While this is true, the courts focus mainly on protection against domestic violence and economic deprivation such as non-payment of maintenance.”
Admittedly, going to court is the last thing on the mind of a marginalised woman suffering intimate partner violence. Persis Sidhwa, litigation head at MAJLIS, shares the bleak situation: “There are many police and NGO helplines, but a lot of women are stuck with limited money and are unable to recharge their mobiles with perpetrators at home. In such situations, community support and neighbours are more helpful than reaching out to helplines.”
She adds grimly, “We will only be able to assess the situation post-lockdown as the impact will be available later.”
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