The Family Secret

A child is playing in the home. He hears the main door opening and then sees a man entering the home. The child immediately curls up in a corner, looking very frightened. The man enters the adjacent room. The child hears loud voices coming from the room. Then he hears his mother screaming. The child is now terrified and starts to sob. After a few moments, the man reappears. He seems angry. He starts marching towards the child. Shivering, the child somehow musters courage and says, “No, papa. Please. No.”

Domestic violence is that harsh reality in our society which we never talk about. It is supposed to be an internal matter of a family. But is it really so? Domestic violence is the most unreported crime in the world for both men and women. Men face additional gender-related barriers in reporting due to social stigmas. However, let us be clear here – the victims are overwhelmingly women and children. Around the world, one in every three women suffers from domestic abuse. If we talk about India, the situation is a lot worse. According to National Family Health Survey 2005-06, 40% of women experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. However, according to a survey conducted by a private institute which is funded by Planning Commission of India, the figure stands at an alarming 84%. Women suffer extreme forms of violence like physical, verbal or sexual abuse, acid-throwing, genital mutilation etc. It is established that a country’s level of gender equality is inversely proportional to the number of cases of domestic violence. At the same time, there is a strong link between domestic violence and child abuse. So, is it really a surprise that India has one of the worst records when it comes to child abuse or domestic violence?

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Things cannot change unless we accept that something is wrong. What scares me most is, unlike most crimes, domestic violence enjoys cultural and social acceptance. We think it is fine for a man to hit his wife. Such acts are considered private, between a man and his wife, inside a home. In some countries, it is seen as justified, particularly in cases of actual or suspected infidelity on the part of woman, and is legally permitted. According to a UNICEF survey, an overwhelming majority of women in countries like Afghanistan, Mali, Jordan, Laos etc think it is justified for a husband to hit or beat his wife under certain circumstances. In India, the situation is no different. In 2012, a report by UNICEF found that 57% of Indian boys and 53% of Indian girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified. If we have accepted domestic violence as a “justified consequence”, how will we ever change the situation?

Why does a woman tolerate all this? There are many inter-linked reasons. A woman gives in to the power and control of her husband. As discussed earlier, cultural acceptance to domestic violence is also a major factor. Women, especially the ones who are not well-educated, lack financial resources. They are dependent on their husbands for their economic survival. So, they find it impossible to retaliate. Fear and shame are also two dominant factors. Many women tolerate domestic abuse in order to protect their children. What they don’t understand is, domestic abuse is a cycle which becomes more intense and frequent with time. Financial abuse is another facet of domestic abuse which is often overlooked, especially in India. It includes giving extremely low amount to woman to run households, seeking details of every penny spent and controlling all spending of her. Other aspects of domestic abuse include not allowing women to socialise, putting ridiculous restrictions and controlling every aspect of her life. The effects of domestic violence on women are devastating. They face psychological problems like post traumatic stress disorders, depression, feeling of worthlessness etc. They somehow consider themselves responsible for the acts and become guilt-conscious. Apart from the physical injuries, there are the mental scars that haunt most. The woman does not know what her husband would do next. She is terrified of the unknown and lives in a constant fear.

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When a man hits his wife, there are two sufferers. Have we ever imagined the effects on the children who witness this abuse or, worse, are themselves abused? Children who live in households with violence often show psychological problems from an early age, such as deregulated aggression which generally later contributes to continuing the legacy of abuse when they reach adulthood. Research indicates that the more corporal punishment children receive, the more likely they are, as adults, to act violently towards family members including intimate partners (wives, girlfriends etc). So, we are basically preparing the next breed of abusers. As domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour, these incidents increase in severity and frequency, increasing the probability that the children themselves will become victims. Children face problems in socialising and also suffer from anxiety, depression, emotional insecurity and mental health disorders.

Domestic violence

So, why does a man hit his wife? Well, there are the usual excuses like “taking out stress, frustration and anger”. Alcoholism also makes the matters worse. But I believe the genesis of the problem is a lot deeper. Men consider themselves to be superior to women and treat women as weak and helpless. A husband considers beating his wife his right because he is taking care of her financially. For him, she is just an object. In some countries, relation between husband and wife is not considered one of equals but instead one in which wife must submit herself to the husband. However, are husbands the only abusers? In some societies around the world, ours included, when a young bride moves in with the family of the husband, she starts as having the lowest (or among the lowest) position in the family and is often subjected to violence and abuse. She is strongly controlled by her parents-in-law. With the arrival of daughter-in-law in the family, the mother-in-law’s status is elevated and she now has (often for the first time in her life) substantial power over someone else, and this family system itself tends to produce a cycle of violence in which the formerly abused bride becomes the abusing mother-in-law to her new daughter-in-law.

So, what are the solutions to stop this monster of domestic violence? Here are a few steps than can help:

  • Counselling – In Indian society, counselling is seen as a taboo. You are considered mentally retarded if you seek professional help. However, counselling of the abuser and abused solves many psychological problems and minimises the risk of future domestic violence.
  • We need to understand that the effects of these steps will only be seen in the next generation. The present generation has to work really hard so that the future is brighter.
  • Having a pet in the family reduces stress levels and lightens the atmosphere. However, it can be extremely risky, because the abuser might start hitting the pet to take out his frustration. On a personal level, I believe hitting your pet is the worst thing you can do in your life. Period.
  • Bell Bajao Campaign is an amazing and effective way to stop domestic violence. Whenever you hear your neighbour hitting or screaming at his wife, just ring his door bell and ask an innocent question like, “What is the time?”, “Can I borrow some sugar?” etc. This ensures two things. One, it interrupts the violence. Second, it tells the abuser that people are watching and listening. He is not going unnoticed. It also gives the victim a chance to escape. When you ring the bell, don’t mention the violence but give the abuser a cold and hard look. Your eyes should show your anger. The abuser will understand.

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  • Stricter laws – We need better laws to counter domestic violence. Marital rape is not recognised in India. Although there are valid arguments for both sides of the debate, I believe it must be criminalised. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 is also misused by women in some cases. Domestic violence against men is not recognised by law in India. Actually, as per law, the “offender” cannot be a woman. At the same time, there is no specific hotline provided by govt where women can complain against domestic violence. The USA has a unique National Domestic Violence Hotline whereas India has too many hotlines dealing with different issues. We need one, specific and unified hotline where all complaints relating to domestic violence can be made. Although private NGOs are working hard, the govt needs to step up.
  • If anyone facing domestic violence is reading this, I request you to raise your voice. Complain. Get rid of it. Live, for your sake and your children’s sake. No one should live in the fear of the person they love. We need to talk about domestic violence. Moreover, please understand that violence is no solution. If you have some issues with your spouse, please sit down and discuss.

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  • Most importantly, believe that women are equal and treat them accordingly. This is the most important pre-requisite for a healthy and peaceful family and society.

To all the boys and men, I want to ask some questions. What kind of men we want to be? Our families should be afraid of us? They should feel more secure without us? Our children should be terrified of our shadows? So, tell me, what kind of men we want to be?

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