Our Worst-Kept Secret
Violence against women in the private realm is relegated to secondary status, whether in India or in the United States. Strong laws and public policies are essential steps toward combating such violence. But the real solution lies in a culture shift, in the world, and in each of our homes
MALLIKA KAUR TRIBUNE CHANDIGARH
Three friends walked home after another tiring rehearsal for the school function. It was barely dusk. When the man leapt out of nowhere to pounce on Bandana (name changed), no one was sure what happened. Then a yell grew out of one belly and found its way down the road, down their backs, and into small eighth-grade fists that pounded on the man. He ran. The girls were proud they had fought. When they got home, they told the story solemnly. “Well, that’s what happens when you go walking around in the evenings, going out like that alone!” Bandana’s father message was clear — Chandigarh, 1997.
Brushed under the carpet
The message young girls begin receiving from our families, friends, and society becomes engrained by the time they reach womanhood: that we must not make the unforgiveable mistake of becoming victims of violence. While violence by strangers at least provides some room for women expressing their agony and demanding redressal, violence within the home remains a taboo topic. And this taboo crosses geographic, ethnic, and racial borders.
Victims of domestic abuse
On 17 August 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published its opinion finding the United States on the wrong side of human rights and domestic violence survivors. The Commission had considered the case of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) whose three young daughters were abducted by Lenahan’s abusive husband, Simon Gonzales, in Castle Rock, Colorado in 1999. Despite Lenahan’s repeated calls and pleas to the police, reporting that she already had a domestic violence restraining order (a legal remedy the US has made relatively easily accessible to its residents) against Simon, the police failed to act for 10 hours. Eventually, Simon Gonzales drove up to the police department and opened fire. He was shot dead by the police. The three girls were subsequently discovered shot to death inside Simon’s truck. Jessica’s legal battle for this tragic loss yielded no results.
In 2005, the US Supreme Court even found that the police involved had not violated the US Constitution by their inaction. However, the Inter-American Commission found that the US had indeed violated human rights by failing to uphold its laws to protect its nationals from domestic violence.
Laws alone not enough
In India too, domestic violence is a punishable offense under the law, even if only rather recently. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, which became effective starting October 26, 2006, clearly recognised domestic violence as a punishable offence. However, the recent shaming of the US—a country that has innumerable times more extensive legal protections and services for domestic violence survivors-provides a moment of pause from comparing the wide (perhaps incomparable) chasm between the two legal systems and rather understanding a sad commonality. Laws alone cannot curb violence in the homes as long as domestic violence continues to be treated ‘special’. When it comes to such crimes, we often hear: “There must be two sides to the story” or “they both have strong personalities” or “he is frustrated since he lost his job.”
But, consider this scenario: if my neighbour loses his job, and proceeds to pick fights with me every day, gets drunk and curses me, breaks a window, wouldn’t you agree with my decision to call the police, whether or not he ever physically touches me? But if my partner does the same, why shouldn’t he conform to the standard of behavior, the law and society demand from my acquaintance-neighbour?
Breaking uneasy silence
Such uncomfortable discussions are thus largely missing in our living rooms. The domestic violence movement in the US has been asking precisely such questions more publically, loudly, and brazenly, than in many other parts of the world. For example, during October, nationally recognised as ‘Domestic Violence Awareness Month’ in the US, several public awareness activities are undertaken country-wide. During ‘Standing Silent Witness’ hours, women and men line up in busy city squares holding placards or wearing T-shirts with slogans acknowledging someone they know (or know of) who has faced domestic violence. During ‘Remembrance Days,’ survivors, allies, advocates, join together to remember those who have died because of domestic violence and also celebrate those who have survived. Purple ribbons, which have become the symbols of solidarity with anti-domestic violence work, are made into pins and passed out at local events; worn on bags and jackets; and hung on doors.
In India, we saw the Bell Bajao campaign, by the non-profit Breakthrough in 2008. TV, radio, online and print media were employed to circulate catchy calls for action by society to take a stand against domestic violence. To break the uneasy silence.
Measuring domestic violence
The anti-violence movement in the US has also promoted the measurement of domestic violence crimes, and the publicising of the statistics, so as to respond to the universal reaction—“We aren’t that kind of a family!”
On an average, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in the US every day. The Center for Disease Control has found that one in four women and one in nine men in the US report being victims of domestic violence at some points in their lives. Also, more recently, teen dating violence has been studied as a priority: approximately one in five female high school students report being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused by a dating partner.
In India, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2005-06, recorded that 37 per cent women reported being survivors of spousal abuse; that is more than 1 in 3. These statistics show that most of us know someone who is a survivor of such violence, and all of us then are in fact ‘that kind of a family.’
Violence knows no bar
When I began representing domestic violence survivors in Californian courts, one of my mother’s friend’s asked her in all earnest, “So is wife-beating really a problem with Americans too?” (She clarified later that she meant ‘white’ Americans, of course.) My work has borne out the statistics that domestic violence knows no race, class, or religious boundaries. However, socio-economic factors can increase vulnerability for such violence: for example, if someone has no source of income, her abuser knows that her economic situation will prevent her from speaking about the violence or seeking help.
Domestic violence is a human rights problem that exists across borders, as the Inter-American Commission recently reminded the US—It is not a ‘women’s issue’ rather affects boys and men very severely. Indeed, India’s Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, does not cover men, and most commentaries on domestic violence-including this one-refer to the perpetrators of violence as male and the victim as female. This is simply because domestic violence victims are disproportionately female. However, men can be and are victims of violence by their partners in some cases as well, both in homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Moreover, this violence does not take place in a vacuum.
Children, girls as well as boys, are witnesses to such violence. Even if they are themselves never the direct targets of the violence, they bear the emotional costs of growing up in an environment of repeated cycles of fear, escalation of tensions, outbursts of violence, and misleading periods of calm. Studies show that children who grow up in violent homes, either themselves become vulnerable to being abused as adults or have a higher likelihood of becoming abusers in the future. This ‘cycle of power and control,’ which broadly describes domestic violence, has its immediate and collateral victims.
Move beyond campaigns
Campaigns such as ‘bell bajao’ or ‘standing silent witness’ or ‘remembrance days’ focus on cases where there are identifiable victims, in already violent relationships. Some of us might then still participate in these campaigns and still claim, “We aren’t that kind of a family!”
What would truly make us not one of ‘those’ families is if we start to check our everyday responses to gender inequalities and discrimination. Unless we stop calling street harassment ‘eve teasing;’ stop worrying about protecting our girls’ reputations even at the costs of their safety; stop spending more time, money and energy on weddings than on talking about healthy relationships and marriages, we will not stop domestic violence. Only when three friends can walk with safety as well as the security of the knowledge that they will not be judged should they face harm by someone, whether on the street or in the home, can we begin to feel assured that we are progressing towards equal justice for all.
Cycle of Power and Control
Intimate partner violence or domestic violence (DV) is controlling, abusive, and aggressive behavior in an intimate relationship . It includes verbal, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse.
DV usually comes to public notice only in extreme cases of physical abuse.
However, behind closed doors, such violence typically follows a regular pattern of three phases that repeat themselves:
One, the ‘tension-building’ phase. The abuser becomes increasingly irritable, moody, impatient, resulting in his partner “walking on eggshells,” not knowing what might make the abuser more angry.
Two, the ‘acute’ phase. There is some sort of explosion and violence that may be verbal, physical, and/or sexual.
Third, the ‘honeymoon’ phase. There is calm again. The abuser may apologise or pretend like nothing happened and may bring flowers and chocolates. The partner starts to feel relief. That is till the ‘tension-building’ phase begins again.
There is thus a clear difference between common, everyday disputes between couples and domestic violence.
Three things to tell someone who is facing such violence: I believe you / You are not alone /You have options
The writer is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia.