These instances are just the tip of the iceberg that defines domestic violence against women in India. It also points out that domestic violence does not necessarily imply violence inflicted by the male partner on his female counterpart. The single woman is as much a victim as are daughters abused and exploited by their parents. These women could earlier do almost nothing to protect themselves from domestic violence. Will they get protection now vis-a-vis the new law? While the single woman will fall under the purview of the new law, the daughters will not.
With the passage of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, for the first time in the history of legal ramifications directly linked to women, the state has recognised that violence is not only physical and/or sexual. Equally, violence can be psychological, verbal, and economic and act as warning signs of future physical violence. With this in mind, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, has laid down stringent rules to prosecute men who harass, beat or insult women at home.
The rules, notified on October 25, 2006, classify domestic violence under four categories — physical, sexual, verbal/emotional and economic. Anything remotely resembling abuse by a man of his wife, live-in partner or child, can land him in jail for one year or cost him up to Rs 20,000 in fines, or risk being booked under sundry sections of the Indian Penal Code.
Physical violence includes beating, pushing, shoving, and inflicting pain. Sexual violence covers offences such as forced sex, forced exposure to pornographic material, any sexual act with minors. Emotional violence spans insults, jibes for not having a male child, preventing a woman from taking a job, forcing marriage against a woman’s will, threat of suicide, preventing a woman from meeting someone etc. Economic violence includes denial of money, food, clothes and medicines, forcing a woman to quit her job, not allowing her to use her partner’s salary, not paying rent, and forcing her out.
The Act empowers the court to pass protection orders preventing an abuser from entering places a woman frequents, communicating with her or isolating any assets they both share. The state governments have to appoint a women protection officer at each police station. They also have to appoint service providers and counselors for victims of domestic violence.
The new law empowers the victim to approach the local magistrate directly with an appeal for protection. The magistrate may then appoint a trained protection officer to help investigate the complaint. If the complaint is found to be genuine, the magistrate will issue a ‘protection order’ to the offender and he will have to abide by this order. If the offender fails to abide by the order, the victim can complain again either to the magistrate or to the local police station and if this is proved to be true, the offender will be punished under the law. All offences under the new Act are not bailable. Marital rape, too, falls within the purview of the present Act.
The word ‘protection’ is a two-edged knife that cuts both ways. The fact that ‘protection’ is the moot point for women within marriage or out-of-marriage relationships underscores that women, by and large, are actually vulnerable to all kinds of violence in their relationships with men. It points out that women need protection even within an intimate relationship like marriage. It recognizes and accepts that women are the weaker sex – physically, emotionally and sexually.
Women who are professionally more successful than their husbands or male partners are often forced to tone down their achievements for fear that the relationship might either weaken or break because patriarchy has designed men to have egos that could get hurt if women partners are more successful. Besides, if the woman ever needs ‘protection’ from the man she is living with, would it not be simpler for her just to terminate the relationship? Will her male partner take kindly to her later if she files a complaint against him on whatever grounds?
How can a woman prove emotional and economic violence in a marriage that has already seen twenty summers?
No wife can be expected to move about with a tape recorder around the house. Taped recordings are not always accepted as evidence in a court of law. No neighbour, friend or relative from the in-law’s family will back up the victim as witness. "This is precisely why nearly 95 per cent of complaints filed under Section 498A allow offenders to go scot-free" says Kolkata-based lawyer Shibsankar Chakrabarty.
Feminists welcoming the law are ignoring the fact that this will place all man-woman relationships within and without marriage at risk. "How can I go to the magistrate and file a complaint against my husband who does not provide me with medical help at all and does not give me the money to buy medicines for myself when he has been a good husband in other ways? He has never abused me verbally, physically or even sexually. After 35 years of marriage and three grown-up children, I am certain that if I approach any magistrate with this complaint, knowing full well that this is economic violence, my husband may collapse from a heart attack. So, how can this new Act help me?" asks Janaki Roy, 58, wife of a retired government servant.
Women within live-in relationships will hardly get any help under the law because though live-in relationships are now legal, the man concerned can simply walk out of the house and out of the relationship, sticking a thumb out at the Act.
The infrastructural requirements, too, are no cakewalk. "The framework of the new law calls for the appointment of protection officers, service providers and counselors," says Chakrabarty.
The new law is myopic because it targets only the male partner as the perpetrator of violence. Kolkata-based lawyer Joymalya Bagchi states: "No woman can file a complaint against another woman or women under this Act." He adds that while Section 498A is applicable only to married women who are victims of violence, the new Act widens the scope that includes helpless mothers, unmarried sisters, widowed sisters and sisters-in-law, live-in female partners and little girls within families. "While 498A is punishment-oriented, the new Act is protection-centric and compensation-centric. The new law empowers the victim to approach the local magistrate directly with an appeal for protection," he adds.
Conspiracy of silence
Indian society greets the problem of domestic violence with a deafening silence. It is a silence that manufactures myths like — it does not happen among "educated people";only drunken men beat up their wives; men beat wives because they truly love them. This collective conspiracy of silence encourages attitudes of self-blame, shame and resignation in women victims of violence. Behind this silence lurks acceptance — that men have the right to use violence, while women should adjust and endure. It is an acceptance that is somewhere tacit, somewhere overt.
‘Violence is inflicting injury or damage to a person or property,’ states The Shorter Oxford Dictionary. Across the world in general and in South Asian countries in particular, patriarchal societies and institutions regard women as property, violence to women equates violence to a part of property owned and managed by men. The fact that woman is a social, emotional, political and sexual entity in her own right and any infliction of violence on her body extends to include her mind too, which is a violation of human rights, is not a part of the scenario at all. The Vedas clearly state that the woman’s body is not her own, so she should surrender herself to her husband without a murmur.
Erstwhile Japanese Prime Minister Sato often boasted to journalists that he soundly beat his wife. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace. This shows how little objection there is to socially sanctioned private violence against women. In a representative inquiry conducted by a West German research institute in the 1970s, a majority of those questioned believed that the maltreatment of animals should be condemned more strongly than the beating of wives. Not much seems to have changed since then. The roots of violence against women are deeply embedded within the patriarchal social structure itself. The structure compels the woman to subordination, subservience, and dependence on men; traps her within the wife-mother-daughter-sister role without offering her access to socially acceptable alternatives as an independent individual; and treats her primarily as an instrument of sexual enjoyment for men commanding her to remain beautiful, feminine, graceful, glamorous and young, which also accepts her as a receptacle for bearing and delivering children, commanding her to be both fertile and strong, so that she is sturdy and stern enough to bear the violence with patience.
Every person in this world is entitled to a fundamental set of human rights that allow her or him to live with dignity and self-respect. Unfortunately, for too long, women have been regarded as less than human, and, therefore, not entitled to these human rights. Breakthrough, an NGO, works to transform attitudes towards women so that they can realise their full potential and see that “women’s rights are human rights.” One out of every three women faces violence behind closed doors. So whether it is ringing a door bell to stop a crime, or speaking out, make sure you’re doing your part to ensure women in your communities are living free of violence. It has embarked on a brilliant audiovisual campaign called Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell) that urges men to take a stand against domestic violence. Ring the bell and intervene in a situation of abuse. A simple act is all it takes to bring domestic violence to a halt.