Of all the crimes, domestic violence is considered to have the highest repeat rate, especially in the first few weeks after an incident is reported. Questioning the pendency of more than four lakh domestic assault cases in a sample of 801 one-stop centres across the country, the Supreme Court has sought a report from the Secretary, Women and Child Development Ministry, over the inadequate number of Protection Officers (POs) to handle domestic violence cases.
The apex court has also sought clarity on how many of the one-stop centres, established under Mission Shakti, actually employed POs, mandated under Section 8 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, to effectively help the survivors of domestic violence.
Even as the Supreme Court has asked for a response within six weeks, the latest figures of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 as well as the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) are alarming.
The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence or acts of violence that disproportionately affect women.
Domestic abuse cases remain gravely unreported in the country despite a sturdy legislation in place for 16-17 years. “We have a strong law but how many women actually use it?” asks Zakia Soman, women’s rights activist and one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. According to Soman, one of the key petitioners in the triple talaq case, the biggest irony of society is that domestic violence happens across the board, irrespective of the economic strata the women come from. “From the poorest and most illiterate to educated, working women, including doctors, engineers and even scientists, they face violence in the shelter of their homes but no one’s talking about it. A lot of young girls take time to decide to get out of this mess because they don’t have an adequate support system,” she adds.
“More often than not, families tend to ignore the issue or are dismissive about it. Ek thappad hi toh maara hai, woh tumhe pyaar bhi to karta hai (he just gave you a slap, he loves you too) is the usual response. The sad reality is that women continue to think it is their fault if the husband is abusive,” she says.
“In our patriarchal setup, women are conditioned to accept getting slapped or hit by men as a norm,” says Prem Chowdhury, social scientist and historian. She feels that the social stigma associated with a married woman leaving the husband’s house is responsible for the lack of courage in them to walk out of a violent marriage. “Education, economic independence, along with ‘social will’ can help overcome this menace. We need to sensitise men right from school that there is zero tolerance for violence, only then will things change,” she adds.
Jalandhar-based social activist Praveen Abrol has been helping survivors of domestic violence since 2009. She has been a panel member at the local Mahila Thana, district member of the Mahila Mittar in Sanjh, besides being a mediator in Lok Adalat cases. Abrol observes that while it is mostly working women who have started calling out against domestic violence, a number of women who are financially dependent on their partners are unable to break away from such toxic relationships. “Addiction to drugs as well as alcohol abuse are among the reasons that most victims cite for violence at home. While the number of women Protection Officers is already abysmally low, the transfer rate too is quite high.”
Highlighting the inadequate number of POs, the Supreme Court pointed out that on an average, there is one PO for each district, thus saddling him/her with around 500 cases. The court indicated the need for more POs for the faster delivery of justice.
As per law, the state government shall, by notification, appoint such number of POs, preferably women, in each district as it may consider necessary and shall also notify the area or areas within which a PO shall exercise the powers and perform the duties conferred by or under this Act.
It is after a Domestic Incident Report is filed by the PO that the case gets filed in court. The POs take care of the civil proceedings in the case, which include providing free medical and legal aid to the victims as well as addressing maintenance issues, counselling and residence orders. Often there is also an overlap of roles with POs handling cases of gender violence, along with child rights and social security, says CDPO (Child Development Project Officer), Amritsar rural, Khushmeet Kaur.
“On an average, we get 20-25 cases of domestic violence every month,” says Sonia Sabharwal, Protection-cum-Prohibition Officer, posted in Ambala. Among the first batch of POs employed by the Haryana government in 2008, she sees an increase in the number of women coming out and filing cases.
“Most of the girls who come to us are not interested in taking legal recourse against their partner but only want us to warn the families of dire consequences if similar incidents take place in future,” says Manisha Gulati, chairperson of the Punjab Women’s Commission.
More often than not, many women avoid taking legal recourse in the hope of making their marriage successful. Cruelty by the husband or a relative is punishable under Section 498A of the IPC with up to three years of imprisonment and fine. “It is sometimes claimed that the Act is misused by women, but we must not forget that out of 100 women, barely five come forward to report the crime. Just because one or two women can misuse the law, we cannot penalise or take away the opportunity from the more than 99 per cent women to get justice,” says Soman.
“A lot of women who come to us for counselling ask for legal advice but less than 5 per cent actually go ahead and pursue the case,” says Sangeeta Rege, director of the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), which works closely with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai through their counselling centre Dilaasa, which was set up in 2000.
Dilaasa works as an intervention programme on domestic violence and sexual assault at the hospital level to provide crisis intervention services to women. The model has been adopted in states like Kerala, Meghalaya, Karnataka, Haryana, Goa and Gujarat at different levels of the health system.
“Healthcare professionals can play a crucial role in identifying and reporting cases of domestic abuse,” says Sangeeta. “Women in the 18-35 age group are in constant touch with healthcare professionals regarding pregnancy, delivery and vaccination of their children. When doctors and nurses are trained to identify the victims, women stand a better chance at getting help before it is too late. They can be given temporary admission in hospital under medical grounds. This will help them buy time.”
Apart from the obvious signs of abuse, the covert signs of violence such as lack of sleep, anxiety, repeated health complaints and unwanted pregnancies can be identified by trained providers in both in-patient and out-patient departments, says Sangeeta.
With domestic violence affecting a large proportion of the population, it is a long cry from achieving the goals of ‘Gender Equality’ and ‘Leaving No One Behind’ that are central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals of the UNDP.
“It is good to give slogans like ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, but this is not enough. There should be an ongoing education drive and zero tolerance for domestic violence. India cannot become a 5 trillion dollar economy unless we address this injustice being done to 50 per cent of its population,” says Soman.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, came into force on October 26, 2006 and brought for the first time in Indian law the broader definition of domestic violence. This included not only physical violence, but also other forms of violence such as emotional, verbal, sexual and psychological abuse.
Defining domestic violence
(a) Harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so and includes causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse; or
(b) Harasses, harms, injures or endangers the aggrieved person with a view to coerce her or any other person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any dowry or other property or valuable security; or
(c) Has the effect of threatening the aggrieved person or any person related to her by any conduct mentioned in clause
(a) or clause (b); or
(d) Otherwise injures or causes harm, whether physical or mental, to the aggrieved person.
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