Where slap from wife works better than police thrashing

By Shilpa Venkatramandom violence1

Marital violence is rampant in India. According to the National Family Health Survey (2005-06), 38.4 percent of married women in India reported to have experienced physical violence at the hands of their husbands, while 43.2 percent experienced sexual violence. Women who experienced both physical and sexual violence constituted a whopping 53.8 percent. One in six wives reported emotional abuse by husbands.

Given that domestic violence is largely underreported — as women are seen as traitors by the family when they complain about such matters — the actual prevalence is much higher than the official statistics above suggest.

Fighting violence against women, especially domestic violence, is one of FEDINA’s main priorities. Our work with domestic violence victims in the slums of Roopena Agrahara, one of the localities where FEDINA has formed a domestic violence prevention (DVP) squad, has been a learning experience. The biggest deterrent for wife-beaters, we learnt, is public humiliation and not so much the fear of relatives or even the police. In almost all the wife-beating cases that the DVP squad intervened, the husband finally put an end to his violent ways only after he was scolded and/or beaten up by the intervening squad, most of whom are women.

The DVP squad in Roopena Agrahara grew out of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union that was formed by FEDINA 5 years ago. The Union has 922 members of which 90 per cent are women. Most women in the Union suffer some level of physical abuse by their husbands, but were initially very reticent to talk about it. However once a certain level of confidence was established, some of the women would share their stories with our activists in one-to-one interactions. The activists had to cajole and coax the victims to talk about domestic violence in the monthly meetings of the 15-member executive committee. The committee members would then jointly try to resolve the issues informally.

Once the women in the Union knew that no one was laughing at them or would betray their trust, and that the others were in fact willing to intervene and stand by them, many more instances of violence started to stumble out. So in January this year, FEDINA formed the DVP squad in Roopena Agrahara and two other slums in Bangalore to tackle domestic violence locally. The squads comprise slum-dwellers (including victims of domestic violence) and FEDINA activists. They intervene and interrupt incidents of violence in their neighbourhood.

The squad in Roopena Agrahara has around 15 women and meets once a month to discuss issues of domestic violence and the course of action to take in specific cases. Most of the women in this squad are garment factory workers.

One recent case the squad intervened in is that of 25 year-old Gauri whose husband Raju was extremely violent. He would pull her plaited hair, wrap it around his hand and bang her head forcefully against the wall, leaving her unconscious and bleeding from the head. Even before she’d gain consciousness, he would pack his bags and run away absconding for days on end, leaving her unattended. A mother of two, Gauri worked at a garment factory nearby while Raju is a construction worker.

It was not uncommon for Raju to kick Gauri in her stomach. He would also often throw his plate of food against the wall in a fit of rage complaining about the food she cooked. He would want her to buy and cook mutton everyday, though he hardly contributed to household expenses. It was with her meager earnings that the family survived as he would spend the little he earned on alcohol. Raju would also lock her out of the house late in the night making her beg to be let back in. Gauri had been enduring his abusive behaviour from the time they got married a decade ago.

FEDINA’s activists got to know of Gauri four months ago through her neighbour and aunt Rajamma who is a member of both the garment workers union and the DVP squad. It is Rajamma who would take her niece to the hospital each time she was beaten up and left to die. As soon as the squad members learnt about Gauri’s situation, about 5 to 6 members of the DVP squad visited the couple. They went to the couple’s house late in the night around 10 pm to make sure Raju was at home when they arrived. After some initial hesitation, Gauri told them about the way Raju treated her. The squad then asked Gauri to pick up a slipper and beat her husband with it. She hesitated, but finally managed to do it. They scolded Raju and warned him not to ever beat his wife.

The act of his wife hitting him with a slipper embarrassed Raju so much that he stopped beating her. According to him, a wife beating a husband with slippers is a sin that has to be undone by going to a certain temple in his village and contributing Rs 1000 to the deity as part of a ritual. However, he couldn’t get himself to perform this ritual as it would mean that everyone in his village would know that his wife beat him. And that’s the worst disgrace he could ever imagine.

Raju continues to drink and often swears at her but doesn’t beat her. He has apparently started helping her a bit with household work.

FEDINA activists Leela (38) and Seethamma (40) are the main force behind the DVP squad in Roopena Agrahara.  Both have worked in garment factories for more than 15 years and are familiar with the working conditions and gender relations in the factories and homes of these workers.

According to the activists’ estimation, more than 90 per cent of the women in the slums are victims of varying degrees of violence. “We initially felt uneasy about interfering in others’ domestic quarrels, but on seeing the horrific and inhuman ways in which women are treated at homes, we realized this can’t be ignored as being a personal matter between a husband and a wife, and that interference from a third party was absolutely essential,” recounts Leela. They explain how the only deterrent for these men is public humiliation by a group of women. “It always works. That’s why we take this approach,” explains Seethamma.

One of the worst cases of physical and sexual violence that they encountered was that of 35-year-old Anjali. Her husband Rangaswamy, a construction worker, would make her watch pornographic videos and insist that she imitate the women in the videos. If she refused, he would beat her up black and blue. She lost two of her front tooth to one such violent outbreak. Rangaswamy would intentionally hit her on her face resulting in cuts and scars, in order to make her less attractive to others.

The scars on Anjali’s body reveal the horror of her marriage. Her husband would put out cigarettes on her bare chest, push her on the floor and stamp her breasts and genitals. These acts would often leave her unconscious and in need of medical attention. He would also insist that she stay nude when at home. He would keep the kids out of the house most of the time to carry out his acts of sexual perversion.

Like most of these abusive husbands, Rangaswamy was possessive and suspicious about his wife, while he himself had an extra marital affair. But his infidelity was the least of Anjali’s worries.

The couple has two sons aged 18 and 15. Whenever the older son came to his mother’s rescue, Rangaswamy would beat him up. FEDINA activists knew of Anjali as she worked in one of the garment factories that the Union is involved with. “We noticed that she was getting skinnier and weaker and one day came to work with broken teeth. She initially hesitated to talk about what she was going through. One day we spoke to her about some other women who were beaten up by their husbands. While listening to the stories Anjali broke down and told us about what her husband does to her,” says Leela.

Anjali had approached the police for help several times but was turned away each time. Her husband had apparently paid off the cops to ignore her complaints. The severe abuse she was subjected to at home caused her health to deteriorate making it difficult for her to hold her job in the factory. She was forced to quit her job and started working as a domestic help as it was less demanding and the working hours were shorter. Her older son dropped out of college unable to cope with studies thanks to the stressful situation at home.

When the DVP squad members visited Anjali’s house, Rangaswamy wasn’t there. He had somehow learnt that they were coming and had gotten away. FEDINA’s lawyer Nagarathna wrote a complaint on Anjali’s behalf and gave it to her to give it to the police. This time the police could not turn her away. They called her husband on the phone and threatened to arrest him if he didn’t mend his ways. After this incident, Rangaswamy stopped abusing her physically or sexually, but continued to be nasty to her.

A few weeks later when Leela and Seethamma contacted Anjali to follow up on the case, they heard that Rangaswamy had suddenly taken ill and had succumbed to diarrhea. “We met with Anjali soon after. She looked healthier, relieved and free, and her son was back in college,” says Seethamma.


For women who’ve been enduring violence on a daily basis for years or sometimes decades, an end to physical and sexual abuse seems to provide great relief. However we should ask ourselves if ending physical abuse is enough. What about the psychological, economic and verbal abuse that they continue to suffer? Will these women ever find fulfillment and happiness in their marriages?

The social stigma attached to being divorced keep these women in abusive marriages and make them put up with oppressive husbands. The problem is systemic and requires us to look beyond individual cases at the question of power relations within the institution of marriage as practiced in conservative societies like ours. Socially sanctioned norms and ideas about marriage, family and gender relations put women at a disadvantage in marriages. Since marriage is seen as a woman’s destiny, being unmarried or single is not a practical alternative.

Activists in Roopena Agrahara have noted some common issues in almost all families in which domestic violence exists. Firstly, the husband in almost all cases is an alcoholic and is usually in an inebriated state when he gets violent with his wife. Secondly, the husbands don’t work or earn very little (spent almost entirely on alcohol) and therefore don’t contribute to household expenses which are borne almost entirely by the working wives. Thirdly, women complain of their husbands being possessive and accuse them of being attracted to other men especially at the workplace. This often translates to the man restricting his wife’s mobility, stalking her to her workplace or preventing her from dressing well to work.

However alcoholism or money problems cannot be seen as the cause of violence because violence exists even in rich families and in families where husbands don’t drink. The cause is much deeper and closely linked to women’s lesser status in society. Domestic violence has to be looked at in the context of wider discrimination against girls and women in education, health, nutrition and employment, and crimes against them such as rape, sexual harassment, dowry deaths and female foeticide.

Another point to bear in mind is that domestic violence is not restricted to lower socio-economic classes. While it’s probably more prevalent and more visible among the poorer classes, it is made invisible among the upper and educated classes. Irrespective of the class they belong to most women are discouraged from making ‘personal matters’ like marital abuse public and are conditioned to endure and ‘adjust’ (a common Indian term meaning ‘to compromise’ or ‘put up with’). It’s this mental conditioning by parents, relatives, neighbours and friends that makes her believe that she is doing the right thing by putting up with abuse and oppression.

False consciousness

Most women, especially those belonging to the lower socio-economic classes, believe that their husbands have a right to beat them if they’ve done something wrong, and that women and men are not equal. According to the National Family Health Survey (2005-06), 55% of women think spousal abuse is warranted. 41% of women thought slapping was warranted by husbands, if in-laws were disrespected, 35% of women thought a beating was warranted by husbands if household chores and childcare were neglected, and 51% of 75,000 men surveyed think hitting their wives is acceptable, if in-laws were disrespected, with a smaller number thinking that bad cooking/refusing sex were also legitimate reasons.

Young women suffering marital violence are often discouraged by their parents, relatives and sometimes even friends and neighbours, from leaving their abusive husbands, no matter how serious the abuse. This leaves the women alone and helpless with no choice but to endure the abuse. This is the norm.

Very few can afford to or have the courage to defy the norms. Unless there is a change in mindset and attitudes of men and women towards gender relations within the marriage and family, violence at home is not going to come down. It has in fact increased over the last few decades according to NGOs working with victims of domestic violence in India.

According to official statistics, there is a crime against women happening every three minutes, one rape every 29 minutes and one recorded case of dowry death every 77 minutes. Cases of cruelty meted out by husbands and parents-in-laws happen every 9 minutes. Patriarchal terrorism, where a man uses economic and social power to maintain control over a woman, is very common in India and many other Asian countries due to the subservient status of women.

Indian law recognizes domestic violence as a crime. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 came into force on October 26, 2006. But this has made little difference to the lives of thousands of women who are suffering day in and day out in abusive marriages.

(Names of victims have been changed to protect their identity).

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