Fedina’s domestic violence prevention squad comes to rescue of battered women

By Shilpa Venkatramandom violence3

35-year-old Rani doesn’t have to fear for her life anymore. She may not like her husband all that much, but she knows that she and her two daughters, aged 10 and 7, are safe at home even when he is around. Feeling safe at home is a new experience for Rani. A garment factory worker in Roopena Agraha in Bangalore, Rani was tortured physically and mentally by her husband, Mohan, ever since they got married 14 years ago. The visible scars on her body and forehead bare witness to the violence inflicted on her. He was an alcoholic, didn’t earn money, didn’t pay the bills and would sell household articles including Rani’s clothes, the kids’ uniforms, utensils, kerosene and groceries to pay for his alcohol.

An insecure and suspicious husband, Mohan would beat her often accusing her of having an affair with her male colleagues, and would stalk her wherever she went. One day, after he saw her talking to her male supervisor in the garment factory where she works, Mohan got angry and yelled at her when she returned home from work that evening. When she yelled back, he was enraged and tried to kill her with a sickle. She grabbed her daughters, ran out of the house and hid in a nearby garment workers union office, till neighbours intervened and calmed him down. Such dramatic incidents were not uncommon. Whenever they had a quarrel, he would get into a fit of rage, and throw things at her or hit her head against the wall leaving her to bleed from the head. She lived in constant fear of being beaten by him. She also feared that he would sell her older daughter to prostitution.

Rani has been a member of the garment workers union in her locality which is run by Fedina. One day during a meeting of the union, she broke down and shared her agony with members of the union. Fedina’s Domestic Violence Prevention squad in Roopena Agrahara was alerted and they jumped into action. They contacted her and asked her to call them the next time he got violent. The squad, which comprises women living in the locality as well as Fedina activists, are on call 24/7 and their job is to intervene and interrupt incidents of domestic violence then and there.

A few days later when Mohan got drunk and started beating her late in the night, Rani telephoned a member of the squad who quickly gathered a few other members, and they scolded him, slapped him and beat him up with chappals. Taken aback and embarrassed by the incident, he hesitated to beat her for a few days, but soon he went back to his abusive ways. On two more occasions, the squad came to her rescue. One of those times they even threw him out of the house.

After these three interventions, Rani felt stronger in resisting his abusive ways. She even hit him back on a few occasions when he was being abusive. A case of cruelty was filed in the court and a restraining order was issued to ensure her protection. However she has chosen to live with him, as he has now stopped beating her, he underwent rehabilitation for his drinking problems, and has found himself a job as a security guard. He even gives her a part of his salary for household expenses.

Fedina’s DVP squads has interved in many cases like Rani’s coming to the rescue of battered women in many slums in Bangalore, Trichy, Kanyakumari and Pondicherry.

Concept of DVP Squad

Fedina’s Domestic Violence Prevention squads tackle domestic violence in South Indian slums by stopping the act of violence on the spot. The squad comprises slum-dwellers (including victims and non-victims) as well as Fedina activists. They intervene in and interrupt incidents of domestic violence in their immediate neighbourhood. Timely intervention is crucial in order to stop the act of violence. As soon as any member of the squad hears or senses verbal or physical abuse around them, they immediately gather other members of the squad and barge into the house where the violence is taking place, and forcefully stop the abuse, by either verbally threatening the abuser, beating him up if necessary, or taking the victim away from the abuser, even if it is in the middle of the night. The shame and humiliation of being beaten up by a big group of women, often deters the man from further abusing his wife.

Reporting incidents of domestic violence to the police, or seeking other help (like helplines) has proven to be largely ineffective in individual cases. Even if they are effective, the police and law come into the picture only after the act of violence. The squad, on the other hand, can prevent the violence. These community-based squads are therefore more effective in tackling domestic violence, as it can actually prevent the violence from happening.

After the violence is interrupted, the squad follows it up the next day by roping in women’s organisations, police or other relevant help, depending on the nature of the case. Fedina activists will follow and support the case from the beginning to the end. They also rope in local women’s groups and self help groups in the area.

Fedina holds regular workshops on domestic violence for the members of the squad. Members of the squad seek help from DV experts on how to tackle complicated cases. Regular meetings are held in slums to recruit more people into the squad. These meetings focus on consciousness-raising, spreading awareness on domestic violence, and provide information on legal protection, provisions and procedures. One of the main hurdles the squad initiative faces is people’s attitude towards domestic violence. There is a lot of hesitation on the part of neighbours, friends and relatives to intervene as people feel that it is a personal matter. Such issues will be dealt with during the meetings.

As the squad includes victims of violence, the squad will help bring together victims thus giving them collective strength to resist violence in their own homes as well as others. The squad will also give victims the comfort of knowing that they are not alone and that they have their neighbours’ support against their abusers at any time of the day or night.

Men are key players in helping to end domestic violence. Including men in the squad is essential as domestic violence is not a women’s issue. Family violence affects everyone in the family, socially and economically. Men should be encouraged to speak out against violence. An all-women’s squad risks being seen as a squad of women against men. It should be made clear that the purpose of the squad is to fight violence, not men. Having men in the squad will also empower men who are violent to make different choices. Men are also more likely to listen to other men when it comes to the perpetration of domestic violence.

The squads are now currently active in a few slums in Trichy, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry and Bangalore (Lingarajapuram, Koramangala and Roopena Agrahara) and will soon be initiated in other slums in South India.

Domestic Violence in India

Domestic Violence against women is a very serious problem in India. According to the National Family Health Survey statistics (2005-06), one-third of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence and about 1 in 10 have experienced sexual violence. Domestic violence is also a hidden problem, as the home is considered a private space under the control of the male head of the household. Women are seen as traitors by the family when they report violence. This, along with several other factors, result in domestic violence being under reported.

Acts of physical violence against women include: pushing, shaking, throwing something at her, slapping, arm twisting, hair pulling, punching, kicking, dragging, beating, trying to choke or burn her on purpose, and threatening her or attacking her with a weapon, and even beating or burning her to death. Acts of sexual violence include physically forcing the wife against her will to have sex or perform other sexual acts that she did not want to perform (NFHS). Thus, the home, which is meant to be a secure space for people, becomes ‘torture chambers’ for many women. DV in India is also closely linked to alcohol. In most cases the abusive husbands are alcoholics who turn violent against their wives after getting drunk.

The experience of approaching the police and law courts for help usually worsens the woman’s situation, let alone getting justice. To begin with, the police put all manners of hurdles in even registering cases of domestic violence, even when the victims fear for their lives. In cases where wives had been murdered, the police have been found to play an active role in destroying evidence and passing off these cases as suicides or accidental deaths – simply because they had been suitably bribed. The story in the law courts is no different. Husbands and in-laws get away with torture and even murder, because the women and their families find it difficult to “prove beyond doubt” that they were victims of violence and extortion.

(Names have been changed to protect confidentiality)

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