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India’s Intimate Partner Violence Demands An All-in Response

India is behind in handling intimate partner violence. Getting on top of the problem requires reform in law, health policy, and changing attitudes.

Intimate violence remains a pervasive silent crime which most girls and women either experience but do not report or have the possibility to report to police. (Sneha Sivarajan/Unsplash)

By Nishi Mitra vom Berg, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

MUMBAI, June 6 – India’s official tracking of intimate partner violence has some evident flaws.

It is often measured through the lens of family or domestic violence.  But intimate partner violence encompasses so much more. 

It may involve physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm for vulnerable persons of any gender, from their current or former partners.

It often goes beyond the interpersonal. It can harm multiple people at once and impact generations.

Yet in India, researchers often assume that intimate partner violence mostly involves violence inflicted by husbands towards women in their marital home.

Around the world, women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of intimate partner violence.

Violence against unmarried girls in their family homes by brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins is common, though it is often repressed and legitimised as the natural behaviour of violent men.

Violence against people of alternative genders in their intimate relationships has not received the focus it deserves, due to taboos and the law’s exclusive focus on marriage and its violent experience for women in India.

The experience of intimacy in marriage for girls and women in India is often defined by their secondary status and unequal power relationships between genders, age hierarchies and the ritual status of groom and bride’s families and caste hierarchies.

There is widespread reporting of girls’ powerlessness and vulnerability in childhood. It happens due to cultural practices, such as son preference, sex selection, discrimination, and a lack of investment in education and other familial resources for girls.

This happens alongside unchecked practices which hurt and disempower girls and women, such as child marriages, early marriages, forced marriages, honour killings, dowry, and caste hypergamy.

The magnitude of the problem remains hidden: naming and defining the crime itself is a contested process.

As per some records, approximately 30 percent of married women in India between 18 and 49 face domestic violence. About 3 percent report suffering physical violence while pregnant.

Many government policies for women’s health focus on the reproductive rights of young mothers.

Yet, contrary to assumptions of India being a family and goddess focused culture, intimate violence remains a pervasive silent crime which most girls and women either experience but do not report or have the possibility to report to police against their patriarchal family and male relatives.

Close to 87 percent of married women who are victims of violence do not seek help or intervention.

A true picture of the magnitude of intimate partner violence is difficult since domestic violence data relies either on police reporting or Indian health data.

But, in reality, it exists for girls and women across their whole life: before their birth, in infancy, girlhood, adolescence, adult reproductive phase and as elderly citizens.

Responding effectively requires a comprehensive plan, and enhancing awareness and capability among service givers, non-governmental organisations, hospitals, police, judiciary and civil society.

Feminist movements in India have rallied around violence against women since the late 1970s and influenced a series of protective and punitive legislations and amendments in law and criminal procedures, including the penal code 498A, between 1980-1989.

In the 1980s, support groups, feminist counselling cells, shelters and legal aid cells came up to respond to women on dowry-related violence in families.

In 2005, a more diversified approach to intimate partner violence against women by husband/partners became possible through the enactment of a civil law.

More recently, there have been calls for amendments to protections in domestic violence civil law, so it applies not only to married people and those in live-in relationships, but to other cohabiting adults.

Advocates also say the law should not only be applicable to male offenders but female offenders and those who offend against children.

Implementing legal change has faced challenges such as difficulty appointing protection officers, registering service providers and notifying good shelter homes and medical facilities.

Although the law ensures right to residence for the victim and recognises economic violence with provisions for financial relief, the exponential rise in domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted another re-think for better policy that gives greater security to diverse people suffering from violence at home. 

India’s National Commission of Women established a WhatsApp number for victims to report violence and coordinated with victims, police and other authorities to deliver speedy justice and greater responsiveness.

Apart from the reforms in law, many initiatives are underway in India to train judges, police and other officials in social protection units to intervene sensitively and effectively. 

Women police stations, police counselling cells and women’s vigilance committees have been initiated and strengthened in several states and districts to enhance gender sensitivity in police stations, but they are often tokenistic and suffer due to lack of institutional support and priorities, budgets and skilled dedicated personnel.

Government programmes for enhancing women’s access to health care, education, employment, inheritance and property rights all go towards primary prevention strategies.

The National Rural and Urban Health Mission in India is engaged in creative strategies to empower communities for access to their health needs. 

Health workers respond to women’s needs for mental health and palliative care, deal with problems of alcohol and drug abuse in communities and peacefully resolve marital conflicts through counselling, while promoting behaviour change through public health campaigns.

Intimate partner violence poses a public health risk of massive proportions and health and social care professionals may not have the capacity or budget for preventive and remedial interventions.

Several training and education programmes are underway to give women the opportunity to develop legal literacy, analyse their own oppression, and use micro credit and livelihood training for their economic empowerment.

These processes enable survivors to walk out of violent and abusive relationships.

The Indian government has also brought in schemes to prioritise girls’ education and incentivised families to delay marriage with cash transfers and monetary rewards, recognising the role of secondary schooling in preventing and protecting women from intimate partner violence.

National helplines for women help them seek support at their doorstep and exit violent situations.

Law enforcement requires training for changing male oriented legal interpretations and attitudes, and various other target groups require regular education on use of appropriate media such as television, radio, street theatre and others.

The best practices in responding to intimate partner violence require appreciation of the diverse needs of victims and providing quality, easily accessible help to victims and survivors.

The more interventions happen at scale, the more it can be measured and documented. Successful cases can be replicated. More systematic data collection on intimate partner violence can help prioritise resource allocation.

But most importantly, men need to be targeted by zero violence campaigns and all genders should be safe from intimate violence.

Nishi Mitra vom Berg is a professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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