Why Don't We Talk About Violence Against Women In Their Home?
Indian police stations often ignore general IPC clauses when women are assaulted
The recent days have been especially harrowing for the women of our country. The tales of rape that usually hog the headlines have given way to stories of bodies dismembered and disposed of by lovers and partners.
Voices are being raised against interfaith marriages, live-in relationships, working women who are independent or live alone, families that do not know their daughters' friends or fail to support them when they seek escape from brutal surroundings. We are being warned that we can expect a horrible end if we disregard parental advice, insist on a career, have our own home, choose our partner, consort with a person from a different religion or live with a man without going through the formality of a marriage.
What is missing from the debate is the root cause of such horrors-the pervasive domestic violence that women of all classes, incomes, religions and education levels experience throughout their lives in relationships within and outside marriage, often with the full knowledge of families, friends and neighbours.
In India, as in other countries, there are laws to shield us all from violence. Several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) meticulously list out various types of physical and mental assault culminating in culpable homicide that are punishable.
For serious forms of assault (like those which leave recognisable marks on the victim) formal complaints are not necessary; police officers have the authority and obligation to take cognisance of the crime and arrest the criminal. However, no Station House Officer of an Indian police station does this automatically when he learns about assaults on women, even when there is unmistakable evidence.
To compel the police to do its duty, two additional clauses were added to the IPC to punish those who cause "dowry deaths". Section 498A is meant for husbands and their relatives, who cruelly injure their wives, harass them for property or drive them to suicide. And Section 304B defines and penalises "dowry deaths"; a death caused by demands for dowry is punishable with minimum jail time of at least seven years extendable to imprisonment for life.
But, these provisions apply only to dead and injured wives subjected to violence by husbands or relatives of husbands in the first seven years of marriage for demands relating to property. Such distinctions exclude relationships outside marriage and attacks that take place for other sadistic reasons or beyond the arbitrary limit of seven years; they do not also apply to cruelty within natal families.
Since Indian police stations ignore general IPC clauses when women are assaulted, where do battered women turn for relief from violence?
The legal system has also effectively neutralised the special provisions. The numbers relating to "dowry death" put out by the National and State Crime Records Bureau (NCRB and SCRBs) are patently false. Most women badly injured or killed by husbands and their families are burn victims. Those who commit the crimes rely on the police to conceal them as "kitchen accidents", so that they appear in the tally of "unnatural deaths," but need never be investigated or taken to court.
On the rare occasions that the special provisions were invoked over the many years since the new laws were enacted, hardly anyone has ever been convicted under 498A. The section has today been deliberately devalued, so that it can be used only to trouble innocents (since the section shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused), shore up statistics and grease the palms of officials.
While listening to the testimonies of ten women who had suffered extensive burns from such violent attacks, I noted that Bangalore city police had scored a perfect ten-not one case had resulted in conviction or punishment of the criminals. Let us face facts, then-Indian women have nowhere to go for protection from violent men.
What is ironic is the predictable public and media reaction to the latest horrors. As usual, the women sufferers, their families and friends, are being blamed for gullibility and inaction. Lawyers, social workers, activists and concerned citizens who are already familiar with such stories have been struggling for decades with indifferent doctors, hostile policemen, brusque prosecutors and insensitive judges.
The minimum time for disposal of a case is seven years and conviction rates are deplorable. The criminal justice system is crying out for radical reform, but that's a larger question. It is only realistic to realise that such reform will not come in response to the demands of powerless women's groups, whose tribulations, however well-publicised, do not create political ripples.
We are most troubled by the knowledge that the battered women in the news today had sought help to release themselves from their tormentors, but could not be rescued. They are now being castigated for their dependence on violent criminals. Like rats in a trap, they found no escape door nor a world to escape to.
Must we then wait till the society to which we all belong changes its attitudes and norms? Friends, neighbours and activists in whom such women confide run from pillar to post struggling to help them find a way out of their agonies.
In their innocence, they turn to that magic solution-"the women's help line" run by the same police, who exclude women from legal reliefs. A call for help never results in an FIR and case registration under the IPC, which is what police are paid for.
The buck passes routinely to untrained policewomen, who send the complainant back to the same violent home with gratuitous advice. It is self-evident that counselling and police work are incompatible and must never be tacked together. Yet, this is the only relief offered by women's help lines. Even though, much more is possible from government agencies themselves.
Unfortunately, almost nothing is being done on creating awareness and publicity, which are the key to a change in attitudes and behavior. In the past, the government has successfully used wall paintings, hoardings, posters, radio and TV slots to push the message of family planning. Environmental protection and restrictions on popular fireworks displays are also being promoted by these methods.
A publicity blitz against domestic violence is long overdue to bring the ugly secret into the open. If the practice of using assaults to settle domestic disagreements is shamed and made "uncool", we can instill fear into criminals and confidence in victims.
Greater knowledge of the perils underlying relationships and the ways out of them can also help to save lives. Awareness sessions on the topic are essential for girls in high schools and colleges, who are the most vulnerable, just as we already have courses in sex education and training to sensitise children about inappropriate adult behavior. To this must be added information on where to seek help in moments of crisis.
Reform of the police and the criminal justice system will not happen overnight. Some of the initiatives recently begun by the Punjab government (like discouraging the display and use of arms) give hope that change in police attitudes is possible.
Even heroic efforts by committed lawyers and social workers have not transformed the police and judiciary into a system responsive to women's complaints. There is, however, one light of hope in the general gloom. Protection Officers appointed under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (enacted through the efforts of lawyers and activists like Indira Jaisingh and Flavia Agnes) do provide relief to a broader range of battered women than the IPC does through counselling, protection orders, legal assistance and escape to shelter homes.
This is the most effective escape route available today but few know about it as it is not publicised. Far more money should be put into the program to cover the country with services that women in trouble can seek. Shelter homes must be increased exponentially to welcome women and their children, who are often fleeing without funds or the ability and confidence to run their own lives.
Above all, the program must be strengthened by adding a career counsellor who can guide every runaway towards a self reliant and confident future. Repeated domestic violence is prevalent precisely because perpetrators know that victims cannot escape from them, with children to care for and without money or skills to stand on their own feet. When effective methods of fleeing attacks within the home are available and criminals are formally called out for violent behavior, we can deter and reduce domestic violence.
It's a matter of shame that the Central Women's Commission and State Womens' Commissions have consistently ignored their responsibilities in pushing through the programs that can support battered women and break their cycle of dependency. The AAP government in Delhi and its Women's Commission have done nothing to tackle this difficult subject.
They do not need police powers to provide publicity and awareness, to augment the number of Protection Officers and shelter homes and strengthen them with career counsellors or launch schemes to support assaulted and friendless women. What explains the continued indifference of all governments to measures that can bring down violence against women?