By Gina Dias:
There’s no better time to break the silence around domestic violence than now, during the 16 Days of Activism, an international campaign focused on raising awareness about gender-based violence.
In many ways, I will be breaking my own silence too. As an early, involuntary observer of the many manifestations of violence at home- mental, physical, sexual, and emotional- I have always felt a sense of unease when women are expected to share their most intimate and painful experiences of domestic violence. Over time, the sense of unease has not dissipated, but I have come to realize that there is a sense of empowerment and liberation in sharing with the world what you have been made to feel ashamed, guilty, and embarrassed about for so long.
Oxfam India, together with grassroots partner organizations, has been working on ending violence against women, by primarily improving the access to support services and formal justice systems for survivors of domestic violence. At support centres, women are provided with counselling, legal aid, medical aid, and linkages to livelihood and shelter support.
I have had the fortune of meeting with several women who have accessed these centres, and are today leading their own lives, free from the threat of violence. I have been moved and inspired by their struggles and their courage, slowly freeing me from my own inhibitions of sharing personal accounts of being witness to domestic violence. In all of my discussions with these survivors, as well as from my own experiences, one thing clearly stands out- in most cases, the ability to access a strong support network is crucial to be able to take the first step towards saying no to violence. It is the fear of fighting a battle alone which deters many women from speaking out. Counsellors at a support centre in Lucknow, run by Oxfam India’s partner organization Hamsafar, said that women in distress often call them up just to talk, with no expectations other than just to be heard. Many of them never call again. All they want is to know that they are not alone.
The irony of the situation is that they are far from alone. As per the National Family Health Survey (NHFS) 2005, more than one in three married women in India face some form of domestic violence. Equally disturbing is the fact that less than one in four of these women reported having sought help. A civil law complementary to existing criminal laws, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) 2006, aims at reaching out to the majority of women who are not in a position to, or choose not to initiate criminal procedures against their abusers. It legally guarantees a woman’s right to a violence-free home and facilitates her access to justice. However, unless a woman has a strong support system, it is unlikely that she will take recourse to the formal justice system. This is what makes talking about violence and extending support to those who need it, all the more important.
The NHFS results also highlight the existence of a violence trap- a woman whose mother faced domestic violence was nearly thrice as likely to experience violence herself, as compared to a woman whose mother had not. I can’t say for sure what helped break the cycle that I was part of, but all I know is that by breaking the silence and starting a conversation about violence, we can all help break another cycle today.
The author works with programmes and advocacy, Oxfam India.