I was walking to the village market on June 21 – last Wednesday night – when an acquaintance came running towards me. He hurriedly told me that one of my female staff members had been involved in a major family dispute. I run a non-profit in rural Bihar that aims to end open defecation. I am close with most of my staff and their families, so I quickly ran to her house to see what was going on.
It was late in the evening. Her aangan was illuminated by a single LED bulb. Her family was crowded around her charpoy where she was laying covered in a thick blanket. The heat from the day had not subsided, so I was confused why she was trying to stay warm. I used the light on my cell phone to take a closer look at her. Her right cheek was badly swollen. Her eyes were barely open and she was shivering and mumbling incoherently. Then her sister told me, “Her husband was beating her so she drank pesticide and tried to kill herself.”
My co-director and I immediately called for a doctor. A family member told us that her husband had knocked the glass with the poison in it out of her hand before she had consumed too much. The doctor confirmed that she, fortunately, had not ingested too much and that she now needed to rest.
This is the second time in as many years that I have witnessed a close acquaintance in Bihar try to kill herself after being victimised by domestic violence. There should be no doubt that the men who commit these vicious crimes are culpable. They maintain a tight grip over the women in their households. They are likely to lash out violently any time their authority is challenged by a female family member.
What remains unclear, however, is the extent to which the state is also culpable in these heinous crimes. Bihar’s government made international headlines last year when it banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. The state unilaterally made this decision as an attempt to curb domestic violence. And while countless women in Bihar are thrilled that the government is trying to protect them, these crimes persist.
That these crimes persist despite the alcohol ban should come as absolutely no surprise. Because ultimately, banning alcohol does nothing to ensure that women and girls have access to good education. Banning alcohol does nothing to help women gain access to meaningful employment, which would help them exert greater control over household finances and foster a sense of independence. And banning alcohol does nothing to alter dangerously flawed and deeply entrenched gender norms that exacerbate gender inequality in India. In other words, banning alcohol does very little to actually improve the status of women.
That women like my staff member are so quickly forced to turn to self-harm as a result of domestic violence should also come as no surprise. The state has wholly failed abused women when it comes to providing relief services. There is very little legal recourse as family members and neighbours are often too afraid to call the police for fear of being wrongly accused of committing the crime. Additionally, there are no mental health or counselling services that are made available to women who are brutally abused. But what saddened and frightened me the most in the immediate aftermath of my staff member’s ordeal was that she had nowhere to go. There are no shelters or neighbours to turn to in these kinds of situations in rural India. My staff member stayed at her house that night, stuck inside the belly of the beast, likely grappling with intense feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anger, sadness, and fear, with no one to talk to.
My intention in writing this piece is not to absolve the men who commit these crimes. Rather, it is to implicate the state. Its incompetence in, and lack of commitment towards, building systems and societal structures that prevent violence against women leave it complicit in the perpetuation of that very violence. And the same incompetence and disregard in constructing systems that are needed to afford women with a proper menu of services after they have been victimised leaves women feeling hopeless, often pushing them to the brink of self-destruction. We must stand as allies to women and demand that the state institute policies and programs that prevent domestic violence and provide services for victims. The time has come for us to reject headline grabbing policies such as the alcohol ban. At its best, this is a wet Band-Aid intended to stop the bleeding. At its worst, it is another patriarchal piece of legislation that ostensibly indicates male willingness to keep women safe, while absolving the state of its responsibility to forge a path towards equality and equity.