As researchers working in the development sector, we often come across situations where we see first-hand violations of rights of disadvantaged people. A staggering half of the population in this country are systemically made privy to this disadvantage; abused, raped, and robbed of their independence and freedom, and often within their own homes. Based on data from more than 39,000 women extracted from the nationally representative Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) conducted in 2011-12 we find that approximately half of women surveyed reported that they were likely to be beaten by their husbands for leaving the house without permission. Other common reasons cited for physical abuse included not taking care of children properly or not cooking food properly. And these numbers are likely to be an under-estimation of the reality as many women might lie for fear of greater abuse if found out.
A few other numbers reflecting the lack of basic freedom women in India have; almost 80% of women surveyed reported that they would have to ask permission from their husband or in-laws to visit a medical facility for themselves – another small way in which women lose their right over their own body. A little less than 40% rural woman and about 45% urban women reported that they would not be allowed to work even if they wished to and were able to find a job.
It should be less than shocking than when we encounter such incidents of violations during the course of our work that takes us onto the field. What strikes us as increasingly troubling however is how little we are able to do to help these women despite our commitment to the mission of developing our great nation.
For example, while working with women in rural Rajasthan in 2016 (trying to start a business founded and led by women from local SHGs), we saw them nonchalantly discuss being beaten by their husband for returning home late from our meetings. We were also warned by Rajput women (forward caste) to not eat and even drink water from the houses of the Adivasi women. Yet, in the face of both physical abuse and blatant caste-based discrimination we were advised to stay on course by our supervisors, and not intervene.
While it becomes increasingly difficult to not become apathetic on one end, and not be completely ridden by guilt on the other, not intervening is an important lesson we learnt.
The most dangerous mistake we make as people studying and working in the development sector is of becoming paternalistic. We believe that we know better than people who live in disadvantage every day, attributing our superiority to our academic achievements or our experiences. Yet there is much to be considered before we can try to intervene in someone’s life, even with the best intentions.
A basic violation of rights to us, an acceptable standard for behaviour to someone else. In the absence of any of the women asking for our help then, our intervening on their behalf, or saying something against domestic abuse, might have made them unhappier rather than better-off.
At the same time, we know women do not enjoy being abused. We must thus, consider the circumstances within which we would be able to intervene.
Where there is an acceptance of such behaviour by the communities they live in, women who speak out against abuse might be ostracized, or become victims of greater abuse. In a cycle of deprivation women also often find themselves financially and socially dependent on their husbands. Especially women having children, for example, might be more afraid to speak out against their husbands.
This lack of support and of independence necessitates that certain support systems exist, even for those who wish to change their circumstance. Women victims in other countries benefit from legal advisors and psychological counselling. In India, such systems seldom exist, making intervention more contentious.
Then what might differentiate our ability to intervene or not, is dependent on first our ability to understand the woman and her circumstance in detail – is she dependent, can she support her children, can she access support from family and friends. Secondly, to understand the world she lives in – how can she break away from the cycle of dependence, can she become independent, do support systems inside and outside her community exist. And finally, we must be able to spend enough time and attention on her to gain this understanding.
Consider this situation; during the course of conducting interviews in households for a study in Ahmedabad regarding an education policy we received a phone call from a respondent who begged us to remove her responses from our survey as her husband had beaten her on finding out she allowed us to come into their home. In this situation, where we only had a fleeting interaction with the woman, even trying to call her back or meet her again might have had negative repercussions for her. However, in the case of the women we worked with in Rajasthan, we spent over a month building a rapport and living amongst them. In this situation, it would have been possible for us to start a conversation with them about their personal lives. It might have even been possible for us to identify the kind of access they would have had to legal recourse and/or support systems within their community, and from NGOs or social workers in the area. We could have then provided them with information of this and of the possible consequences of taking action against their abusers, enabling them to make an informed decision about their circumstance.
Even though not taking action when we encounter such incidents might prolong the oppression of women in our country and our fight for equality and freedom, it is crucial that before taking any action we are aware of the consequences of that action on the lives of the people we try to help. Without this understanding, we might endanger more people than we seek to help through our work.
A longer version of this article was originally published in Ideas for India
Karan Singhal and Nisha Vernekar work as research associates at Indian Institute of Managment, Ahmedabad.