An estimated 52% of women and 42% of men agree that husbands are justified in beating their wives for ‘specific reasons’ as per the latest National Family Health Survey 2015-2016 report (NFHS-4). In the case of men, while this percentage has come down substantially from the time of the last survey in 2005-2006 (NFHS-3), it has remained almost unchanged for women.
In the NFHS survey, the respondents are asked whether they agree with a husband beating his wife under the following seven circumstances (refer to chart 1):
1. She goes out without telling him.
2. She neglects the house or the children.
3. She argues with him.
4. She refuses to have sexual intercourse with him.
5. She doesn’t cook properly.
6. He suspects that she’s unfaithful.
7. She shows disrespect for in-laws.
The respondents who say ‘yes’ to any one of the reasons are considered to have an attitude that justify the beating up of wives.
The perception towards wife-beating hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years when the last NFHS survey was conducted in 2005-2006. The percentage of women who justified the idea of wife-beating under the seven specified reasons stood at 54% in the NFHS-3, while for men, the percentage was 51%.
Nilanjana Sengupta, a researcher and practitioner in the field of gender and development, and a former faculty-member at the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, blames the patriarchal system for this trend. She believes that not just men but also women in our country have internalised the patriarchal notions of society.
“It’s very simple – patriarchy as a system naturalises all these acts of coercion and violence. Patriarchy is not something that only men have internalised, it’s something that women have also internalised. So, we are socialised to understand the society and its attitudes in a particular way. This justification of wife-beating is part of that internalisation. This is why we say that the fight is not against the men but against the system,” she says.
Most women’s rights activists across the country hold a similar point of view about patriarchy. They believe that one of the biggest challenge that, en route to women empowerment today, society faces the psychological barriers that the system of patriarchy has put up in our psyche.
Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer and women’s rights activist, also has the same opinion on the issue. She says, “Patriarchy resides as much in women as in men – it’s a cultural ideology that we have in our society, we need to confront it and we need to challenge it everywhere.”
But the question is not just about how much or to what extent patriarchal ideas influence the responses of a woman in such surveys. Talking about the situations under which these surveys are conducted, Sengupta adds, “We need to be careful about how we do surveys. From my own experience, I can say that often where the woman is being asked the question, she will not be alone. She will be accompanied by her husband or a senior male member of the household, so she may not be able speak her mind out. Although this is indicative and I don’t doubt the data, we need to be cautious about the ground reality”.
She adds, “A lot of women are aware but they do not have the material and social fall-back systems with the help of which they can fight these ideas of suppression.”
As one digs deeper, the data shows that in the case of women, the percentage of people in agreement with wife-beating tends to increase with age – from 48% for women aged between 15-19 years to 55% for women in the age group of 40-49 years (refer to chart 2). On the other hand, in the case of men, the percentage of agreement falls from 48% for men aged 15-19 years to 40 per cent for men in the age group of 40-49 years (chart 3).
The extent of agreement also decreases as the level of education increases. So, for a woman who has never had any kind of education, the number stands at roughly 58%, and for those who have received education for 12 or more years, the number is almost 43%. But, while the number has improved for the former category (since the last report, when it was 62%), for the latter, it has worsened considerably, rising from 31% in the previous NFHS survey (see chart 4). This portrays a bleak and not-so-impressive picture of our education system and also raises questions about the values that it is promoting.
“Our education system is also complicit in perpetuating the same kind of gender norms. Our education doesn’t really liberate us in that sense. So, this whole myth of education being the pathway to emancipation is not completely true. Of course, education is very necessary, but it is not sufficient. That is something I think we need to understand,” Sengupta observes.
There are multiple aspects and ideas which can be argued or debated as the reasons for the current trend that the report puts forward. But, the fact is that be it educated or illiterate, young or old, living in urban or rural India, male dominance and female suppression is still a harsh reality that plagues our society even in the 21st century.
So, the next time you see a Twitter trend or a viral hashtag celebrating women empowerment in the country, stop and think. Be aware that while it is surely a sign of a positive atmosphere, there is still a lot of work to be done and a long distance to be covered in that direction.
A version of this article was first published on the author’s blog.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.