The irony arose when the best practice to mitigate the spread of the deadly COVID-19, maintaining social distancing by staying at home, led to an equally dread-inducing complication — a surge in the number of reported cases of domestic violence. A greater distress than confinement at home is the prospect of having to spend the confinement period with an abusive partner or family. The victim is locked in the same cage as the abuser.
Adding to the abuser’s constant presence can often be his frustration and anger of being shut, not getting alcohol in some cases, and imminent unemployment combined with the refusal to help with domestic chores, which are in turn vented out on woman and children of the house.
Reported cases of domestic violence have nearly doubled, according to the data from the National Commission for Women. Special teams have been deployed to look into the issue and emergency contact numbers have been launched by the NCW and State governments alike. But the fact remains that unreported cases could be in significantly greater number than those reported. The fear of increased harassment, combined with the stigma of failed marriages, dissuades many women from contacting the authorities concerned to complain about their abuse.
Domestic violence is endured by many women, men and children in the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, but the occurrence of domestic violence against men is rarely reported. Studies show that nearly 30% of Indian women have been victims of domestic violence as preference for a male-child is still predominant in patriarchal families.
Progress may be seen in more modern or better-educated families, but the numbers of reported cases are still very high. It is a myth that domestic violence is confined to poorer sections of society, though studies show that low income and low education increase the risk of domestic abuse.
In India, domestic violence or intimate physical violence against women has become too familiar an issue that more often than not, people dismiss it as being an inherent part of relationships. The monstrosity of the experience is evident to the sufferer alone, while others in their families become mere onlookers.
The ignominy of being a divorcee dissuades many women from reporting domestic abuse, which may not always be physical: gradual social distancing, not allowing women to contact their families or go to work, determining the way they should dress or behave, making them feel less significant or not being capable of making decisions, or showing neglect and control — all of which is emotional abuse and often dismissed as being done out of love or to ensure their protection.
A look at the most common justification of domestic violence gives us a rather clear idea about the root causes that sow the seeds of the issue at hand. “You are the woman, you should be more forgiving,” “You should be subservient so that you can have a peaceful family life,” “Divorce will bring dishonour to the family,” “Stay for your children’s sake,” and “He is your husband, he has the right,” are some of the many pieces of advise women are given when the issue of domestic physical or sexual violence is raised.
What’s worse is the advice newly-weds are given: of having kids would be the ultimate solution to all problems. This does nothing except pulling unknowing children into this vicious cycle with undeniable deleterious effects, and makes the possibility of an escape from abuse even more remote.
Detrimental societal attitudes towards men further aggravate the problem. The expectation that a man should be stronger and have an upper hand in families brings shame to them for not being assertive enough in families, making them resort to violence. Cases where both partners are violent towards each other (other than for self-defence) result from not wanting to appear weaker before the partner, and thoughts like “how dare they defy me?” or “They is controlling you,” or even an occasional need remind the partner who has the upper hand in the family.
What’s even more toxic is that in cases of domestic violence in which women are victims are negligently normalised in our society, predefined gender roles and the still-at-large dowry system being primary factors that lead to this. Occasional occurrences of dowry deaths serve as a momentary trigger to human rights organisations and progressive people, but things go back to being the same as before once the dust settles.
The high prevalence of domestic abuse and the failure of most mitigation measures demand a thorough study of the frame of mind of the abusers. The fact remains that most people who engage in domestic violence have either been a witness to or endured such abuse themselves. Causes that feed the aggressive behaviour must be identified, and offenders must be given appropriate counselling, made to work on their triggers, and eventually made to understand the benefits of an equal voice with their partners.
Moreover, the normalisation of domestic abuse, which is the root cause, shows no signs of waning. Extensive counselling at society level is what is most essential and the change should start with individual families.