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Darlings, Domestic Violence Needs Attention!

The Covid pandemic came as the perfect storm and domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world reported a rise in calls for help and the UN described it as a shadow pandemic

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8th August 2022: While news reports of violence against women are part of the daily diet of Indian readers, some days an incident causes a more widespread reaction than the otherwise tepid concern. One such news story in early August is of a young woman from Bijnore, UP who was living in the USA and who suffered severe domestic violence, ill-treatment by in-laws, and beating by her husband. Her torment increased after she had two daughters.  She sent her parents videos of her abuse with wailing kids in the background. 

The story of domestic violence is also the crux of a brave new film on Netflix called ‘Darlings’ with Alia Bhatt in the lead as an actor and as producer. Brave because it is rare that a top actress, in her prime, would take up the role of a true-to-life middle-class housewife sans glamour. Brave also because it is a subject that rarely gets its due in popular culture. It is probably only because a reigning actress backed it, that it has got the mainstream spotlight.

Not unwarranted, though. Domestic violence should get a lot more concern and debate than it currently does. According to a study (BMC, Women’s Health 2022) done on the data provided by the Crime Records Bureau of India (NCRB), between 2001 to 2018 domestic violence cases increased by 53 per cent in India. There is also gross underreporting. This longitudinal analysis of the reported cases for nearly 20 years across Indian states highlighted the under-reporting and almost stagnant data, which hinders intervention strategies to reduce domestic violence in India.

Yet another study by (BMJ, 2020) says 1 in 3 women in India is likely to have been subjected to intimate partner violence but only 1 in 10 of these women formally report the offence. 

That is a staggering number. It also means that we all know someone who knows someone who has suffered or is suffering.

The research also said that such figures on domestic violence mean that India is unlikely to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG-5), which focuses on gender equality and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.

Another bigger concern with this form of violence against women is that they don’t seek help from any formal institutions. There is so much shame, ignominy and socio-cultural inhibition in reporting or seeking help that this gross human rights violation goes unchecked. What’s even more appalling is that with the ever-present spectre of dowry and then ill-treatment by inlaws, poor parents in India continue to treat a girl child as a burden. 

A farmer in Gujarat recently heard faint cries of a baby and upon digging the earth found a newborn buried alive. Most of the unwanted babies in India, not surprisingly, are girls. Another baby girl was found thrown alive in a dried-up well, this same week. Violence, sometimes, begins at birth! 

A growing problem 

The Covid pandemic came as the perfect storm and domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world reported a rise in calls for help and the UN described it as a shadow pandemic. The National Commission for Women’s helpline saw a surge in domestic violence complaints during the Coronavirus lockdown.

While the law provides ample remedy and recourse against domestic violence, 77 per cent of women in India say nothing and do not seek legal recourse. It’s a crime that goes, invariably, unpunished. As shown in the movie, and clearly enunciated- Sec 498A of the Indian Penal Court can protect the woman, but it remains largely unused.

Women somehow feel compelled to not report or forgive the tormentor, accept it as a part of married life, many time forced by parents or in-laws to do so.

As India sits at number 123 of the Gender Inequality Index of the United Nations, violence that happens within the confines of the home is even more shameful than rape or molestation. Women are not safe in their private spaces, and not just in public places. 

Surprisingly, economic empowerment by means of earning does not protect women against domestic violence (Koustuv Dalal 2011), in the Indian context. However, working women sought more help than non-working women. There is a strong economic case to be made against this violence - the World Bank suggests that the cost of violence against women could be as high as 3.7 per cent of a country’s GDP. 

These numbers are all pointing towards the need for interventions and sensitisation. While the government and non-governmental organisations, can do what they can, popular culture and cinema can also address and bring the issue to dinner table conversations. 

Another popular film, Thappad (Slap) had a similar theme and made a difference, however minor it may be. The Rajasthan police had started a dedicated helpline number for women to complain about domestic abuse. 

Hopefully, films like these become cultural mouthpieces and propel some women to take action and end the cycle of violence. The same repetitive behaviour in an abusive relationship is a cycle (Lenore E. Walker. 1979) of calm, violence, and reconciliation.

Since it’s a movie and wants to make a statement, Alia’s character evolves from a suffering child-like bride to an avenging woman. As Ernst Hemingway said “All things truly wicked start from innocence”, we see a complete turn of events where the wife takes things into her own hand and with tables turned, the tragi-comedy leaves the viewers with closure. 

That is where the similarity in the stories end. In the real-life case of the young Indian mother of two in New York, that incessant cycle of abuse led her to suicide this week. 

Vineeta Dwivedi is a faculty at Bhavan’s S P Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), Mumbai. Views are personal. @VineetaDwivedi 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Domestic Violence

Vineeta Dwivedi

The author is Professor - Business Communications & Head, Digital Communications at Bhavan's SPJIMR

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