(Trigger warning: Description of domestic violence. Reader discretion advised.)
In the first part of this two-part series, we explored what keeps Indian women in abusive marriages. You can read it here.
As I sit down with Reshma Gupta, a notification pops on her phone about Mandeep Kaur, a 30-year-old woman who died by suicide in New York, after surviving an abusive relationship for eight years.
She reads through the article, gasping now and then, adjusting her bifocal glasses.
“I don't know Mandeep, but I empathise (with her). It is not easy to end a marriage when everyone keeps telling you that it is sacrosanct. In my case, I woke up one day and it struck me that nobody cared that he was torturing me. Why should I care about what people think about my life?” the 52-year-old domestic violence survivor asks.
The recently released Alia Bhatt-starrer Darlings – where the actor plays Badru Shaikh, a domestic violence survivor – has rekindled conversations why women stay in abusive marriages, and what happens when they decide to take matters in their own hands. There are hundreds and thousands of Badrus in India.
According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS), one in every three women in India is a survivor of intimate partner violence. However, the previous edition, NFHS-4, revealed that only 14 percent of women, who have experienced domestic violence, have sought help to stop it.
Reshma, a homemaker, is among the small percentage of Indian women who sought – and was provided – support to break free of an abusive marriage.
She filed a case under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA 2005) and divorced her husband in 2012 – after surviving 10 years of abuse. She broke free.
A civil act – the PWDVA 2005 – offers aid, protection, and maintenance to the survivors, as well as immunity against any form of abuse – physical, sexual, verbal, and financial.
‘Our Approach Needs to be Decentralised’
Less than 100 km from the national capital is Haryana's Mewat, one of the most socially backward regions in India.
There, a group of women huddle together in front of a radio set, curiously tuning into Radio Mewat’s latest episode of Hinsa Ko No (No To Violenece) – a programme curated to initiate conversations around domestic violence in their local dialect.
“When we speak about the agency of women, it is next to nothing in Mewat. What we do know is a woman might not even have access to radio sets and mobile radio apps. In any household, phones are always with the man. We have to think of ways to reach the target audience, like gathering women in a safe space where they can listen to it,” says Nitika Kakkar, the project director of Hinsa Ko No.
Kakkar adds that the conversation isn't just limited to women but effort is also being made to sensitise the police, panchayat, and protection officers. This has a ripple effect.
Protection officers are appointed by the state government in every district, and are responsible to provide legal and other aids to survivors.
Women in the region are made aware of their rights, people in positions of power are made to realise the importance of implementing the law – making it easier for those in abusive relationships to break free.
Like the Mahila Panchayat that helped 28-year-old Seema.
‘I Found a Family in the Mahila Panchayat’
“A teapot, a cup, a chair, a belt, mixer-grinder, curtain rod, electric iron….” Seema Kumari lists the items her former husband had used to hit her. She traces the creases of her fingers to keep a count till there are no fingers left; no creases left to assign an item.
“I had made peace with the fact that I'll have to live this ruthless life. Till he hit our three-year-old daughter. I cupped my crying baby in my arms and ran barefoot in the scorching heat to the nearest Mahila Panchayat,” says Seema, who works at a beauty salon in Delhi.
Mahila Panchayat or a women’s council functions under the Delhi Commision for Women in collaboration with local NGOs that provide social and legal support to survivors of domestic violence.
In them, she found a community of survivors who gave her the courage to break free.
“I found a family that day, felt like for the first time I was being heard and that I was not alone. They called my husband for counselling and he refused. Eventually the council helped me file a case against him,” she says.
Pooja Bisht, a counsellor in one of the Mahila Panchayats, explains how the counsellors first meet with the in-laws and husband to see if the matter can be resolved – as that's what women want, in most cases. However, if the abuse continues, they provide aid for litigation.
“And if the survivor cannot bear the cost, we help them get a lawyer through NALSA or National Legal Services Authority. We follow up after each hearing, and provide emotional support to go through the process.”
“The women need a safe space too, time away from their abuser helps them to widen their perspective. In the panchayats, they meet other survivors and socialise. When they realise they are not alone, they feel more assured to walk out,” says Tanmoyee, NGO Shakti Shalini’s project coordinator.
‘My Mother Gave Me the Courage to Walk Out’
In Darlings, Badru's single mother, Shamsu, played by Shefali Shah, is feisty and cynical. She doesn't give her abusive son-in-law Hamza any benefit of doubt and stands like a rock behind Badru in hope that she comes to her senses and ends the abusive marriage. A large part of the movie stems from the mother-daughter relationship.
For 35-year-old Anu, it was also her mother who stood like a rock behind her. A tailor, Anu operates from a cramped chamber in Delhi, which was originally a storage room in a multistorey building. “To me, this tiny room is larger than life," she says.
“He was a good person but things changed after he lost his job and he blamed everything on me. He started calling me ‘O Lokhi’, someone who repels good luck and wealth. The name calling soon shifted to physical violence and he would strike me continuously without a rest. My cheeks would swell up like a potato.” she says, stroking her face.
Anu disclosed her ordeal to her mother who advised her to catch the next bus home.
“That night, I fit everything I could in a bag and I left his place to never return. I suffered in silence for years, I thought I was an embarrassment but hearing my mother’s voice gave me all the courage I needed,” she declares as she twirls the extra thread between her fingers to break it.
“I feel the parents have a huge role to play in providing emotional support. Every parent should say that if you wish to come back we are here to support you. In many domestic violence cases when the parents break the social norms for their child, it becomes easier for her to walk out. And break free," says Nayana Chowdhury, Director-Programme at Breakthrough, a woman rights organisation.
'Secure Shelter & Custody of Children’
Advocate Preeti Singh, a matrimonial lawyer and founder of PS Law Advocates and Solicitors, emphasises that it is important for the survivor to ensure two things first – a roof over her head and the custody of her child or children.
“An abuser might think about taking away the custody of the child to arm-twist her. Eventually, she might succumb to any emotional pressure the abusers raise. In order to do away with this situation, under ‘protection’ they can file for a restraining and custody order of the children first,” Singh says.
“A survivor who has kids and resides in a share-household i.e the house she has been living in after her marriage. Irrespective of who the house belongs to, she has the right to continue to reside in the house. That also comes with the expulsion of her abusers," she adds.
Trends show that divorce rate is wafer thin in India – according to the 2011 Census, only 0.24 percent of the married population got a divorce. However, the data does not paint the full picture as many survivors prefer a separation.
"When we counsel women, we always ask them if they want to get a divorce. But most of the women here prefer a quick solution or separation at best," says Pooja Bisht.