(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of physical assault. Reader discretion advised.)
Ever since the brutal news of Shraddha Walkar's murder by her partner Aaftab Amin Poonawala broke out, her friends have maintained that the latter was frequently abusive. They revealed that Shraddha wanted to walk out of the abusive relationship several times in the past.
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.
There's no easy way to explain why.
My former math tutor Poonam (name changed) from Delhi has been surviving a 31-year-old abusive marriage.
“I got married on 27 February 1991 to a monster. When we were young he would thrash me in front of the neighbours,” the now 54-year-old declares.
As a young woman, Poonam often thought about leaving her husband, but her parents would convince her to stay.
“It was normal for men to be aggressive. The kids will make it alright, or time will. Try to be patient is what I'd hear them say,” Poonam, who teaches at a private school, tells The Quint. But taking the legal route, without her family’s support, was out of the question.
The Gender Roles & Cycle of Abuse
Dr Nancy Pathak, an assistant professor at Delhi University and a gender rights activist, tells The Quint, "We, as a society, adhered to patriarchal gender roles – where speaking against or out, would eventually lead to victim shaming."
“We are conditioned to follow the traditional rules and gender roles laid down by the society. When women voice their opinion, they stray away from the traditional roles. Society responds by victim shaming. Often the survivors are reluctant to lodge a case against their abusers because of the conditions they have witnessed growing up. The women in their families might have faced similar abuse – so they end up accepting the abuse. This becomes an endless cycle that may take generations to break free.”Dr Nancy Pathak, Assistant Professor, DU
Don Hasar, co-founder of Himachal Queer Foundation, echoes Dr Pathak. They spoke about how the power dichotomy works. “On birth, individuals are given boxes and structures to fit themselves into. However, the problem begins when a person doesn't follow the roles sanctioned by the society.”
Most of the survivors are coerced by their family members to return to their abusers because that’s the ‘easy way out for all.’
This is also backed by research. A recent survey on gender roles by Pew Research Center survey suggests 9 in 10 Indians ‘agree’ with the notion that a wife must ‘always obey her husband.’ As many as 52 percent of women and 42 percent of men think it is acceptable for a man to ‘hit his wife’ under certain circumstances.
‘I Earn So Little, Where Do I Go?'
But it is not just the social construct and mentality, but also lack of strong systems that could help survivors. According to NFHS-5, women in abusive marriages sought help from their own families (65 percent), their husbands’ family (29 percent), friends (15 percent) or a religious leader (2 percent). Only 3 percent sought help from the police and only 1 percent from medical personnel, lawyer, or a non-governmental organisation.
Many survivors – like part-time cook Sunita – would have benefitted from institutional support.
“I lied to him (her husband) that Khanna aunty (her employer) is ill and wants me to cook an extra meal for her,” she giggles and sticks out her tongue as I sit down to speak to her. It is a subtle indication that our meeting would be short.
“I married him a week before Diwali in 2009. I knew I had made a big mistake when he slapped me in front of our relatives on our wedding night,” she says while swaying her feet anxiously – back and forth.
Over the years, Sunita has considered lodging a complaint against her husband, “But I earn so little, where would I go?” Once she even confided her anguish to her mother who poured ‘gangajal’ (holy water) over her as she believed the evil eye was controlling her thoughts.
“Ghar ki baate bahar nahi jaani chahiye (what happens at home, should stay at home)," she says mimicking her mother.
“He often tells me that I will end up in the streets without him, that he is doing me a favour.” Sunita, now in her early thirties, says her only motivation is her youngest daughter. “I always tell her to study, so that she’s at no man’s mercy.”
The Financial Cost of Pursuing Litigation
Delhi-based advocate Adab Singh Kapoor, who specialises in family law, and provides legal solutions to survivors in various jurisdictions, tells The Quint:
“If the survivor chooses to go to court, will her family support her decision to initiate litigation? Second, will she have the financial means to proceed and continue with the litigation? Over the years I have seen several cases where lack of a support system (including financial support) becomes a deterrent to initiate legal action. Survivors should also be made aware of their right to avail free legal aid.”
Kapoor adds that even at times when there is support, survivors don't have the financial means to proceed or continue with the litigation.
“The litigation is often time consuming, expensive, and there are uncertainties associated with it. It is observed that despite an award of maintenance, the aggrieved woman, often, has to initiate execution proceedings to realise the maintenance already awarded and that too in piecemeal fashion.”
If a woman takes legal action against her husband over domestic violence, she can file for maintenance under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005. When the trial begins, a notice is sent to the accused and asked for a response and then the magistrate passes the order. The survivor also has to file an application to receive the maintenance. However, the monetary relief can take years to reach them.
The Word ‘Compromise’
“Every time he would hit me, I would consider lodging a complaint against him,” says 28-year-old Neeru from a tier-1 city in India. She met her abuser at her college in 2015 and got married three years later.
But she doubted that the police would help her. “I lost my phone once and I went to the station to lodge an FIR. All I saw were men.” She added that the image from that day floated back into her mind and it discouraged her from seeking help.
“They would have anyway asked me to solve the matter internally,” she says.
“Most of the police officers are not trained to handle sensitive cases such as domestic violence. They instil patriarchal ideas and ask survivors to ‘compromise’ or solve the matter internally,” says Dr Pathak.
Kapoor feels in India many survivors are still not aware of the legal course they can take – and that NGOs, civil society, and media should actively work on this, apart from the government at both state and central level.
“Insults, ridicule and repeated name calling can tantamount to domestic violence but people aren't aware of it. We need to educate people about their rights. In a lot of cases, survivors do not recognise abuse.”
“There’s always an element of hope,” says Kapoor. “Hoping that having children will make the situation better, or that time will mend the relationship. This prevents the survivor from taking legal action. And the word compromise over domestic violence should be deleted from the dictionary.”
(This was first published on 6 August 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of the brutal murder of Shraddha Walkar by her abusive partner Aaftab Amin Poonawala.)