No country for her
The woman sounded nervous on the phone. The helpline counsellor who took her call asked her to make some excuse and come out to meet her. It would be difficult, the woman replied; it was, after all, in the middle of a Covid-19 lockdown and her husband was home. She had sneaked onto the terrace to put through a quick call to the helpline. Her husband had lost his job in the pandemic and had begun drinking and abusing her.
Women were the most affected when India imposed a strict lockdown last year for almost 70 days. And while women worldwide had a tough time during this period, especially those in abusive relationships, in India, a patriarchal country where the gender power imbalance (especially between husbands and wives) is stark, these few months shone a spotlight on something everyone would rather push under the carpet: intimate partner violence. The National Commission for Women reported receiving the same number of complaints from women about domestic violence in one week as it would normally receive in a month.
While the glare of adverse media coverage caught up with domestic abuse during the 2020 lockdown, it would be wrong to think that the problem was somehow unique. In fact, intimate partner violence, especially wife-beating, is normalized in far too many Indian homes.
The National Family Health Survey has found that 42 per cent of men believe it is okay to beat their wife if she ventures out without their permission, neglects housework or care work, talks back, refuses sex, doesn’t cook properly, is disrespectful to her in-laws or is suspected of infidelity. Worse, 52 per cent of women agreed.
A 2018 Oxfam India survey of 1,000 households across the central Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh found that the majority of respondents considered it acceptable to criticize and beat women for slip-ups. It also found a correlation between the devaluing of women’s unpaid work and gender-based violence.
In 1995, India, along with 186 other UN member states, adopted the Beijing Platform of Action to eliminate all forms of violence against women. And yet, 25 years later, the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020 found the prevalence of domestic violence in India to run at 29 per cent of all women. This shocking figure is only of women that come forward to report abuse.
In December 2020, the International Journal of Indian Psychology published a report which found that 86 per cent of women who experienced violence never sought help, and 77 per cent did not even mention such abuse to anyone.
Among the report’s findings: ‘Domestic violence in India is not looked on as violence, women consider this is a part of life… A lot of violence against women is expected and accepted.’
Taking note of the spike in domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, emergency measures aimed at prevention were brought in. More widely, six per cent of the central budget was allocated to schemes benefiting women and girls. But the 2021-22 budget has cut back that spend again by a quarter. India’s commitment to gender issues remains half-hearted at best – the pandemic is just another reminder.