Domestic violence: An open secret

Rangeen Khidki
8 min readAug 2, 2020

Trigger Warning-Mentions of domestic violence,sexual abuse and emotional abuse,injury

As soon as we hear the words domestic violence, vivid imagery of bruised women comes to mind. One might also recollect a few movie scenes where a man slaps his wife,or that of a woman carefully covering her scars. This imagery proves two things. First, our biased understanding of domestic violence. Second, the flawed portrayal and romanticisation of domestic violence in popular media.

It is said that laws lay the foundation of subsequent social change in society. In this context this article will examine the Domestic Violence Act (hereafter DV Act) of 2005: discussing its merits, loopholes and the role of society in its implementation.

The Act does a good job in keeping the survivor’s interests in mind, and has been hailed as a survivor centric legislation. This civil legislation deals with the definition of domestic violence and the relief provided to the aggrieved person. Under this law, the aggrieved can be any woman who shares a domestic relationship with the perpetrator. The perpetrator can be a man, or other relatives with whom the aggrieved shares a domestic relationship. This implies that a woman can file a case of domestic violence against not just her husband, but also her in laws. Under this Act, only a woman can file a case of domestic violence. This provision leaves out men who might be facing domestic violence. When physical violence and threats against men by wife’s relatives are taken into account, an estimated 3 crore men are facing domestic violence in India.

A domestic relationship has been defined as sharing of a household, and having a relationship in the nature of a marriage or a relationship between family members living in a joint family. The term ‘relationship in the nature of a marriage’ can be seen as covering live-in relationships also, but, it has been found that this definition has a gray area. The interpretation of whether a certain live-in relationship can be seen as a relationship in the nature of a marriage is the prerogative of the respective judge.

The Supreme Court in D.Velusamy vs D.Patchaiammal case allowed a live-in relationship to come within the purview of the Domestic Violence Act (DV Act), 2005. In this case the live in relationship was considered as a “relationship in the nature of marriage”. The apex court established certain pre-requisites of such a relationship and the necessity to prove the same. For instance, the couple must be of legal marriageable age, they must present themselves in society as akin to spouses, and they must have voluntarily cohabited. If these guidelines are met, then the relationship is considered to be a marriage, and a complaint can be filed under the DV Act.

This law does not provide for imprisonment of the perpetrator, because statistics show that this discourages the aggrieved from filing a case. Instead, the law provides for relief in the form of monetary relief, residence orders, protection orders, and counselling. The law is progressive in the sense that it defines Domestic Violence in a holistic manner. Domestic violence is deemed to include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional/verbal abuse, and economic abuse. When we try to delve deeper into what constitutes domestic violence, we quickly realize that a large number of women around us are in fact victims of domestic violence.

A survivor of domestic violence can be someone who has faced emotional and verbal abuse in the form of being constantly humiliated, criticized or called derogatory names. Emotional abuse is also evident in cases of extreme control over a partner’s personal choices, associations, movement and activities. One could have also faced sexual abuse from their partners. Domestic violence may take the form of reproductive coercion wherein a woman may be forced to either get pregnant, or get an abortion (particularly in female foeticide cases).Domestic violence also includes economic abuse which is manifested in the form of depriving a woman of control over financial assets and family income. Economic abuse is also present in cases where one has to account for every penny that they spend.

We live in a society where physical abuse is not seen as substantial grounds for filing a divorce, or a case of domestic violence. This makes it even harder for victims of sexual, emotional/verbal and economic abuse to leave their partners. In sections of society, which might recognize physical abuse as a legitimate reason for leaving a partner, leaving because of other forms of abuse is still seen as unnecessary or as a sign of weakness in the survivor’s character. The intensity of harm caused by these forms of abuse is not recognized because they do not leave visible marks on one’s body.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) released by the Union Health Ministry reported that 31% of married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their spouses. The most common type of spousal violence is physical violence (27%), followed by emotional violence (13%). However, the most worrying part of spousal-violence is that almost every third married woman, who has experienced spousal violence, reported experiencing physical injuries, including eight per cent who have had eye injuries, sprains, dislocations, or burns and six per cent who have had deep wounds, broken bones, broken teeth, or any other serious injury. Yet, only 14 % of women who experienced this violence sought help to stop it.

It must be noted that these official figures are nowhere close to revealing the real picture. There are many reasons behind this. First of all domestic violence is normalized and even romanticized in society. This is very evident in popular media where a man’s masculinity is shown through his actions of degrading his wife/girlfriend by slapping her, humiliating her, or coercing her to have sex with him. Men are shown as masculine, strong and desirable when they engage in abusive behaviour. Whereas women who quietly accept this abuse are glorified as being ideal partners. Such depictions lead to men associating abusive behaviour with chivalry. It also tends to develop an expectation among male audiences of being with a partner who will accept their abusive behaviour and not retaliate.

This portrayal serves an even more dangerous purpose, that is, of influencing the attitude of women towards domestic violence. When they grow up watching countless movies, television serials and advertisements, which show that abusive/controlling behaviour is a man’s way of showing love, they tend to internalize this attitude too. The media tends to place women who do not speak up against domestic violence on a pedestal. They are seen as considerate, motherly figures who are supposed to sacrifice for the greater good of the family and society. This leads to an environment where women themselves do not realise they are victims of domestic violence.

Even if this realisation hits home, they are often unable to leave their abusive partners due to lack of financial independence and family support. When a girl is being married off, she is told by her parents that her marital house is her real home from now on. She is told subtly/explicitly that there is going to be no place for her in her natal home after marriage. In many religions, marriage is considered as a finality, a bond meant to last forever. The onus of making a marriage work often falls on the woman. This widely prevalent notion prevents women from seeking help in cases of domestic violence.

Even if a woman decides to file a case of domestic violence or file for divorce, she is actively discouraged by her peers and family members. In Indian society many parents live with their son and daughter-in-law in a joint family setup. Women find it hard to return to their natal home because of the presence of their brothers and their wives there, who can be very unwelcoming. Often women who get divorced/separated from their husbands are seen as a burden by their family. This also leads to parents denying their daughter a place to live in her natal home, if she were to end her marriage. Parents do this to actively discourage their daughter from leaving her husband, as she knows there will be no emotional /financial support to fall back on, once she leaves the abusive set-up. One factor which plays an active role in preventing women from seeking help against domestic violence is their children. Society keeps reminding a woman that she will be the reason her children would be deprived of a happy functional family if she leaves her abusive husband. It is strongly believed that children of divorced/separated parents find it harder to excel in life.

Gender socialisation techniques in childhood play a major role in shaping the attitudes of people towards domestic violence. Evidence suggests that children whose parents use physical punishment end up becoming more aggressive than children whose parents use other disciplinary techniques. Here the parent sets an example of aggressive behaviour, which the child imitates. It could also be because physical punishment makes the child angry and resentful; as the child grows up, s/he expresses this anger through aggressive behaviour. When this aggressiveness is put in the context of power dynamics between a couple, it manifests in the form of domestic violence. This happens when a partner consciously/unconsciously knows they have power over their partner. The perpetrator knows they will not face any consequences for the violence they inflict upon their partner.

Domestic violence on part of the perpetrator can also be attributed to their learnings in childhood and adolescence. They might have found aggressive behaviour rewarding in childhood. Any behaviour is encouraged when rewarded and discouraged when punished. During childhood, when a boy is found to be causing any emotional or physical harm to someone, especially a girl, he is almost never reprimanded. Instead he is let go of on the grounds that “boys will be boys” or “boys being naughty/aggressive is normal”. Sometimes parents tend to praise such behaviour in boys because they see it as a sign of him expressing his chivalry or masculinity. Learning of aggressive behaviour could also take place through observing the abusive actions of a role model. When boys witness their mothers being abused by their fathers in childhood, they tend to view domestic violence as something normal. This might lead to them inflicting the same trauma on their future wives. At the same time, girls grow up watching the plight of their mothers. This way, girls are taught since childhood that it is a woman’s moral duty to bear with her husband’s actions and forgive him.

Institutions such as the family, school, and religion contribute to this environment of normalisation of domestic violence. It is important to keep in mind such societal processes when examining the implementation of an Act such as this one. Legislation can only provide a mechanism for seeking justice. Society teaches us whether it is acceptable to seek this help in the first place or not. Socialisation processes determine to what extent one will recognise that they are survivors of domestic violence. Additionally these processes also determine whether one would be willing to leave an abusive partner. The single biggest factor determining whether a survivor of domestic violence will seek help is whether their peers and family members are willing to support them. We as a society need to understand the nuances of domestic violence and how we can create an environment that enables survivors to leave abusive partners.

Written by Srijani Datta

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Rangeen Khidki

We work with urban as well as rural youth and women on Gender & Sexuality, Sexual Reproductive Health Rights, mental health, education and life skills.