No shelter for women at home

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Gender-based violence against women is at an all-time high in Tamil Nadu. For a state that is considered otherwise progressive, the latest findings from the National Family Health Survey are a sobering call to action against domestic violence primarily fueled by alcoholism. Even though the state’s coffers are regularly filled with the sale of alcohol, it is important that the government develop multi-pronged strategies to protect women in this state from violence.

Gender-based violence against women is at an all-time high in Tamil Nadu. For a state that is considered otherwise progressive, the latest findings from the National Family Health Survey are a sobering call to action against domestic violence primarily fueled by alcoholism. Even though the state’s coffers are regularly filled with the sale of alcohol, it is important that the government develop multi-pronged strategies to protect women in this state from violence.

Tamil Nadu has the label of a ‘progressive state’ due to its achievements in various human development indicators. However, recently released results from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) have revealed deep contradictions that require collective soul-searching.

Consider this data: 44.7% of married women have experienced physical or sexual violence in the state, the second highest in the nation. Nearly 80% of women think a husband is right to hit his wife, the third highest rate in the country. 81% of women have never asked for help and never told anyone that they are facing domestic violence. Even among others who sought help, 81.6% sought help from their own family, while only 2.8% turned to the police. The fact that only a tiny percentage of women sought help from the police is corroborated by the extremely low number of recorded cases in Tamil Nadu under IPC Section 498A, which deals with cruelty by husbands. Previous NFHS surveys have also indicated the same.

While such a degree of discrepancy between education and financial indicators and gender-based violence indicators is almost unique to Tamil Nadu, activists and experts say it should come as no surprise.

Swarna Rajagopalan, founder of Prajnya, says the numbers are unsurprising because it’s just a myth that better education, economic progress or an ideology that espouses something different will automatically produce a gender-just culture. .

A Survivor’s Fight

Amudha*, 39, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in geriatric health, endured an abusive marriage for more than 10 years. Her failure to seek help and stop abuse early on is emblematic of all that is wrong with Tamil Nadu when it comes to domestic violence.

For Ms. Amudha, the struggle began in childhood when her father broke up with her mother and married another woman. “I was treated differently by my father and stepmother. It was an unreasonably strict and disciplined environment,” she says. Despite being a studious child, she had to fight to get permission to his father to go to university.

Poet and writer Meena Kandasamy says the problem lies with society’s approach to violence, which is seen as a corrective disciplinary force. “Parents think it’s completely okay to hit a child. From childhood, violence within the family is seen as a virtuous force because ‘the intention is good,'” she says, adding that in a patriarchal society, women are infantilized and husbands are later given the “compulsory” role of discipline.

education for marriage

Just when Mrs. Amudha was finishing her graduate studies in social work and dreaming of taking up a job, she was forced into marriage. “My parents were an intercaste couple. My mother’s side was that I would not marry someone from my father’s caste, as they considered him lower in the caste hierarchy. So when there was an alliance with a man from another upper caste, my mother and father insisted that I accept the proposal,” she says.

S. Anandhi, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, says domestic violence is very much linked to forced marriages. She points out that although the percentage of women entering higher education in Tamil Nadu is high, the majority of them then drop out of the labor market. She says higher education becomes something of a step, not towards employment, but towards marriage, in which women have limited choice.

Work for the family

Mrs. Amudha’s husband, who turned out to be a high school dropout unlike what he claimed was an undergraduate student, was deeply concerned that his wife was working elsewhere despite the family’s financial difficulties.

She was allowed to work in the small copy shop he ran. She had to work a 12-hour shift while he was often absent from the workshop. “I was not given a chair to sit on. I had to sit on a backless stool as it would apparently help me deal with customers faster,” she adds.

The responsibility of making the shop financially viable fell to him. “I was able to turn around, but he didn’t like it. I was insulted several times,” she said. Unable to bear the insults, she managed to find a job elsewhere. “However, I was asked to take care of all essential family expenses. Out of the ₹8,000 salary, I had to pay ₹6,500 in rent and save the rest for my son’s school fees,” she says.

Professor Anandhi says the aim of educating women often turns out to be to prepare them for the economic mobility of families, not their own. The goal itself is patriarchal. She adds that to address gender-based violence, society must address the crisis of masculinity in the context of neoliberal economic policies and the lack of quality jobs, especially for men.

Prasanna Gettu, chief administrator and co-founder of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Assistance (PCVC), says that contrary to assumption in a highly patriarchal society, improving education and Economic independence can actually increase domestic violence.

“Empowered women are viewed as a threat by men who feel they are losing power and control over their partners and therefore resort to violence,” she says. She adds that the back and forth between progress and adherence to traditional norms meant that women often had to pay a high price to access these empowering measures.

Guilt Trap

Over the years, Mrs. Amudha’s marriage became more violent, physically and emotionally, with no help available even from her own family. She had two abortions. Her fidelity was constantly suspected by her husband, who even made his family believe that she was mentally unstable.

“I tonsured my head once to make myself less attractive, thinking it would appease his [husband’s] doubts,” she said. She was taken to religious places, where she was beaten to be “cured” of her mental illness.

Throughout this period, Ms Amudha says leaving the marriage was never an option, as she repeatedly felt guilty that it was all her fault. “I had to think about my children and my emotional, physical and social needs. Living as a single woman in this society was never an option then,” she says.

Ms. Anandhi says this is the result of coercion in women’s choices. “If she leaves the house, there is no good alternative. No public community to sympathize with women who abdicate their family responsibilities because of violence,” she says.

U. Vasuki, national vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, says that despite all the violence, the majority of women see husbands as a necessary social cover.

Ms Kandasamy, who is herself a survivor of domestic violence, says Tamil Nadu has not fully assimilated ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy’s ideas on women’s empowerment. “Periyar viewed marriage as a social contract, just like how we enter into a labor contract. If we see it that way, we won’t have that holier attitude about marriage than you, which makes women tolerate all violence. If that doesn’t work, the women should be able to leave,” she says.

Help a mirage

When Ms. Amudha felt enough was enough and decided to seek help, it was not easy. “When I go to the police, I am the first suspect. I have to prove that I am not the cause of the problems,” she says. His efforts to seek justice through the courts were also unsuccessful. Although she was finally able to divorce after a long battle, she lost custody of her two children. “It’s been four and a half years since I last met my children,” she says.

While Tamil Nadu prides itself on pioneering the concept of all female police stations, Ms Rajagopalan says people in these institutions are not sensitized enough. Ms Gettu says shame and re-victimization by institutional actors are major reasons that keep victims away.

Agreeing to the lack of awareness, Ms. Vasuki says there is also a deficiency in capacity. She points out that protection officers are only available at district headquarters. “It’s hard for women in the villages to go out and ask them for help,” she says. She emphasizes that the role of alcoholism in violence should not be ignored. “While the state sees alcohol as a source of revenue, it is completely absent when it comes to mitigating the harmful effects of alcohol through addiction centers, support groups, etc. .”, she argues. NFHS data shows that male alcohol consumption in Tamil Nadu is among the highest in the country.

Go forward

Ms Amudha says it took her almost 15 years to accept that it was okay to live for herself. “I am so determined to complete my PhD. I want my story to help women get out of abusive relationships,” she says.

Professor Anandhi says the intervention should start by focusing on gender equality in education since the quality of education received by women has not equipped them to challenge patriarchy.

Ms Gettu says the government should understand and recognize domestic violence in all its forms as a crime and not just a ‘family issue’. A trauma-informed institutional response, redesigning support systems based on impact assessments and increasing the number of one-stop centers staffed with adequate professionals are some of the other measures needed, he adds. -she.

Although the recent draft women’s policy released by Tamil Nadu addresses some of these aspects, Ms. Vasuki feels that it is still insufficient. She says there is a need for sustained and intensified campaigning and strengthening institutions such as the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women with wider representation.

( *Name changed to protect identity.)

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