Youth volunteers of SNEHA enacting a street play on domestic violence, a part of their sensitisation programs in a Mumbai slum.
The beatings started just days after Anuradha, 15, got married. Her husband was a distant relative, 12 years older to her. The marriage was an arranged one, and she soon discovered that her husband had a violent temper.
“The smallest thing would set him off”, says Anuradha, “If the tea was not the right temperature, or if I spoke to a neighbour. He would return home drunk late at night, beat me and force me to have sex.”
Anuradha’s inlaws were indifferent and her parents advised her to find ways to keep her husband happy. They finally intervened after she attempted suicide at the age of 17.
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Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence (IPV), accounts for five in 10 of reported crimes against women in India. Many cases go undocumented, and various studies show that nearly seven out of 10 women in India have suffered some form of domestic violence.
A report released last month by Washington DC-based thinktank Population Reference Bureau says that India, along with Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, reports among the highest rates in the world, with one in three women reporting sexual and/or physical IPV, predominantly from a husband.
Early marriage is a particular risk factor. India has the highest number of child brides in the world – of the 10 million who marry as children every year, an estimated three million live in India.
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One key reason why so many cases go unreported is because (IPV) has cultural sanction. According to the NFHS-3 survey, 57 per cent of boys and 53 per cent girls between 15-19 years believe that wife beating is acceptable in at least one circumstance.
Many women do not recognize that what they are facing is violence says Pouruchisti Wadia of SNEHA, a Mumbai charity that trains youth to conduct gender sensitization campaigns in slums in Mumbai.
“Younger brides have very poor negotiation skills. They also tend to believe that they have to play a subservient role, and that satisfying their partner’s sexual needs whenever he wishes is an implicit aspect of the deal. The idea that they can say ‘no’ is not considered at all,” adds Wadia.
While there are laws against domestic violence, what is not widely understood and taken cognizance of, even at the policy level, is that it has enormous public health consequences.
Women who experience IPV are twice as likely to experience depression, and about 50 per cent more likely to become HIV positive. Other negative outcomes are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), gastrointestinal infections, suicide, and chronic pain. Studies also show that sexual IPV is associated with increased risk for unintended pregnancy that in turn compromises maternal, infant and child health.
“Our research in India has also demonstrated intersections of IPV and other forms of abuse and mistreatment that create a web of vulnerability for women and girls,” says Dr Anita Raj, Director, Center on Gender Equity and Health, University of California, San Diego, who has conducted extensive research on sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence
Raj’s research analyzing national data documents links between IPV and female infant mortality as well as between IPV and girl child marriage, marriage of girls before the legal minimum age of 18 years. National data indicate that almost 40 per cent women, between 20 – 24 years, were married before the legal minimum age of 18 years.
“Women married as children are more likely to experience abuse from husbands. Among married women, sexual violence from husbands is most common among adolescent wives. These issues compromise mental health and have been linked to depression and high suicides in the region,” says Raj.
While the law prohibiting child marriage has helped bring down numbers significantly, they persist in rural areas due to ingrained traditional practices and rigid gender roles.
Organisations like SNEHA and the Institute of Health Management Pachod in Maharashtra, are trying to tackle in pioneering ways. Since 1996, IHMP has been working in parts of Marathwada, among marginal farmers and landless labourers.
“Early marriage is an expression of the discrimination that girls suffer in patriarchal societies and we believe the answer lies in empowering girls,” says Dr Ashok Dyalchand, Director, IHMP.
IHMP’s programs include life-skills training, educating girls about their rights, and counseling. The average age of marriage among girls in IHMP’s focus areas used to be 11-12 years. Now 71 per cent get married at 18.
“The fact is that parents are decision makers and girls have to be taught how to negotiate”, says Dyalchand. “A major component of our program is engaging with and educating parents. When we tell them that their girls face a five times higher risk of morbidity when they marry young, it makes a difference.”
In 2013 the program was scaled up to include newly married couples to tackle domestic violence. “Our experience is that domestic violence should get addressed when it is initiated. Otherwise it becomes a norm”, he says.
Tackling IPV calls for a substantial change in attitudes and behaviors. Worldwide, there is growing acknowledgement that working with adolescents and youth is the most effective approach – one that needs as much as investment and commitment as rehabilitative responses.