Seema has been beaten, tortured and accused of infidelity many times in six years of her marriage. She has never celebrated any festival since she got married. She feels like killing herself after every time her husband brutally beats her, but the love of her two young children stops her. Her bruised arms, bloodshot eyes and tears tell stories of torture she suffers every day in her marital home.
Once, when she escaped from home to lodge a complaint at the local police station, she was told to manage her “family problems” herself. In 2013, over 1 lakh women like Seema reported “cruelty” by their husband or their in-laws. The police investigated about two-thirds of these cases and the courts convicted 16 percent of the accused. In other words, 84 out of every 100 women who knocked on the doors of the police and saw their case go to court had to return to a life of suffering physical, mental and emotional cruelty.
A government in denial
For every woman who is raped, four are harassed, tortured, murdered or driven to suicide by their dowry-demanding husbands and in-laws. While the frequent mention of women’s safety in politicians’ speeches may have made the world believe that women are unsafe only on the streets or fields in India, police records tell a different story.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 41 percent of complaints related to crimes against women in 2013 concerned “cruelty by husband or his relatives” or “dowry death”. The government has favoured death penalty for aggravated rape, assigned funds for rape victims and claimed to accord top priority to women’s safety, but it is not only deaf to the woman who cries for help from her marital home, it is in denial that the problem exists.
These statistics are the most recent reminder that violence meted out to women in India is largely structural, frequent, ingrained in society and not always sporadic. In the past three months, the UN has twice reminded the Indian government of this fact. It recommended better implementation of laws that are meant to prevent violence inside matrimonial homes, challenge regressive social practices such as dowry and take proactive measures to confront gender stereotypes. Although this could have provided an opportunity for much-needed legal and bureaucratic attention to the many facets of violence against women, the State dismissed even the existence of violence in the private sphere.
You might ask why? Well, because respect for women’s rights flows in the ancient traditions of the Indian civilisation and are enshrined in the Constitution, or so the bureaucrats want the world to believe.
On 2 July, Shankar Aggarwal, secretary of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, certainly claimed so while making a presentation in front of a review meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva. Not even once in his statement covering social, economic and political status of women in India, did he mention domestic violence or dowry deaths.
The experts on the committee had asked: How was the law on protection of women from domestic violence being implemented? How was the reported abuse of this law by enforcement officials handled? Does India ever intend to criminalise marital rape? In their response, the Indian delegation of top bureaucrats headed by Aggarwal steered clear of a direct answer, but argued that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005, was not only protecting women from physical, mental and emotional forms of violence, it was also a protection against sexual violence. It failed to mention that rape within a marital relationship was not punishable or even recognised as a crime under Indian law.
The rosy reality presented by the Indian delegation, however, failed to dupe the UN committee. On 18 July, cedaw concluded that patriarchal attitudes persist in India and are entrenched in the social, economic and political institutions. Nonrecognition of marital rape as a crime, and the high number of dowry-related deaths and “honour” crimes perpetrated by family members served as evidence for cedaw to conclude that the Indian government’s talk had not turned into “sufficient sustained and systemic action to modify or eliminate stereotypes and harmful practices”.
Government accused UN Special Rapporteur of prejudice
The precursor to the cedaw meeting was a report titled Violence Against Women: Its causes and consequences that was submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in June. The author of the report, UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo, had observed an alarming rise in dowry-related violence and “honour” crimes and argued that violence against women occurred in both public and private spheres throughout the life of a woman. She pointed out that when the “physical, sexual and psychological abuse” was inside the family, it was widely tolerated by the State, adding that the PWDVA did not offer much protection to women and “honour crimes” prevented women from exercising their choice in marriage.
Manjoo’s observations were based on time spent in India, interviews with civil society and women’s rights activists and extensive literature review. But they far from impressed the government, which walked an extra mile from denial to accusation. In an official comment, the government accused the author of “lack of understanding”, “high degree of prejudice” and “over-simplified, unsubstantiated and sweeping generalisations”.
This wall of denial is what most women meet when challenging discrimination built within the prescribed norms of family and marriage.
Not just the UN, but the Justice JS Verma Committee, which was constituted to recommend amendments to the criminal law following public fury over the Delhi gangrape case, had also taken a strong stand against the practice of dowry. It took the bull by the horns with a primary recommendation: “all marriages in India should mandatorily be registered in the presence of a magistrate, which magistrate will ensure that the marriage has been solemnised without any demand for dowry having been made and that the marriage has taken place with the full and free consent of both partners.”
The committee also recognised that domestic violence was widely prevalent, supported the view that a rapist remains a rapist regardless of his relationship with the victim and endorsed separate legislation to curb “honour killings” against matrimonial choices. However, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, that followed did not reflect these recommendations. The opportunity to adopt a holistic approach to violence against women, including addressing the source of such violence, was once again lost.
In a study published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in August 2013, noted New Delhi-based lawyer Kirti Singh, who works on women’s issues, reviewed the laws in India and argued that the government was not only ignoring patriarchy, but also willingly perpetrating it when it came to the family. The study stated: “Although the government introduced changes in the dowry law, it did not work towards implementing it by taking preventive measures. The appointment of a sufficient number of Dowry Prohibition Officers, who are responsible for implementing the various provisions of the DPA (Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961) under the law, would have been a major step in the right direction.”
If the concerns identified and measures proposed by the current government are an indication, it would be a long time before the State targets demand for dowry, women’s financial dependence on men and forced caste endogamy as forms of violence towards girls and women. Till then, it will be easier to uphold traditional values as a safeguard for married women.