A week-long lockdown had been announced yesterday.
Again, Sunita sighed as she struggled to get out of her bed and start her daily routine of household chores. She didn’t like such long lockdowns which trapped her in her own house. Damn this pandemic! She exclaimed. It closed her ways to escape during the day from the more real and nearer threat than an invisible virus.
She went to the corner of the room to the small and tarnished mirror on the wall, to check on her bruises from last night. They would last longer this time. She glanced at her soundly sleeping husband, Ramesh, across the room and sighed again. She already missed going to work. Shaking off her dread for the coming week, she got busy with the morning chores…
Elsewhere, the morning alarm went off. Neha peeked out of her comfortable blankets and groaned. She had to wake her kids up for their so-called online classes. She groggily made her way to them while thinking about her to-do list. She had a lot of chores to do as her maid, Sunita, won’t be able to come due to the lockdown. She woke up the kids and, “Dad will stay at home for a week now. Yay!” they squealed excitedly. This brought Neha to her senses. She hurried off to make breakfast for the family, but first, she had to hide the alcohol. It was one thing that could ruin the whole week for them. Then she started to think of the activities that could keep her husband, Shekhar, busy for the whole week at home. Anything to keep him away from the thought of alcohol. She made Shekhar’s favourite breakfast and started off the week with an optimistic smile…
It had been three days now, and Sunita was too tired to even stand. Her whole body screamed in pain, but she didn’t have a choice but to bear with Ramesh. She trudged her way to the kitchen to the rice container to stash the last few notes of two thousand rupees into it. She knew that if Ramesh came to know about this hiding spot for money, she will have to face his renewed wrath and a fresh round of beatings. She was the sole earner in this house and she had to save the money from Ramesh’s extravagant habits, to make their ends meet. Suddenly, her phone rang.
“Hello, Sunita. How are you?” Neha said from the other side.
Suddenly, Sunita wanted to cry and vent out all her pain to Neha didi. Even though Sunita worked at Neha’s house, she considered her a generous friend. She enjoyed spending her time at their house, with Neha’s kids.
Sunita controlled her emotion filled voice and said, “I am good, didi. How are you? How are the kids?”
Neha sighed and said, “They are good and safe.” Then she lightly asked, “By the way, I can’t find the balm and painkillers. Where did you put them?”
Both the ladies went quiet for a moment as Sunita grasped the real meaning behind those words. Shekhar babu must have found his alcohol last night and abused Neha while drunk. When compared to Ramesh, Sunita felt that at least Shekhar babu was decent enough to feel guilty about it, though that didn’t change anything.
Sunita quietly said, “I kept them in the back of your almirah’s drawer.”
Neha curtly said, “Okay. Take care.” and hung the phone.
Being a domestic violence victim herself, Sunita was acutely aware about her surroundings. She had known that Neha didi was also a victim when she had noticed the bruises and red marks on her face one day. But Neha didi hid her pain well for the sake of her kids. Neha didi didn’t earn but she wanted to be a nice mother to those kids and provide them with all the facilities and a complete family with Shekhar babu.
After applying the balm and taking some painkillers, Neha started to think about Sunita. She knew Sunita was also a victim and always stood in silent solidarity whenever Shekhar had had one of his drunkard episodes. She chuckled at the irony of their situations.Sunita was the earning member for which her husband, Ramesh, beat her out of his frustration of unemployment and inferiority complex. On the other hand, Shekhar was the earning member in this house and Neha was the homemaker. He started beating her around the time when they went through financial crisis and he resorted to alcohol. Then in his drunken state, he would vent out all his frustration and work stress on Neha in the form of abuse, all the while relishing his superiority complex and control over his wife. Neha could have left him there and then, but Shekhar was good with apologizing and looking guilty. She always forgave him and hoped for a better future. By the time it became a habit, to get drunk and beat his wife, they already had children. Now, Neha chose to stay with Shekhar because she wanted to give her children a good future. She was determined to end this cycle of abuse, but not at the sake of her children. She knew better now, that it is futile to expect better from her husband. After all, there can never be a good reason to abuse your spouse.
She thought Sunita was lucky to not have children. Sunita didn’t have them because she didn’t want to trap herself with the responsibility of a mother but have the option to leave Ramesh whenever she wanted. But she was just fooling herself, because if she could have left Ramesh, she would have, a long time ago.
No, Sunita and Neha both, in spite of the class differences, didn’t have the luxury of an open-minded society who wouldn’t abandon and shame them for leaving their husbands. Sunita and Neha came from very different worlds and societies and both knew it was foolish and wrong to call this tormenting life their fate. They were trapped by the shackles of societal expectations and pressures about how a woman should compromise and adjust with her husband. The legal provisions for them were left to shame and at the mercy of the advocates of an unjust society and customs. Nobody deserved this kind of mistreatment. Nevertheless, they plastered a smile on their face, took a deep breath and went about their life like always.
In India, more than 30% of women have been subjected to domestic violence at some point in their lives, per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data. Yet, nearly 75% of those who reported being subjected to domestic violence did not seek help from anyone. For those who do, by confiding in close family members, the crime often gets brushed off as a private or family matter that doesn’t require outside, legal intervention.
The COVID-19 period has brought the offence of domestic violence to the forefront and aggravated it to an alarming rate as the victims have been forced to live together with their abusers coupled with poverty and unemployment during the lockdowns. During the initial phases of the lockdown, Indian women filed more domestic violence complaints than recorded in a similar period in the last 10 years. But even this sudden spike is only the tip of the iceberg as most victims do not seek help in India. Even though the full scale of the issue hasn’t yet been grasped, it is being termed as the “Shadow Pandemic” or “crisis within crisis”, not just in India, but all over the world. In India, there are certain provisions those seek to protect the victims and punish the abusers under the law.
The Protection of Woman from Domestic Violence Act, 2005
Domestic violence is defined by Section 3 of the Act as “any act”, omission or commission or conduct of the respondent shall constitute domestic violence in case it:
- harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so and includes causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse; or
- harasses, harms, injures or endangers the aggrieved person with a view to coerce her or any other person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any dowry or other property or valuable security; or
- has the effect of threatening the aggrieved person or any person related to her by any conduct mentioned in clause (1) or clause (2); or
- Otherwise injures or causes harm, whether physical or mental, to the aggrieved person.
Furthermore, Domestic Violence was added as a Criminal Offense under the section 498A of the Indian Penal Code in 1983. Under this section harassment for Dowry by the family members of the husband or by husband is recognized as a crime.It particularly covers the cruelty faced by wedded ladies at the hands of their spouses or their husbands’ families. Under the Law, the acts of cruelty include, but are not limited to, the physical abuse; psychological torture by threatening her or her loved ones (such as children); not giving the woman food; locking her in or out of the house as punishment; and sexual abuse against the woman’s will. It also includes any and all intentional behaviours against a woman which force the women to attempt suicide or risk to life or grave injury or risk to limb or overall health. Here, health incorporates the physical and mental health of the women. The convicted abusers are charged with imprisonment up to 3 years or fine or both.
Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, is a type of violence committed by someone in the victim’s domestic circle. This incorporates partners & ex-partners, family members, close relatives and family friends.Unlike Sunita and Neha above, the victims, be it a man or a woman, need to speak against domestic violence. Only taking a stand against it will end the cycle of abuse. Moreover, the legal remedies and provisions won’t be put to use unless the society supports the victims and takes a stand against it.
A first, legal step would be to approach the police for help or to seek the help of a Protection Officer, appointed by the government to assist victims of domestic violence. It may be useful to consult a lawyer and/or have the support of an NGO or a woman’s rights organization in such matters.The National Commission for Women has also launched a WhatsApp number 7217735372 too for victims of domestic abuse.
SO SPEAK UP AND REACH OUT!
– Lavanya Agarwal and Pradyumn Bisht