By Shrey Banka*
While the entire nation went into a lockdown on March 25, 2020 in a fight against the novel coronavirus, not many could have foreseen that the lockdown would lead to a “shadow pandemic”. As per a recent report by India’s National Commission for Women (NCW), 587 domestic violence complaints had been lodged during March 23 – April 16 period, a sharp 48% rise over the 396 complaints filed in the previous 25 day period. The situation even worsened with a total of 1,477 complaints registered between March 25 and May 31, the highest number of cases recorded during these months in past ten years.
Sadly, these numbers may not even represent the full extent of the problem since as per National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16, roughly 77% of women who experienced domestic violence didn’t ever mention it to anyone and even less than 1% of the women actually sought help from the police. Extrapolating these reporting trends paints a grim mind-numbing picture of the state of women who had been locked down with their abusers during this pandemic.
But the problem of domestic violence isn’t new in India. In a survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2018, India was ranked as the world’s most dangerous country for women among the 193 United Nation member states. Women are not only facing abuse at their homes but also at educational institutes and workplace. The recent case of the murder of a female college student in Faridabad in broad daylight is a testimony to the deplorable state of women safety in the country. The issues that contribute to this abysmal state of women safety in our country are manifold.
The first and one of the most fundamental reasons for atrocities against women is the social stigma and the societal norms attached to domestic violence. The effect of society on domestic violence operates at two levels. One is that in many Indian households, the conditioning of female and male children is done such that they tend to accept male dominance as a given and the female grow up to become women who are unaware of what legally constitutes as exploitation and violence. There was a time when the women weren’t cognizant of the fact that physical violence by their husbands was a legal offence. While the awareness has improved since then, the NFHS study in 2105-2016 revealed that 52% women and 42% men among those surveyed still believed that a man was justified in beating her wife.
The awareness about mental and sexual violence is even lower with sexual violence being the type of violence with the highest proportion of cases (80%) where the victim didn’t talk about the violence to anyone. The second level of societal influence in domestic violence cases is the stigma that is faced by a woman who files a complaint against her husband or his family. After filing a case or resorting to mediation, societal elements including the in-laws and the relatives point fingers at the victim as the one who took her “family” to the court. The fear of this kind of a hostile atmosphere and the associated adverse repercussions also deter women from raising their voice against their abusers. Lack of financial independence of many of the victims also becomes a significant cause of concern for the women when considering asking for help or seeking justice.
Secondly, even if the women somehow muster the courage to overcome all these deterrents and seek help, the inadequacy and lax nature of Indian law and administration make justice a distant dream for these women. India has a slew of laws and guidelines meant to protect women from violence and harassment. These include IPC Section 498A, The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, Section 125 of The Code Of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) among others. But the multitudes of laws have not been successful in ensuring that the victims get justice. One of the faults in these laws was recently corrected by the Supreme Court on November 7. Due to lack of uniformity about the provision of maintenance for women filing cases for divorce or domestic violence, and the guideline of the maintenance being payable only after the case is resolved, the accused in such cases had been exploiting loopholes in laws and trying to drag the cases for years so that they could adjust their official reported financial health over the years of the court case in order to pay lesser maintenance expenses. In some cases, they were able to completely get away with the payment due to the women petitioner losing her morale and needing financial assistance over the years of the court case.
The recent judgment by Supreme Court in a case between a Mumbai-based couple addressed these uncertainties and loopholes in the law that obstruct justice to the women. The ruling lays out detailed guidelines about alimony and maintenance, stating that maintenance has to be paid right from the day of filing of the petition and the amount to be paid will be based on the financial position of the partners at the time of filing of the court. This ruling should help remove the incentive for the defendants to prolong the case and facilitate a quicker redressal.
Even the stringent laws that should ensure justice for women fail to do so because of the lack of proper implementation of the same. One of the key examples of this would be the failure of The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, a law which is touted as a “milestone” by the Supreme Court of India. The act stipulates that the court proceedings in cases of domestic violence must be concluded within 60 days. If the implementation had indeed been as per the letter of the law, it would have been a milestone step towards curbing domestic violence in India. One can find an abundance of media reports that describe the plight of the women whose cases have been dragging for years and the victim hasn’t received a single rupee of maintenance during the proceedings. Another more recent example of implementation failure is the rise in reports of police officers refusing to lodge domestic violence complaints during the lockdown.
As a consequence of the factors mentioned above, a majority of the women facing domestic violence and harassment in our country still want to resolve the disputes by mutual understanding and mediation. Even in the worst scenarios, they still prefer filing for a divorce rather than initiating proceedings against the abuser for the violence she has faced. From the victim’s point of view, this at least prevents her from being dragged into a long drawn legal battle and allows her to start a new life for herself. Moreover, the lapses in the provision of justice to the victims actually bolster the confidence of the abusers and make them fearless about the legal consequences of their actions.
Even though we live in a country where many female goddesses are worshipped, our society, our legal administration and our judicial system have collectively failed the female citizens of our country. In order to improve the current situation, a change in societal mindset aided by foolproof laws and higher conviction rates is imperative.
*Management student at IIM Ahmedabad wanting to raise awareness about the issues of women safety and gender equality in India