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Domestic violence: emotional and physical abuse of wives in India


The treatment of women in India, in the context of emotional, physical, and sexual violence against them, has become an important topic of discussion and debate in India. Although most of the public anger and outrage in India and abroad has been directed towards sexual violence against women outside the home - India was recently judged the most dangerous country in the world for women, more dangerous than the war-affected countries of Syria and Afghanistan or the extreme patriarchy of Saudi Arabia1 - there is reason to believe that they are also treated badly, both in terms of emotional and physical abuse, within the home.

The triple-talaq system, by which Muslim husbands can divorce their wives by simply uttering the word talaq (divorce) thrice, is a particularly egregious example of the emotional abuse of Muslim wives by their husbands. Although this practice was recently set aside by India’s Supreme Court, the tripl e-talaq system had its supporters, most prominently the All India Muslim Personal Law Board which argued that the practice was consistent with shariah law.2 However, the Forum Against the Oppression of Women (2017) argued that tripl e-talaq simply highlighted the broader inequality experienced by Muslim women in marriage since in a “patriarchal society, in which marriage is defined in a religious context, marriage cannot be seen as a contract between equals” (p. 2).

The violent behaviour of husbands against their wives is deeply rooted in a patriarchal culture which regards such violence as a necessary instrument to keep women in a subordinate role in the context of marriage and family. Bhattacharya (2004) has pointed out that in many Indian families, the husband is addressed as annadata (provider of grains) and grihakarta (household authority). Martin (1981), in her classic study of domestic violence in the US, emphasises that the roots of domestic violence lie in the historical attitudes towards women, the assumptions underlying the institution of marriage, the adequacy of social services, and the slant of the criminal justice system and of legislation towards spousal assault.

Much of the violence inflicted on Indian wives revolves around dowry disputes, with the bridegroom’s family feeling that they had been short-changed in terms of the dowry that accompanied the wife. Although the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 made the giving and taking of dowry an offence, the implementation of the act was judged to be a failure. As the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974) reported, “we are compelled to record our finding that the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, passed with the ostensible purpose of curbing this evil. . . has signally failed to achieve its purpose . . . there are practically no cases reported under this Act” (p. 115).

There are two problems associated with discussing domestic violence in India in the context of dowry. First, domestic violence is taken seriously by the criminal justice system only for assaults that occur in connection with dowry disputes. Consequently, tying gendered violence to dowry means that only very specific assaults are taken seriously by the law as material for prosecution, with violence inflicted for non-dowry-related reasons being brushed under the carpet (Agnes, 1995). The second problem is that legislators who were concerned about domestic violence nevertheless placed a higher priority on preserving the family unit and proceeded on the assumption that this was also the desire of the (battered) Indian wife (Ghosh, 2004). As the Lawyers’ Collective Women’s Rights Initiative (LCWRI) points out, under this ideology, a woman’s place is with her husband, and such counselling as the legislators propose was aimed at persuading her to continue in a violent marriage (LCWRI, 2002).

Karlekar (1998) points to the importance of the generic characteristics of families in affecting the status of women who, after marriage, exchange the familiarity' of their natal homes for the unfamiliarity of spousal homes, with all the attendant tensions and conflicts in loyalties. The upshot is that the newly married woman is expected to conform to the image of the ideal Indian woman, or adarsb bbaratiya nari, whose feelings and desires are subordinate to those of her husband and in-laws (Dutta, 2015). A consequence of this subordinate status is the number of controls imposed on wives by their husbands. The Indian Human Development Survey for 2011 reports that 38% of women were not given permission to work, 58% had to practice some form of face concealment, 54% could not travel outside the home without permission, and 26% ate only after the men in the household (Desai et al., 2015). Many wives in Indian homes thus lack agency. As this chapter shows, the greater the loss of agency, the higher the probability of being a victim of spousal abuse. Visaria (2000) shows for the state of Gujarat that the powerlessness of women led to violence against them; more generally, as Heise et al. (1994) argue, violence is a corollary of beliefs that men have the right to control women’s behaviour and that “deviant” behaviour would and should be punished.

Kishor and Johnson (2004, p. xv) observe that

the scientific investigation of the problem of domestic violence is a relatively recent endeavour ... it is only within the past 30 years that violence against women has been acknowledged internationally as a threat to the health and rights of women as well as to national development.

Similarly, Karlekar (1998, p. 1741) writes that while

the battery of statistics and reports made available by official sources and the media reinforce the view that this form of gendered [i.e., domestic] violence is fast becoming a feature of daily living in India it has yet to become a priority area of research.

Against this background, this chapter attempts to redress this research deficit in issues relating to domestic violence by estimating the relative strength of factors underpinning spousal abuse in India. A novelty of the chapter is that it examines both emotional (insulting, humiliating, threatening) and physical abuse (slapping, pushing, kicking, etc.) and estimates relationships for the two types of abuse as a system of equations: this means that the correlation between the two types of abuse can be taken into account. The equations were estimated using data from the National Family Health Survey for India for 2015-16 (hereafter, NFHS-4), described in the subsequent section.5

Using the estimates from these equations, the chapter then computes the probabilities of wives facing emotional and physical abuse under a variety of circumstances, including household poverty, the women’s social group, education, and their husbands’ controlling behaviour and frequency of drinking, along with their state of residence as a fixed effect. These probabilities are then employed to decompose inequality in the likelihood of wives being abused according to a few important factors. This analysis showed that most of the inequality in the likelihood of being abused could be explained by just three factors - household poverty, husbands’ controlling behaviour, and husbands’ drinking habits.

Kimuna et al. (2012) have studied domestic violence in India using data from the NFHS-3 for 2005-06. This study differs from theirs in certain important respects. First, there is the obvious difference in period: 2005-06 versus 2015-16. Second, this study, unlike that of Kimuna et al. (2012), includes emotional as well as physical abuse. Third, the research methodology employed is different: the results in this study are presented in terms of predicted probabilities, rather than odds ratios, which renders them easier to understand. Fourth, the methodology allows the probability of being abused to be predicted for each woman in the estimation sample. This then allows an analysis of inequality (in these probabilities) using decomposition techniques.

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