Newsletter Jan - Apr 2002 

There are several organisations fighting against violence on women at various levels. It was felt that co-ordination among such women’s organisations, exchange of ideas and experiences will help in formulating the strategies to fight violence against women in a more sustained and consolidated way too. Stree Chetna of Nagpur made an effort in this

direction inviting women’s organisations, women activists from mass movements, professionals, and other individual women to join together in an attempt to form an All India committee against violence on women.

In the process, with the idea of forming a committee after the inclusion of many more organisations, an ad-hoc committee was formed. For this purpose, it was also decided to hold an All-India Seminar calling forth more organisations to participate and strengthen the proposed committee. In August 2001, in Kolkata, the Ad-hoc committee held a 2-day seminar Combating Violence Against Women, which included presentations and discussions on Domestic violence, Communal, Caste, Societal and State violence. The seminar was attended by women’s organizations from West Bengal, New Delhi, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Nagaland and Assam. In all 21 organizations and a number of individuals were present.

Here is an adaptation of Saheli’s presentation on domestic violence at the seminar.

Over the years, Saheli has taken a sustained stand in protesting against all forms of state violence and state repression on people’s movements. We have raised our voices against all black laws from TADA to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. We condemn caste and communal violence and various other forms of violence faced by women in particular in this society. However, today we place before you our views on domestic violence. Saheli has been involved from its very inception with this issue. The violence faced by women within the family and within the four walls of the home assumes centrality in our understanding of women’s subordination in society. Although we have not been able to continue our work as a support centre, we consider it important to address this issue in the midst of other mass organizations and people’s movements. Violence on women in domestic situations is crucially linked to any work all of us seek to engage in at the community level. And an understanding of the oppression of women within the family is necessary in the larger struggle of societal transformation.

Though the term domestic violence in the context of women includes various forms of violence that women face both in their natal and marital homes, at the hands of their fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, husbands and in-laws, in this paper the use of the term has been restricted to refer to the situations of women getting beaten and tortured, many times to the extent of getting killed, at the hands of their husbands and in-laws. Domestic violence also does not only mean physical violence as is commonly understood. It can be physical, sexual, economic, emotional, verbal and psychological abuse. There are no commonly accepted definitions and few methods of measuring the extent and intensity of this crime.

Domestic violence cuts across class, caste, and religious boundaries. It is one of the most powerful means of patriarchy to maintain the subordinate position of women and restrain her from struggling against her position. It is the crude use of force to subordinate and coerce women into this subordinate position. Domestic violence is often used to remind a woman of what her duties ought to be to the family, husband, and children. Both religion and tradition confirm the expectations of women’s duties and such duties are valorised as being the attributes of the “good woman”. Failure in the discharge of these responsibilities, talking back, talking too much, going out, expressing affection for friends or maternal relatives often become the triggering factor of violence meted out to women from the husband or others in the family. Violence is also used to pressurize women and their maternal family to fulfill dowry related demands. In this way, domestic violence continues to keep millions of women in their subordinate position within the family and in society. Women thus become the instruments through which the social order reproduces itself and through which systemic inequality is maintained.


Domestic violence, thus, is a form of the continuous process of maintaining a culture of misogyny for women. Besides physical abuse, psychological abuse and control of women’s acts and mobility is damaging too. Sexual suspicion and aspersions on one’s character with sexual connotations are very common. With few differences across cultures, it is very often an outcome of traditional bias, cultural values, and male power. Articulation of women’s needs is seen as defiance too. Domestic violence is used to subordinate women, maintain the subordinate status as well as stnut or repress any defiance or effort on the woman’s part to challenge or resist it .

Domestic violence does not necessarily mean wife battering. Women’s exercise of sexual choice or preference can lead to violence and suicide too. The incidence of severe punishment in the form of home arrests and violence has led to young lesbian women committing suicide or leaving such violent homes. Yet, the question of violence on lesbian women is yet to find place in our range of concerns.

Despite the women movement’s campaigns directed at politicizing the issue and breaking the silence and myths surrounding this widespread, pervasive, daily form of violence that women face in the so-called safety of the house, domestic violence continues to be treated as a personal problem, which is also often trivialized. Despite repeated incidents of fractures, stitches, broken teeth and black eyes...women are asked to go back to the same situation, even by those closest to her. The police dismiss it as gharelu mamla, mia-biwi ka jhagda, etc. and in the absence of any alternate protection, women continue to manipulate/negotiate and struggle within the space called home. Male authority assumed to discipline and keep women in the right place is condoned by all sometimes when neighbors, police, family, media, parents, relatives and close friends often play different roles in reinforcing the marital home as the right place for women.

The subordinate position of women is maintained and perpetuated through the structures of family and marriage, which are considered the destiny of any woman in our society. The reverence of family and the sanctity of marriage make the majority of women dependent on these structures. It is this supposed safety and respectability accorded to home and family that often become abusive to women’s mental and physical well-being. Women find it difficult to break from these structures and seek some space of their own to be able to live in dignity. Their social and economic interests are often tied to the marriage or the family. In addition, the norms and expectations of a patriarchal society beginning from her parents, neighbours, and relatives to tradition and religion tell her in a million ways where she belongs and how any break from it can be most harmful to her interests. Moving out of familial structures of male authority means vulnerability and retribution.

This often becomes the reason of women living in torturous situations for fear of the outside world and society. And home that is considered the haven of society becomes a trap. The frenzy of dowry deaths that began in the eighties in the north and spread to other places soon speaks volumes for home or marriage being the natural destination of women. The corpses of young women who had entered the same houses in bridal finery amidst music and celebration only a few years earlier sometimes less than a year became the tragic testimony of dowry violence. It put a big question mark before society how safe the home is for women.

Most women do not want to terminate a relationship or a marriage and head for separation and divorce. Any break from marriage without any social and economic support often means destitution for women. Nor do they want to go to any criminal court. Going to the police often entails further repercussions especially if the police do not swiftly respond in the interest of the women. The feudal and patriarchal attitude of the police lends a moralistic view of events with the police invariably acting as the moral guardians of the woman telling her that family is the right place for her. And the reasons of why women choose to live in abusive relationships are most complex that can be best understood only by working directly with women in crises. A woman’s own experience of the complexity of emotional and sexual relations often tied up with financial and social support makes it most difficult to carve a place of her own making in a society that places so much value on marriage and being married.

Very often, people around us are unable and unwilling to help. The internalising of domestic violence as private and personal keeps out friends, neighbors, and relatives from directly intervening. Sexual and physical pain/hurt becomes preferable to a woman as compared to separation/destitution/loneliness. As women’s groups, we have not always been able to address the importance of sexuality in women’s lives. The division of the private from the public inhibits us too from evolving creative and new ways of reaching out to women in such situations.

Addressing the question of domestic violence is crucial since patriarchy has the extraordinary ability of moulding itself to any form of society that comes into being. Whether it is feudalism, capitalism or socialism, violence on women is one common feature in which patriarchy sustains itself. Socialist states have consistently condemned all forms of woman abuse. But the incidence of domestic violence has not fallen sharply ever. Even Marxists, anarchists, Gandhians or social workers have not been able to remain innocent of exercising this form of violence. Incidents of domestic violence in the lives of activist women or wives of male activists are not unheard of. Almost all of us present here have at some time or the other known so-called progressive men accused of abusing women.

The Extent of Domestic Violence

The women’s movement’s involvement in the fight against domestic violence cannot be gauged in terms of statistics only. The violence on women has only increased over time signaling the need to multiply many times our combined resources to fight against it. The debate of whether it has increased more or is getting reported more also seems to have become outdated. The statistics pouring out from the media and research findings indicates the several levels at which we need to strengthen our efforts to eliminate this form of violence.

International Council for Research on Women, in a study completed early in 2000 has come up with startling facts and is perhaps one of the most recent studies. The findings are based on the responses of 10,000 respondents across 7 cities of the country.

Some of the findings are that women experience multiple forms of violence not once but several times in their lives. The percentage of those suffering violence in large families is almost half of the total percentage of household crime against women. Violence cuts across geographical, economic, educational, age, and employment factors. There was no significant variation between the south and the north of the country. In addition, some of the statistics outlined below are both shocking and concerning.

There was a fifteen-fold increase in dowry deaths from 400 a year in the 1980s to 5, 800 a year in 1995. And such figures are only a fraction of reality. Bodies are usually hurriedly disposed as accidents and suicides.

The abysmally low rate of police action and conviction is equally shocking. Where Delhi is concerned, the Times of India in 24th February 2000 carried an item. According to ACP Sewa Dass of the Crimes Against Women Cell, of the 7, 000 complaints of domestic violence against women reported annually, barely 10% are translated into FIRs. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, till 1998, 84% of dowry deaths, 84% of cruelty against women and 80.78% of molestation cases were pending in the courts.

According to the HINDU, 18.7.2000, the National Crimes Records Bureau has a total of 1, 09, 295 cases of crimes against women in 1996 alone. The crime rate increase is reported to be 7.9% while eve-teasing is 17.7%, some cases being even fatal. Almost every 6 hours, a young married woman is being burnt alive or beaten to death or pushed to suicide. According to a recently released statistics by the Delhi Police, cases of harassment of women at the hands of their husbands and in-laws rose from 950 in 2000 to 1158 in 2001.

Response of the State and Legislation

The State response to the problem of domestic violence came in around mid-eighties after a sustained campaign on the issue of dowry related violence. The public protests and campaigns against dowry deaths and emergence of women groups and support centers helped many women to come out of the forced silence and seek help to prevent familial violence. Since the police refused to register cases in the then existing provisions of the IPC, the demand was raised for a special enactment to deal with the issue. Two major changes that were brought out in 1983-84 were with regard to addition of Sec.498(A) and Sec. 304(B) of the IPC. Though the aim of Sec. 498(A) was to deal with dowry harassment and suicide, the definition of cruelty included mental cruelty also. Hence it was wide enough to be used in situations of domestic violence. Under the Sec. 304(B) a new offence of dowry death was introduced, that was punishable with a minimum of seven years and a maximum of life imprisonment. But the manner in which these legislations were framed presumed that women are harassed for dowry only. Experience also revealed that the public and police perception also remained limited to understanding violence on women in terms of only dowry related violence. The police would not register a case if it were not linked with dowry. This resulted in women and their families registering false cases of dowry harassment even when these were purely wife-battering cases. This led to a misconception among the police and the lawyers that women are misusing the section. Thus the law not only proved inadequate to deal with this blatant violence, it also failed to recognize the pervasiveness of domestic violence beyond demands for dowry. The following years brought out the complexity of the problems of domestic violence with the reports of deaths of young unmarried girls dying in their natal houses. This also emphasized the need to widen the definition of domestic violence so as to include these various forms of domestic violence. It was also strongly felt that instead of having only a criminal law, women should also have recourse to civil remedies.

Thus, it was suggested that there ought to be laws to empower courts to grant injunctions restraining the husband from the matrimonial home, abusing her mentally/physically and restraining the husband wife from encumbering or disposing of the matrimonial home. One of the most dreaded outcomes of fighting against domestic violence is being rendered homeless. Criminal law remedies do not provide any solution for this. There is no scope of providing support on an immediate or emergency basis. Even if the house is in the name of the woman, the courts are hesitant and find it improper to bar the entry of the husband as long as the marriage is on.

In the case of emergency situations, by the time the state and its various protective agencies reach out, it is invariably too late. Even when it happens, courts and the police often act as the moral guardians of society telling a woman what she ought to do and where she belongs to instead of taking action a gainst violent and aggressive married partners.

It is often most dehumanizing to go through the police procedures. Missing files, wrong FIR no.s, ugly smiles, condescending attitudes, moralistic views: the entire range is the same cover-up that patriarchy extends itself to. The functioning of state institutions and officials invariably reflects the dominant societal attitude against women. To fight through all this is often debilitating.

A woman’s statement appeared in the press in the Indian Express on February 2000 that her husband has been violent for years, beating her and her children, and had just attempted to burn her 14 yr-old daughter. This incident in Jammu is symbolic in speaking volumes of how serious the law and its machinery are in responding to violence against women. She made repeated pleas to all that either shoot my children and me or prevent my husband. All such pleas went unheeded even at the women’s police station. Neither the police, nor the NGOs, deaddiction centres, government agencies helping her were responding to the urgency of the situation. She had made a statement as to when will the police come…will they come only after something “serious” happens. Several FIRs had been registered too.

Since the last few years, the Lawyers Collective has been working on a Bill dealing with domestic violence. The proposed Domestic Violence Bill makes an intervention in the family/marriage or domestic setup, which is traditionally understood to be immune from state intervention. This Bill seeks to break the myth of public and private as defined by the legal system. The Bill is meant for a temporary purpose with the single aim of putting an immediate end to the violence. It seeks to provide help at the most intense phase of abuse with protection and residence orders. The Bill works on the premise that a criminal remedy only punishes the abuser and is not sufficient to address the needs of the victim of violence. Therefore, there is a need to look into civil remedies too.

This Bill is meant to provide women with a protective mechanism signifying the official response of the state that violent behavior even within the confines of the home will not be tolerated. The Bill defines both domestic violence and shared household in the interests of women. Women can obtain orders for protection, residence, monetary relief and custody of children. While granting a protection order, the court has to pass a suspended warrant of arrest that remains suspended until the protection order is carried out. The threat of arrest is assumed to deter further violence. The violation of the magistrate’s order by the relatives would constitute an offence punishable with imprisonment upto one year or both. A woman can also claim compensation for loss of earnings due to violence.

The Bill also requires the government to designate protection officers or special officers for specific areas. Officers to co-ordinate the functioning of the various government and NGOs providing medical aid, legal aid, and counselling service.

Presently a draft Bill based on the above mentioned Bill is with the government, and is part of the government’s overall policy for empowerment of women. The draft Bill is expected to be placed in the Parliament in the Budget session. It is being apprehended that the changes being made in the original Bill might dilute the intensity of the problem. This is because the stated objective of the draft Bill is “to preserve family life while providing protection to victims of domestic violence”. The draft Bill also mentions that any conduct of a relative of the victim which subjects her to habitual assault or makes her life miserable or injures or harms her or forces her to lead an immoral life would constitute domestic violence. Such a statement of objectives and definition of domestic violence raises a number of questions as to whether the preservation of family might not override the objective of protecting the victim or defining domestic violence as habitual assault without challenging this form of violence.

As it is, the elaborate processes of justice are beyond the means of the majority women. Repeated visits often become an ordeal resulting in women dropping cases midway from sheer frustration and lack of time and resources to pursue them. How can poor women afford expensive justice? It is highly questionable how successful family courts and lok adalats have been in providing a more humane system as they were designed to be. It is well known that reconciliation is often imposed on women especially through bribes and other unfair means employed by men in order to evade punishment for the complaints registered. With the institutionalization of all such setups, it becomes an increasingly uphill task for women to get due attention and support for their situations.

Looking Forward

To be against violence on women necessarily entails struggles beginning with questioning the institution of family. The concentration of patriarchal power as exercised through the institutions of marriage and family lies with men. Marriage legalizes or legitimizes the use of this power completely. Therefore, the exercise of violence on women is institutionalized in several ways. It is through marriage that women inherit the right to be beaten and subjected to various forms of violence. The reluctance to interfere as a sign of respect for privacy of the couple is a direct endorsement of male authority. Such reluctance will not be acceptable if one were to view any other crime.

It is the typical response of the middle-class and upper-class to view domestic violence as a phenomenon of the working class only. On the other hand, the left has tended to view it as an upper-class problem. The disowning of this form of violence shows the unwillingness to accept domestic violence as an outcome of patriarchal masculine behavior that runs across all classes.

In addition, from feudalism and capitalism to societies under socialism, male violence has found place in every situation. It is the uncanny ability of patriarchy to adapt itself to any situation to maintain male supremacy that we seek to challenge.

Yet, we believe that class and caste affects the same problem in a variety of ways. The material circumstances often determine the relative levels of solace/refuge a woman can seek and also the condition of her children. The lack of access to productive resources becomes the biggest obstacle for a woman to walk out of a violent situation and live in dignity. Whether it is one acre of land, a shop or a hawker’s cart (redhi), women often have no access to the barest possible means of assets or productive resources to live on their own. To develop a feminist praxis, we should understand and acknowledge more deeply the divisions of caste and class and how they specifically aggravate patriarchal aggression and domination.

Although workers and dalits are themselves victims of violence and constant social humiliation, they continue to inflict violence on women. It has often been our experience that their specific oppression does not necessarily sensitize/politicize them to the oppression of women. Very often, they are found to be continuing to assert/exert male superiority. Their own oppression is always acting in conjunction with patriarchal/misogynist attitudes. To look at domestic violence as simple caste or class violence or as a release of frustration would be too deterministic an analysis.

Just as we recognize that there is no monolithic homogeneous category called women, it is the same with other oppressed groups. We cannot afford to romanticize workers or peasants and overlook the internalizing of caste/communal/patriarchal bias in them. Our ideological understanding on the women’s question can be guided by our vision of a new society that is free from various forms of exploitation and oppression and not as subordinate to the interests and aspirations of any other oppressed section. And that includes the elimination of domestic violence as a first step in theory and in practice by all liberatory struggles.

To expose it as much as possible is the first step of combating domestic violence. This issue has to be highlighted and condemned repeatedly to have any effect. All of us women need to rebuild strength and fight both at the individual and at the societal level. We can make concerted attempts to make it part of mass work, provide support through existing youth organizations and trade unions even if women’s wings are not properly established. Mass movements need to focus on this issue as an important component of organization work. If there is both an aversion to state intervention as well as counselling/direct action, then we have to figure out how to deal with domestic violence in the long run as well as provide immediate support.

The autonomous women’s movement’s resistance to violence at all levels comes from an understanding of the reality of women’s lives as being subjected to various forms of violence right from pre-natal sex-determination, female infanticide, child abuse, and sexual assault to wife battering, rape, dowry deaths, witch hunting, sati, etc. The rejection of violence comes from the perspective in which women and dalits are victims of violence unleashed by a patriarchal and casteist society. Where the women’s movement is concerned, its earlier means of direct action, social boycott and social humiliation of offenders needs to be strengthened. The declining militancy of the movement in the absence of strategies of direct action can undermine its deep understanding that is based on the strength of the oppressed leading the struggle for change and actively determining it at every level. Dependence on courts, police, and institutions to challenge patriarchal violence is most inadequate.

The women’s movement’s understanding is inherently different from the perspective of revolutionary mass organizations that adopt counter violence as a tool for human liberation. The adoption of violence becomes a necessary means for the latter to counter a violent state that is anti-people and ruthlessly crushes democratic and revolutionary movements that seek to challenge state power. However, when the movement that espouses a revolutionary cause at times engages in the annihilation of innocent lives, transport and other things used by the majority common people, it fails to demonstrate people’s strength and potential as directed solely at the antipeople forces. And this further alienates it from other progressive and democratic movements.

When we seek to build a new society, the vision of a new society means different things to various sections of society. For women, it is also for a society free of violence. And in the process of creating such a society, we have to first aim at liberating women from the violence inflicted at home and in the family in the present society. Directly addressing the question of domestic violence at every level of our struggle and collectively evolving newer strategies and action plans is one step towards demonstrating our commitment to this vision of a new society. Building egalitarian relations in the process of building a new society goes hand in hand.