Popular culture

Honey, domestic violence needs attention!

August 8, 2022: While news stories about violence against women are part of the daily diet of Indian readers, on some days an incident provokes a more widespread reaction than the otherwise lukewarm concern. One such report in early August concerns a young woman from Bijnore, UP, who lived in the United States and who suffered severe domestic violence, abuse from her in-laws and blows from her husband. Her torment increased after she had two daughters. She sent her parents videos of her abuse with crying children in the background.

The story of domestic violence is also at the heart of a brave new film on Netflix called “Darlings” starring Alia Bhatt as lead actor and producer. Courageous because it is rare for a leading actress, in the prime of life, to assume the role of a bourgeois housewife without glamour. Courageous also because it is a subject that rarely finds its place in popular culture. It’s probably only because a titular actress endorsed him that he got the spotlight.

Not unjustified, however. Domestic violence should cause much more concern and debate than it does now. According to a study (BMC, Women’s Health 2022) conducted on data provided by the Crime Records Bureau of India (NCRB), between 2001 and 2018, cases of domestic violence increased by 53% in India. There is also gross under-reporting. This longitudinal analysis of cases reported for nearly 20 years across Indian states has highlighted the under-reporting and near-stagnation of data, which hampers intervention strategies aimed at reducing domestic violence in India.

Another study by (BMJ, 2020) indicates that in India, 1 in 3 women are likely to have experienced domestic violence, but only 1 in 10 of these women officially report the offence. It’s a staggering number. It also means that we all know someone who knows someone who has suffered or is suffering.

The research also indicated that such figures on domestic violence mean that India is unlikely to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG-5), which emphasizes gender equality and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.

Another major concern with this form of violence against women is that they do not seek help from any official institution. There is so much shame, ignominy and socio-cultural inhibition in reporting or seeking help that this gross violation of human rights goes unchecked. What is even more appalling is that with the ever-present specter of dowry and then abuse by in-laws, poor parents in India continue to treat a girl as a burden.

A farmer in Gujarat recently heard the faint cries of a baby and while digging in the earth, he found a newborn child buried alive. Most unwanted babies in India, unsurprisingly, are girls. Another little girl was found thrown alive into a dry well that same week. Violence, sometimes, begins at birth!

A growing problem

The Covid pandemic came as the perfect storm and domestic violence helplines and shelters around the world reported an increase in calls for help and the UN described it as a phantom pandemic . The National Commission for Women’s helpline has seen an increase in complaints of domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown.

While the law provides many remedies and remedies against domestic violence, 77% of women in India say nothing and do not seek legal recourse. It is a crime that invariably goes unpunished. As the film shows, and clearly stated, Section 498A of the Indian Criminal Court may protect women, but it remains largely unused.

Women feel somehow compelled not to report or forgive the executioner, to accept it as part of married life, often forced by parents or in-laws to do so.

While India ranks at number 123 on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, violence that occurs within the confines of the home is even more shameful than rape or molestation. Women are not safe in their private spaces, not just in public places.

Surprisingly, economic empowerment through income does not protect women against domestic violence (Koustuv Dalal 2011), in the Indian context. However, working women sought more help than non-working women. There are strong economic arguments against this violence – the World Bank suggests that the cost of violence against women could reach 3.7% of a country’s GDP.

These numbers all point to the need for interventions and awareness. While government and non-governmental organizations can do what they can, popular culture and film can also address and bring the issue into table conversations.

Another popular film, Thappad (Slap) had a similar theme and made a difference, however minor. The Rajasthan Police has set up a dedicated hotline number for women to complain about domestic violence.

Let’s hope films like these become cultural mouthpieces and inspire some women to take action and end the cycle of violence. The same repetitive behavior in an abusive relationship is a cycle (Lenore E. Walker. 1979) of calm, violence and reconciliation.

Since this is a movie and it wants to make a statement, Alia’s character evolves from a childish, suffering bride to a vengeful woman. As Ernst Hemingway said “All truly wicked things begin with innocence”, we see a full turn of events where the woman takes charge and with the tables turned, the tragicomedy leaves viewers with the closing. This is where the similarity in the stories ends. In the real-life case of the young Indian mother of two in New York, this relentless cycle of abuse drove her to suicide this week.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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