Sisters in Pain


Abuse of women is found everywhere in the world. Most countries adhere to the principle of gender equality in theory, or even by law, but many countries do not put it in practice. It is a good sign when civil society begins to oppose domestic violence—as is increasingly happening in India and Nigeria.

According to a 2013 global study by the World Health Organisation, 70% of women worldwide have experienced some form of abuse by an intimate partner. The 2008 Nigerian National Demographic Health Survey estimates that 28% of married women have experienced at least one form of domestic violence. Thirty one percent of India's married women have been physically abused, according to the 2009 National Family Health Survey.

Domestic Violence (DV) is about power and the need for control. In many societies, the male child is raised to assume he is superior. He feels challenged later in life if a woman refuses to worship him, and may resort to violence to subdue her.

A patriarchal system entrenched in cultures and traditions, and faulty support systems have been blamed for the persistence of this scourge in Nigeria and India. Victims have learned to stay silent and not publicise what is generally considered to be a family matter. In Nigeria as in India, many women choose to stay in abusive marriages because of the stigmatisation which accompanies single or divorced women. The police do not help in either country. They have been reported to advise victims to go home and settle the issues, saying that women have to accept to be disciplined by their husbands when they 'misbehave'.

Religious organisations, which hitherto had attributed such issues to spiritual or demonic attacks on marriages, are now changing their positions. Due to cultural and spiritual sensibilities, most of them would not outright recommend divorce, but would advocate "temporary" separation. Up to now, faith-based organisations had shunned divorced women, allowing them no leadership roles, but recent events have changed the perception towards this group. Churches as well as mosques now offer counselling and even economic support to women who have had to leave their spouses.

The courts of law are also taking the matter of DV more seriously. Magistrates used to advise squabbling couples to "go and maintain the peace" and explore reconciliation possibilities even in cases of domestic assault brought before them.
Despite the changing attitudes, many cases of domestic assault are still not persecuted. Only cases of murder and grievous bodily barm get charged to court. DV persists due to a faulty justice system.

The 2013 Human Development Report by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) stated that India ranked 132nd of 148 countries in gender inequality. Despite the educational and economic advancement of women in this country, the patriarchal system continues firmly entrenched.

Cequin, a non-profit organisation funded by the Government of Delhi, works mostly with Muslim women from poor households. Its campaign, Awazuthao or Raise Your Voice, organises rallies, safety walks and other activities aimed at changing societal attitude towards women.

The collective coordinator Bushra Qmar says that DV remains a delicate subject in Indian society, and while it is easier for women in the lower strata of society to report it—although the police may not follow up on it—there are hardly reported cases among the upper echelon of society. A community mobiliser in the same organisation, Amin Mohammed, attributes this to the need of the upper class to "look respectable". An abused woman would hardly ever alert the justice system, he maintains.

Similarly to the murder of a young banker Titilayo in Nigeria, the gang rape and subsequent violent death of a young student in Delhi on 16 December 2012, shocked Indian society and triggered a lot of public agitation. A number of new fast-track courts for rape cases were created, however, there are still many loopholes in the justice system. A culture whereby women are regarded as commodities is still deeply ingrained, especially in the rural areas.

One gruesome example are the incidences of dowry deaths which remain the worst form of DV—dowry deaths being murders perpetrated by husbands or in-laws on women whom they consider to not have brought enough dowry to their in-law family. India’s National Crime Bureau Records showed that there were 8,233 reported dowry deaths in 2012 and 8,618 in 2011. Despite the existence of the Dowry Prohibition Act, only 35.8% of the perpetrators were convicted in 2011. The conviction rate in 2012 was 32 percent.

In London, a recent conference on sexual violence in conflict put a spotlight on sexual abuse in wartime. However, most women worldwide suffer abuse not in war, but daily in their own homes; they are tortured and murdered not by enemy troops, but their own husbands and in-laws. India, Nigeria and in fact, all societies need to do more in creating awareness that it is not safe to endure abuse, and support all who need help to get out of abusive relationships.

Vol. 47, No. 18, Nov 9 - 15, 2014