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Becoming an abuse statistic in patriarchal India

Journalist Nita Bhalla recounts the lingering scars – physical and mental – from an assault on her and draws a wider lesson about violence against women in patriarchal India.

I stand in front of the mirror, surveying my face and body – still in shock at how it could have happened to me.

Six days on, the swelling on the right side of my face which he banged into the wall has subsided, the bruise under my right eye where he punched me has turned deep purple and those on my arms and legs where he grabbed and kicked me are fading.

The marks around my neck from when he tried to choke me, I conclude, are healing the fastest. Yet I still decide to wrap a scarf around my neck before leaving for work.

Globally, six out of 10 women experience physical and/or sexual violence – mostly committed by a husband or an intimate partner, says UN Women.

And , the country I am based in, is not much better.

Around 37% of Indian women have experienced some form of abuse by their husbands – pushing, slapping and hair pulling, punching, kicking, choking or burning – according to the Indian government‘s last National Family Health Survey.

Activists say the actual figures are likely to be more than double this, but despite greater awareness and more gender-sensitive laws, few women are willing to come out and talk openly about the violence they face by those who purport to love them.
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I still keep thinking: ‘This did not happen. This does not happen to women like me’”

The statistics are not surprising for me. But being a statistic is.
Raped and set alight

Reporting on women’s rights issues in South Asia over the last three years, I have covered the plethora of threats which haunt the millions of women who live in this deeply patriarchal region.

The violations are vast and varied – from the illegal abortions of female foetuses to the immolation of young brides by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands, to brothers who murder their sisters for falling in love with “unsuitable” men.

I have visited villages in northern India where women hide behind veils and weep as they recount their stories of being sold and trafficked as brides, kept as slaves and beaten and raped by their husbands and “shared” among brothers.

I have spent hours in women’s shelters buried in New Delhi‘s slums, interviewing battered women with blackened and burnt arms, after their drunken husbands’ poured kerosene over them and set them alight.

Not entirely silent: Indian women protest violence against their sex

I have spoken to health workers, gender experts, women’s activists, and government officials on numerous issues – from the psychological reasons of “power and control” that lie behind gender abuse to the adverse impacts of the low status of women on India’s development efforts.

While physical and sexual is unfortunately something that afflicts every society, the high levels to which it is acceptable in India are sometimes unfathomable.

The National Family Health Survey found that 51% of Indian men and 54% of Indian women found it justifiable for a man to beat his wife.

And the silence that surrounds such abuse helps perpetuate that acceptability.
‘Objects’

Not the understandable silence of victims who are afraid or not empowered enough to speak out, but the incomprehensible silence of others – family, friends, neighbours and even passers-by – who choose to turn a blind eye.

Interviewing victims and hearing of how their families and friends knew, but did nothing, was something that I never really understood.

But now I have experienced that silence.

When he pulled my hair and kicked me as I lay on the pavement, there was a deafening silence from my neighbours who heard my screams but were reluctant to intervene.

I heard it from the group of young men walking past, who stopped a few feet away to watch as he beat me. And I heard it from the auto-rickshaw drivers who were parked at the stand across the road in the early hours of that morning.

Read full BBC story here

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