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#India – Domestic violence: Experiences of Dalit women

Redefining Domestic Violence

Experiences of Dalit Women

Vol – XLIX No. 47, November 22, 2014 | D Sujatha

Domestic violence against dalit women has not caught the attention of social science researchers. The National Family Health Survey 2006 showed that the prevalence of violence is much higher against women belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes as compared to women outside these categories. This article is based on fieldwork done in parts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Among the causes for domestic violence against dalit women were male alcoholism, the man’s suspicious nature, dowry demands, husband’s extramarital relations and the complex social situations related to inter-caste marriages. Dalit and tribal women, thus, end up facing caste discrimination and harassment outside the home and domestic violence inside.

Domestic violence against women is a universal problem. Also known as wife beating and dowry violence, domestic violence is defined by the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (2003) as “any act of gender based violence that results in or is likely to result in, physical sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, or deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or in private life” (Saumya 2010). Domestic violence was recognised as a criminal offence in India in 1983. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 covers violence against married women (by husbands and others), and unmarried women by anyone (including boyfriends). Domestic violence occurs in all socio-economic and cultural population subgroups; and in all societies and there are countless studies on this subject. However, the domestic violence experienced by dalit women has not caught the attention of social science researchers till date. In the general discourse so far, the experiences of dalit women of violence in the family tend to be treated (i) as a legal issue by the law and order machinery; (ii) as violation of her human rights by women’s rights groups, dalit rights and human rights movements; (iii) as an insignificant issue compared to the violence that dalit women face in the public spaces (for example violence by the dominant castes such as killings, atrocities, stripping). Even in the activism and discourse around domestic violence, the specificity of violence faced by dalit women largely remains unrecognised.

The urgent need to study domestic violence against dalit women received momentum due to the National Family Health Survey – NFHS (2006) which showed that the prevalence of violence is much higher against women belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes (SC/ST) as compared to women outside these categories. The percentage of SC women facing physical violence is 41% while that of ST women is 39.3%, Other Backward Classes (OBC) women is 34.1% and that of other women facing physical violence at the domestic level is 26.8%. In terms of emotional violence, SC women account for 19%, ST women 19.5%, OBC women 16.9%, and other women 20.9%.

As part of the project on “Domestic Violence and Dalit Women” for Anveshi (Women’s Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad 2012-13), I did secondary research on the subject. Funded by Oxfam India, the fieldwork was conducted in Hyderabad, Warangal and Karim Nagar in Telangana, the East Godavari District in coastal Andhra and Ananthapur in Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh.

The problems of women in any society are not homogeneous, being different according to caste and class. Unlike women from the dominant castes, dalit women are used to working outside the home and their labour is considered crucial for the survival of the family. More often than not, the home runs on her income since the man tends to spend his on himself, including for alcohol. In rural areas, 70% of the dalit women are agricultural labourers. Their struggle revolves around procuring food, fuel and water for their families. In urban India, they work as domestic servants, construction labourers and casual labourers. These women are subordinated in terms of power relations to men in patriarchal society. Rape and sexual abuse of dalit women by men of the dominant castes and classes is quite common in India. They are subjected to severe exploitation by the dominant-caste landlords and also face violence from their alcoholic husbands (Rege 1995). The everyday discrimination against dalit women is further marked by mental, emotional and physical violence by their spouses and other family members.

Ignored by Reformers

Social movements, including the dalit movement and the women’s movement in both pre- and post-Independence India, ignored the question of dalit women. The 18th century social reform movement in India addressed different forms of violence against women such as widow burning (sati), child marriage, seclusion and enforced widowhood which are mainly dominant-caste Hindu practices. The plight of lower-caste women exposed to the threat of sexual violence under the zamindari system and the distress sale of women following the new land settlements were totally ignored by the reformers (Jogdand 1995). The women’s movement treated all Indian women as a homogeneous category and stressed women’s rights and liberation largely benefiting non-dalit educated and middle-class women.

Moreover, as part of identity politics, the post-Ambedkar dalit movement and literature tried to glorify the productive culture of dalit families wherein women’s labour was given equal importance with that of men’s labour. These writings went to the extent of saying that dalit families are matriarchal and that the women are capable of making decisions within the families (Iliaha 1996). Hence, it is assumed that there is a scope for “democratic space” in the families of dalit community. However, this picture of dalit women was only in the imagination of dalit male intellectuals. The total absence of the issues/problems concerning dalit women in the discussions of feminists belonging to the dominant castes was questioned by dalit feminists from the 1990s. They argued that neither the mainstream women’s movement nor the dalit movement made any serious effort to look at the problems of dalit women (Guru 1995). Dalit male activists were criticised for domesticating their wives and for their “inauthentic” position on liberation of dalit women (Rege 2013). They also pointed out that the concept of liberation should be redefined in the context of dalit women. As non-dalit feminists try to break out of the domestic sphere dalit women demand domestication for their safety and security (especially in the case of inter-caste marital relations).

Dalit human rights and women’s groups started documenting dalit women’s experiences of violence in the family and public sphere (Irudayam et al 2006) to some extent. The research undertaken by these groups compelled rethinking of the established framework for understanding domestic violence.

Methodology

In this context, my study undertook an intensive secondary research on domestic violence to understand the experiences of dalit women and the institutional response. As qualitative interviews form the core method, 30 women were interviewed. My contacts approached institutions like counselling centres, dalit sanghams, police stations, courts, women’s organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and selected the women to be interviewed. Out of the 30 women who were interviewed, 10 cases were selected for in-depth study to reflect variations across rural/urban, class, education and occupations. Out of the 10 selected accounts, three respondents were graduates, one was a postgraduate, two had completed high school and the rest were dropouts from primary school. Only three took divorce through a court of law. Three cases are registered with the police stations on grounds of cheating and are pending in the court for years together. The rest are separated from their respective partners though they continue negotiations through different agencies to keep their families together and wait for their partners to come back to them. In all the interviews, the respondents stressed that they were suffering due to no fault of theirs. Their position was either that of a victim, or of one who has struggled against odds. Once the interviews started the women did not stop sharing their woes, sometimes for hours. The team also conducted interviews with advocates, family counsellors, and dalit sangham leaders who hold caste panchayats for the troubled families in their community.

Thrice Exploited

A general understanding of violence in dalit families is that the caste subjugation, disempowerment and lack of status and authority in the general community experienced by dalit men often results in gender violence (Irudayam et al 2006). However, no perpetrator can get away by saying that just because he is oppressed by the existing system he has the right to oppress his wife. Moreover dalit women are more oppressed than dalit men, in fact, they are thrice exploited. Even then they shoulder the family responsibilities as subordinate partners in the patriarchal familial set-up. Despite being an earning partner, she has no decision-making rights and spends her earnings on the household rations, health expenditure and the children’s education. The men do not share in the household tasks as they consider it below their dignity to do so. The woman bears the entire burden of childcare, sending the children to school and the responsibility of meeting the needs and demands of the entire family rests on her. Any failure to do so is met with violence. Considering the load she carries and the violence she faces, how and against whom does the dalit woman vent her anger and frustration?

Some of the main causes for the domestic violence against dalit women that came up during the study were male alcoholism, the man’s suspicious nature, dowry demands, husband’s illicit relations and the complex social situations related to inter-caste marriages. The theoretical framework for understanding these causes that have been constructed in the preceding argument in this article should provide an understanding of the complexity of the dalit woman’s position in the family.

Though the causes of domestic violence are far more deep-rooted than simply being an offshoot of intoxication (and men who are not alcoholics also beat their wives), alcoholism does figure as one of the major problems faced by dalit women. The alcoholic husband does not take care of his family, spends all his earnings on alcohol and demands that his wife supply him with money to buy liquor. If she refuses to do so she has to face severe violence. Alcoholics excuse their violence against their wives by saying “I was drunk” or “I don’t remember” thus evading responsibility. Most of the respondents said that they were abused and beaten up by their husbands when drunk. The relatively equitable family relations in the dalit family are shaken due to such conditions. With the husband an alcoholic and the wife a victim of domestic violence, the children are often forced into the labour market and the woman is left taking the entire responsibility for running the home and keeping the family together.

The dalit woman working night shifts or for long and irregular hours as a domestic worker is also vulnerable to violence. The women are subjected to sexual harassment at their workplaces, they have to do heavy domestic chores during the day after working the night shift, their small and crowded homes offer hardly any privacy for conjugal life during the day thus resulting in the men turning violent towards them, since the latter too face stressful and demeaning hard work (many dalit men dull their senses through alcohol and gutkha, etc, to clean sewers).

The husband’s extramarital affairs or illegal second marriages are another serious problem faced by dalit women in both rural and urban areas. In many cases they accept the situation while in others the dalit men abandon their wives. Such women return to their natal homes or live separately.

While dowry demands were never a part of dalit marriages, increasing materialism and the effect of “market forces” has led to such demands becoming a normal practice.

Even state-sponsored development programmes that aim at women empowerment lead to overburdening and self-exploitation. The income generating microcredit-based programmes that are intended to create the space and means to empower women often result in tremendous pressure on them to take loans not for themselves but for the benefit of the husbands or in-laws. Any refusal on this score from her results in violence. Besides, the burden of repayment of the loans anyway falls on the women in these cases.

The new agricultural technology and other forms of modernisation displaced dalit women from the labour force even as the expectations of educated dalit men increase. The dowry system which was a brahmanical tradition seeped into dalit families and as a result in the recent past there have been increasing cases of dowry deaths among dalit women. The drastic changing conditions in society are reflected in the dalit families’ occupations, habits and demands ending up in violence in the family.

Inter-caste marriages by dalit women can also lead to domestic violence. Babasaheb Ambedkar advocated inter-caste marriages as one of the means to eradicate the evil of the caste system. More dalit men marry outside their caste as compared to dalit women, but such marriages have created new problems for dalit women. If a dalit man gets married to an upper-caste woman and brings her into his family home, she gets all the respect from his family as well as the community. But if a dalit woman gets married to an upper-caste man she is subjected to the harassment from her in-laws and husband’s community. This aspect is worthy of a separate study in itself. Of late, educated dalit women, especially those working in the information technology sector, are increasingly marrying outside their castes and many find it difficult to adjust to the in-laws. They are often not allowed into the in-laws’ home and even if allowed, continue to face a lot of humiliation. Ironically, while these women’s earnings contribute to the marital family income, they are subjected to humiliation and harassment.

Again, in the guise of love affairs many dalit women are cheated by men of the dominant castes especially in rural areas. These men refuse to marry the dalit women after maintaining sexual relations with them. Most of the dalit women who approach family counselling centres are not married but are women who have been given false promises of marriage and betrayed. Such cases are recorded as “cheating cases” by both the police and the counselling centres. It is very difficult to place such cases within the frame work of domestic violence because it is assumed that it is a problem faced by married women alone.

In the case of dalit women, the problem starts with their wanting the status of a “wife”. A non-dalit man is ready to maintain sexual relation with a dalit woman but not to marry her. In this context, there is a need to consider expanding the definition of domestic violence. This is one illustration of our argument that there is no existing theoretical framework to address the problems of dalit women and domestic violence. The improbability of marriage is due to caste barriers and this factor is trivialised when it is turned into a case of “cheating”. It is thus important to understand the fundamental limitation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act which does not cover the “cheating” of unmarried dalit women by upper-caste men who maintain sexual relationships with them and use violence when the women want marriage.

The Support System

Dalit women in inter-caste marriages report caste abuse within the marriage along with other forms of violence.

While the discourse and activism on the subject of domestic violence against dalit women in general remains insignificant, dalit men have not yet learned to have an open discussion on this form of violence. They are afraid of victimisation by mainstream society.

Dalit women often have difficulty approaching counselling centres, in metropolitan areas as for example, Hyderabad. The approach of most counsellors is patronising and condescending rather than empathetic and understanding, according to the study. These women thus end up going to police stations when the violence becomes intolerable but police “counselling” simply complicates their problem.

Domestic violence should be treated as an issue faced by the community. The institutions negotiating between men and women should develop a community orientation, an understanding of the family, sensitivity to caste discrimination and knowledge of existing laws. Domestic violence should not be handled as an issue that is of significance only to the concerned individual. These institutions should not treat the women as victims or victimise them in turn.

Measures should be put in place to ensure that the law against domestic violence which came into force through various movements and with the active contribution of the dalit community is fully understood and accessed by the dalit community.

Awareness about existing laws (on domestic violence, dowry demands, sexual harassement and atrocities against SC/ST)) should be widely propagated.

Efforts should also be made to address domestic violence through community development schemes, women’s self-help collectives and empower women economically and politically.

References

Guru, Gopal (1995): “Dalit Women Talk Differently”, Economic & Political Weekly, 14-21 October.

Iliah, Kancha (1996): “Why I Am Not a Hindu”, Samya, Calcutta.

Irudayam, Alloysius, Mangu Bai, S J Jayasree and Joe Lee (2006): Dalit Women Speak Out Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India (New Delhi: NCDHR).

Jogdand, P G, ed. (1995): Dalit Women in India (New Delhi: Gyan Publications).

Rege, Sharmila (1995): “Caste and Gender: The Violence against Women in India” in Jogdand (ed.), Dalit Women in India (New Delhi: Gyan Publications).

– (2013): Against the Madness of Manu (New Delhi: Navyana Publications).

Saumya, Uma (2010): Addressing Domestic Violence through the Law, edited by Vrinda Grover, MARG, New Delhi.

Suneetha, A S R V and Vasudha Nagraj (2006): “A Difficult Match: Women’s Actions and Legal Institutions in the Face of Domestic Violence”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XII No 41.

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