The critically acclaimed movie Thappad evoked a wide range of responses to how the protagonist Amrita dealt with an instance of domestic violence, a slap by her husband in a social setting. While Amrita had the awareness to recognise the slap as domestic violence, the agency to decide for herself, financial support and a family who understood her decision, many women in Chennai, who face domestic violence, find themselves alone in this fight.
The spate of crimes against women in cities like Chennai continues unabated. Now and then we read or hear of a new incident, more brazen, brutal and shocking than the last. Two out of five married women in Chennai experienced some form of domestic violence, be it physical, sexual, psychological, and/or emotional violence, revealed a survey conducted by the Department of Community Medicine, Saveetha Medical College and Hospital between October and December 2020.
The study spotlighted that the overall prevalence of domestic violence in Chennai was 38.2% among those surveyed, with physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional violence making up 28.7%, 9.1%, 12.6%, and 15.4%, of all instances of domestic violence respectively.
Notably, 40% of women between the age group of 18-49 in Tamil Nadu (the fourth highest in India) have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their spouses, according to data from the National Family Health Survey (2019-2021).
How instances of domestic violence are dealt with
Domestic violence has been recognised since 1983 as a criminal offence under Indian Penal Code 498-A. However, it was not until the enactment of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA), which came into effect in 2006, that civil protections were afforded to survivors of domestic violence. The PWDVA provides a definition of domestic violence that is comprehensive and includes all forms of physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and economic violence, and covers both actual acts of such violence and threats of violence. In addition, the PWDVA recognises marital rape and covers harassment in the form of unlawful dowry demands as a form of abuse.
Chennai-based advocate, Jothilakshmi Sundaresan, said that the scope of the act is wide enough to cover the abuse (physical, verbal, sexual, emotional or economic) faced by any woman in the shared household by her father, brother or any male member of the family. However, in practice, this larger scope has not been explored, rather it is limited to abuse in marital relationships.
She added, “We are socially conditioned in a way to not recognise domestic violence as a crime. The first resort for any married woman is always her parents. But they would pacify her saying the abusive behaviour of the husband is very normal and she should tolerate it. To go beyond this and file a police complaint means that she will have to do it with no support system. In many cases, parents are the ones who stop the survivor from lodging the complaint. On the ambit of law, we have technical support but I don’t think it is functional enough as the social conditioning is not addressed.”
To illustrate this, Jothilakshmi shared an anecdote.
A well-educated, financially independent woman in Chennai got married to her childhood friend. During the pandemic, her husband lost his job. He then began drinking a lot. One day, in a fit of rage, he strangled her. The woman, who faced a near-death experience, was tolerant of his abuse until that extreme incident. Following this incident, she was scared for her life and walked out. She then approached the police station to file a complaint. However, the local police initiated peace talks between the couple and reunited them. “The husband had not gone for any counselling nor has any doctor certified him fit. The police emotionally manipulated the woman into living with the same abusive person. This sets a wrong example and stops even the women who come forward to file complaints to stay in abusive situations,” added Jothilakshmi, explaining how social conditioning dilutes the provisions in the Act.
“There are doctors and scientists who face domestic violence at extreme levels, yet keep quiet and stay with abusive partners. This is very problematic,” she added.
Making an escape plan
If you find yourself in a situation where you are facing domestic violence and are looking for a safe way out, an escape plan is crucial. Knowing your rights will also help women stand their ground and prevent family, police and any others from forcing them to stay in an abusive relationship.
While most women decide to walk out at extreme cases of abuse, gathering evidence from previous abusive incidents becomes nearly impossible. This evidence plays a significant role in the court. Though the objective of PWDVA was to provide a forum for women facing domestic violence to address their grievances and seek the necessary relief, many men move for divorce once the women file a domestic violence case. Legal experts also suggest that the women coming forward to file a case of domestic violence case be mentally prepared for divorce.
Advocate Jothilakshmi elaborated on some key steps that survivors can take before proceeding with the legal process of filing a domestic violence complaint against the perpetrators.
Start documenting the abuse when you see the red flags. If there are instances where the survivor has undergone treatment after being attacked by the perpetrator, it is advisable to preserve medical reports from the hospital including the prescriptions, scan reports and discharge summary. If the couple or the woman individually, has undergone counselling, notes from the counsellors, would also be permissible as evidence. Any form of certified document would be considered primary evidence in the court.
In instances where the wife has had mediations by the family to return to her marital household after instances of abuse by the husband, getting a written statement from the husband promising that he would not abuse her in any way in forthcoming days would create a proof of admission of abuse. This document would become proof when the survivor decides to lodge a complaint in case of repeated abusive behaviour. A copy of the conversations through WhatsApp or e-mail with a family member or friends, which proves that the survivor was subjected to abuse on a particular day, could also be produced as secondary evidence at the court.
While approaching the police is the first choice for many survivors, many are not aware of the existence of a District Protection Officer, whose role is to handle such domestic violence complaints and provide safety for the survivors.
Even when a police complaint is filed, the respective police personnel should notify the District Protection Officer first, who will prepare a ‘domestic incident report’ consisting of specific family issues, the kind of abuses faced by the survivor, evidence and other such relevant information.
This report will be submitted to the Magistrate, following which a notice will be sent to the respondent and he would also be asked to appear in court. The trial then goes on. In the meantime, the District Protection Officer ensures the safety of the survivor and provides safe shelter (in a recognised shelter home) and other legal assistance.
There are also many NGOs who ensure the survivors are given counselling, help them recover from the trauma and equip them with resources for their livelihood. The crucial steps for women to extricate themselves from such a situation are to be able to recognise the abuse, formulate an escape plan, gather evidence and work towards becoming financially independent.
While this is the procedure as per law, Jothilakshmi, also noted that the women coming forward for filing a domestic violence complaint would face discouragement at all levels including the police (even from the women police personnel) and sometimes even the Protection Officers.
Domestic violence stories from real life
Kayal*, who has an 8-year-old child, decided to leave her abusive spouse two years ago. Despite having a Master’s Degree, she was not allowed to work after marriage. After the birth of her child, she devoted all her time to being a full-time mother. As years passed the emotional abuse of her partner turned to frequent physical and sexual abuse. With the help of her friends she first filed a domestic violence case. However, her family convinced her to not ‘break the family’.
Her financial dependence on her spouse was also a factor that made her unsure of the next steps to take. When she saw her child getting affected by bearing witness to the abuse she was being put through, she ultimately decided to file for divorce.
With some help from her friends, she approached a lawyer. For the next two months, she gathered as much evidence as she could, including both primary and secondary documents. Then, she filed a domestic violence case against the husband and also filed for divorce on grounds of domestic violence.
She, along with her daughter, stayed with her friend for a few months. In the meantime, she applied for many jobs and got placed as an assistant professor in a private college in Chennai. A month ago, divorce was granted. Though it was an uphill battle, Kayal felt that coming out of the abusive relationship was the best decision she had ever made.
In yet another case, Shankari* (30), who was married to a drunkard for a decade, only became aware that she was being subject to domestic abuse when she attended a workshop conducted by a local NGO. She came to know about the workshops through a women’s self-help group in her locality. The workshops stressed the importance of women being financially independent and how it could help them face abuse in domestic situations.
Until then, those around her said that it was normal for a husband to beat his wife. She also grew up seeing such situations. However, the interactions at the workshop helped her recognise that situation was far from normal.
“My husband is usually very suspicious. I had to lie to him that the workshop was about availing loans through self-help groups so I could attend it. The people from the NGO conducted frequent camps and workshops. They kept in touch with me. Despite being in an abusive home, I learnt baking in one such workshop. When my husband’s violence was directed at my children, I decided to leave the house. The NGO helped me and my children stay in an undisclosed location for a few months and provided legal aid,” she said. Shankari now works in a bakery and lives with her school-going kids.
S Ramya, President of Chalk Piece, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works closely with women at the community level, said that women going through any form of domestic violence are bound to the relationship at two levels – emotional and financial dependency.
“Children become the main factor for women to decide if to stay or to walk away from such abusive situations. While financially independent women decide to move out at least for their child’s sake, financially dependent women, who fear they could not provide for their children, tolerate the abuse,” she added.
While going ahead with a legal battle is one way, Ramya shared that from her experience that when the women were sensitised on their rights, ways to recognise such domestic violence and were equipped to earn on their own, the recurrence of such violent behaviours by her spouse was seen to be drastically reduced. “A usual part of our workshops starts with reading. We would distribute books like ‘Pen Yen Adimai Aanal?’ by Periyar and ask the women to read and reflect on them. It helps them to unlearn certain social conditioning,” she said. In addition to this, training on skills that help women gain financial independence is also conducted. Many NGOs in the city provide training for women on tailoring, baking, designing, craft work and other such skills which will help them earn on their own.
Cauviya Madhiyazhagan, a consultant psychologist in Chennai, observed that the challenge in most domestic violence cases is internalised misogyny and patriarchy. “We have been taught that it is okay for a man to beat a woman. It is okay for a male to be abusive. Since we grow up seeing such situations, the abuse is normalised. Even at times when a woman going through abuse recognises the abuse, the love bombing (taking her out on a trip, doing things that make her feel loved etc) by her partner pulls her back into the abusive relationship,” she said.
While it is possible to recognise physical or sexual abuse, it is much harder for women going through emotional abuse to even recognise it as abuse. Emotional abuse includes accusations of doing things the woman did not do, manipulation, gaslighting, silent treatment, stonewalling and such behaviours. This will leave the woman confused, and make her question her self-worth even when she is not wrong.
When a woman calls out such abuse and opts for divorce, it becomes a lonely battle in the instances when they do not have a support system. “At times, women prefer staying in abusive relationships as they are scared of these lone battles and slut shaming. Very often, a combination of these factors stop the women from coming out of the abusive relationships,” she said, adding that though there is a long way ahead for divorce to be normalised, it should be considered a step towards self-care than stigmatised.
Here are some of the helplines in Chennai for women going through domestic abuse
Women’s helpline – 181
Women’s helpline – 1091
Distress hotline of Chennai Police – 8300304207
Union governments’ single emergency helpline – 112
The Banyan – Emergency Care Whatsapp – 9840888882
Nakshatra NGO – 9003058479 / 7845629339
AWARE – 8122241688
The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) –
24*7 toll-free helpline by PCVC – 044-43111143, Whatsapp chat support – 9840888882
* names changed on request