Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world today. A comprehensive definition of VAWG includes sexual assault, wife abuse, and sex-selective abortions, malnutrition of girl children, dowry-related crimes, child early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. Specifically, violence against women and girls includes “any act of verbal or physical force, coercion or life-threatening deprivation, directed at an individual woman or girl that causes physical or psychological harm, humiliation or arbitrary deprivation of liberty and that perpetuates female subordination.”1
1) The Indian Context
The definition of VAWG has evolved over times in the Indian context in recognition of complex nature of the issue. It was only in 1983 that the Indian Penal Code was amended to tackle domestic violence. Per Section 498A, “cruelty” by a husband or his relatives is a non-bailable offence.2 The law addressed four kinds of cruelty:
- Conduct that is likely to drive a woman to suicide
- Conduct which is likely to cause grave injury to the life or health of the wife
- Harassment with the intent of forcing the wife or her family to hand over property
- Harassment because the wife or her family were unable to yield to monetary/material demands
In 1986, Section 304B (dowry death) was introduced to prosecute the husband and in-laws of a woman if she died as a result of injury that could be tied to cruelty or harassment by the husband or his family, in relation to dowry.3 In 2006, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed. The Act broadened the definition of domestic violence to include physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and economic abuse.4 In addition to married women, the Act covered women in all domestic relationships which includes: mothers, sisters, widows, daughters and cohabitating partners. Despite these laws, domestic violence remains a prevalent issue. Although estimates of the prevalence of intimate partner violence within India vary, research suggests it is a common occurrence. Most recently, findings from the third round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) highlight that:
- One in three Indian women aged between 15 and 49 years have experienced sexual or physical violence in their lifetime.
- The majority (56%) of women who have ever experienced violence since the age of 15 have experienced violence in the 12 months preceding the survey.
- Physical violence is the most common form of violence.
- Spousal violence for women age 15-49 is the most common kind of domestic violence. Currently married women and widowed women have a much higher prevalence of violence (37% and 38%) than never married women or women whose gauna has not yet been performed (16% and 15%).
- Overall, in India 35% of women age 15-49 have experienced physical or sexual violence. Both types of violence are higher in rural than in urban areas.
1) Looking to Social Norms
A growing body of research points to social institutions often obscuring and/or legitimising VAWG. To understand why VAWG is more prevalent in some communities and countries than others, there has been an increased focus on an “ecological” framework.5 Violence against women and girls occurs due to an interplay of personal, situational and sociocultural factors. Combining individual-level risk factors with cross-cultural factors helps to understand why some societies and individuals are more violent than others, and why women are often the victims of abuse, as illustrated below:
In India, patriarchy and notions of shame and honour associated with women’s sexuality combine to create an environment where violence against women is practised and accepted. Traditionally rigid gender roles could increase the likelihood of violence. These rigid roles are often defined in such a way that sons are seen as a “benefit” to families, financially and otherwise. This leads to a strong male-child preference, which has implications such as sex-selective abortions and female infanticide.6 Other social and cultural norms associated with VAWG include male superiority, male domination, acceptance of violence as a means to solve personal issues, perceptions that men have ownership of women, and tolerance of physical punishment of women.7 Variations in attitudes and behaviours exist, owing to individual perceptions and family dynamics. For example, compared to men raised in non-violent homes, men who grew up in violent homes were significantly more likely to engage in violent behaviours against their spouses.8 An exploratory study conducted by Athena Infonomics, earlier this year, in Northern and Eastern India revealed some very interesting insights:
- Most men and women perceived that the appropriate behaviour of wives was to faithfully listen to whatever the husband said and believed in the subordination of women to men.
- Women also thought it was acceptable and common to get beaten by husbands particularly at early stages of marriage. Almost half of the women interviewed accepted some form of violence from their spouses as they were convinced they were at fault, and hence, deserved the treatment.
- Men resort to different kinds of violence based on the magnitude of errors committed by women. Husbands resorted to emotional violence around issues surrounding the household or routine issues such as not providing food on time, whereas physical and sexual violence were justified for matters that relate to their marriage and the husband directly.
- While adolescent boys largely believed that wife beating is unacceptable and should stop, they also opined that when women were at fault a husband could resort to violence as a solution. Adolescent girls also agreed that wife beating is wrong but believed that women should restrain from arguing with their husbands to reduce instances of violence.
- Households in which the community perception on women was lower, in general, experienced greater incidents of all kind of violence.
- Community notions that violence is acceptable when the wife does not accede to sexual activity and sex is a husband’s right were associated with greater likelihood of physical, sexual and emotional violence.
- Notions of masculinity and superiority were associated with the greater incidence of all forms of violence.
- Most instances of violence go unreported, as women feel ashamed to do so. If and when women do report violence, they usually restrict it to within the household and talk to elders. A very small number of instances are reported to the police.
A multidisciplinary approach at the individual and community levels is necessary to tackle VAWG. This would include:
- Robust laws to protect women and punish perpetrators
- Multi-sectoral responses and services to rebuild victims’ lives, covering health, safety, shelter, justice and legal recourse
- Partnerships across stakeholders (governments, donors, civil society organisations) to advocate against VAWG and increase awareness
- Changing norms and associated behaviours
- Increasing awareness on gender equality and women’s rights
- Strengthening coordination among stakeholders
- Developing a national action plan to prevent and address VAWG
1.Heise, L., Ellsberg, M., & Gottmoeller, M. (2002). A global overview of gender-based violence. International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 5-14.
2.Kishwar, M. (2005). Destined to Fail: Inherent Flaws in the Anti-Dowry Legislation. Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society, 1-6.
3.Kimuna, S. R., Djamba, Y. K., Ciciurkaite, G., & Cherukuri, S. (2013). Domestic Violence in India: Insights from the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 773-807.
4.Jaising, I. (2009). Bringing Rights Home: Review of the Campaign for a Law on Domestic Violence. Economic and Political Weekly, 50-57.
5.Heise, L. (1998). Violence against Women: An Integrated, Ecological Framework. Violence against Women, 262-292.
6.Martin, S. L., Moracco, K. E., Garro, J., Tsui, A. O., Kupper, L. L., Chase, J. L., & Campbell, J. C. (2002). Domestic Violence Across Generations: Findings from Northern India. International Journal of Epidemiology, 560-572.
7.Levinson, D. (1989). Violence in Cross Cultural Perspective. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publishers.
8.Martin, S. L., Moracco, K. E., Garro, J., Tsui, A. O., Kupper, L. L., Chase, J. L., & Campbell, J. C. (2002). Domestic Violence Across Generations: Findings from Northern India. International Journal of Epidemiology, 560-572.