The domestic violence problem

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-10-06

The October 4 issue of The Hindu Sunday Magazine features a Talking Point column by Vijay Nagaswami about domestic violence, entitled Even once is too much.

The article gets off to a promising start:

Domestic violence, as it is officially called, has been happening for centuries in our country and is very much part of ‘Indian culture’.

The author goes on to explain that he is referring only to spousal abuse (and not other forms of domestic violence, such as child abuse); and that such violence may be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional (…wherein one partner subjugates the other through persistent demeaning, insults, threats, and intellectual battering). He also makes no bones about the fact that domestic violence is by no means confined to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Then he gets right down to the problem:

Since we live in a patriarchal society, most spouse abusers are men. Since men have been taught ever since they were boys that they should ‘control’ their wives and since, more often than not, they are physically bigger and stronger, they tend to resort more easily to using violent means to take charge of their marriages, if they find their wives challenging their authority.

But wait, that's not all there is to it.

Having said that, it is no longer uncommon to see men, particularly in urban areas, being victims of spousal abuse from their wives. Typically verbal and emotional abuse are more common, but physical abuse also does take place. Women who feel the need to dominate their spouses may tend to, particularly if the man is generally soft natured and easy to push around, intimidate their husbands by constantly belittling them in private and public, thereby establishing dominance in the marriage. Also, some of them, if they are physically strong, may lash out physically at their husbands by slapping, scratching, kicking and throwing things at them. Since very few men want to acknowledge publicly that they are being abused by their wives, cases of spousal abuse of males are largely under-reported, although in recent times, abused men have been coming together in support groups and have formed associations to help each other deal with the situation.

I had no idea that the nature of domestic violence had changed so much in recent times that two sentences suffice to describe violence by men (who are just doing what they've been taught), but five sentences and many, many commas are needed to describe the reverse. But when I think about it that way, all sorts of things begin to make more sense.

For example, a contributing factor that the author does not mention is that women who are successful in dominating their husbands produce sons that are more soft natured and easy to push around—and thus vulnerable to another generation of slapping, scratching, kicking (and biting!) women. An ever-increasing number of men must suffer in silence, while women try to publicise their tales of woe at every opportunity. I begin to feel sorry for the poor man who is forced to beat his wife a little to reassert his fading authority.

But alas, lawmakers still have the problem backwards:

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act has provided succour to many women who have been victimised by their spouses. It is a well-intended and welcome piece of legislation, but, unfortunately, doesn't provide men who are victims of domestic violence any space for redressal of their grievances. Another important legislation that needs to be touched upon here is Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code which covers any act of cruelty committed upon a woman by her husband or his relatives. Sadly, one of the more distressing by-products of both these laws is that they are abused. Unscrupulous legal professionals as well as acrimonious wives and their relatives try and either intimidate the husband or extract their pound of flesh by filing cases under these laws. I do know of men who have been threatened under Sec 498A of the IPC, merely because the wife and her family want a better divorce settlement than he originally offered. Sometimes where the wife wants a divorce and the husband is unwilling to grant her one, Sec 498A is used as a sword of Damocles over the latter, and it is not unusual to see petitions filed under these laws on falsified charges. More often than not, a messy legal battle ensues that, from what I have seen, no one wins.

What a depressing picture, when all the law does is to abet unscrupulous lawyers and acrimonious wives in wielding the Sword of Damocles to cut a pound of flesh from distressed and intimidated husbands (and this, when it is no longer uncommon to find men being victims of domestic violence in the first place). It's a good thing that there are support groups to help husbands deal with the situation. Sticks and stones may break her bones, but being shafted by the law is what really hurts:

The whole process leaves everyone scarred, angry and frustrated with wounds that take ages to heal.

The author, having turned my entire view of domestic violence on its head, concludes with some advice on dealing with abuse:

But, per contra, if there is violence or cruelty, don’t hesitate to take recourse to the law, for, that is the best protection available to you. However, do so only after the matter has been escalated to other members in the family and assistance from mental health professionals has been sought.

Er… wait. Is he seriously suggesting that The Family is the best place to look for help? And why on earth should a woman have to seek assistance from mental health professionals if she's a victim of domestic violence?

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist […]

Ah, right. I get it now.