From the Police Station Back to the Hellhole: System Failing India’s Domestic Violence Survivors

One time my husband started slapping me hard on the face because I had not cooked the rice to his satisfaction,” Suruchi* told IPS. “He hit me so hard that my infant daughter fell from my arms to the ground.”

For 20 years 47-year-old Suruchi, a resident of India’s coastal megacity Mumbai, faced physical and verbal abuse within the walls of her home. Her husband would often lock her out of their apartment through the night and one day even tried to strangle her.

“I never knew what would set him off – it could be talking to a neighbour or looking out of the window. I would get ready for work in the morning and he would suddenly announce that I had to stay home all day.”

Suruchi had no access to her earnings as she was expected to hand her salary over to her in-laws. “On the rare occasion that I spoke out, I would get beaten up.” Her parents sensed that she was unhappy but Suruchi never told them the full story.

She was just 20 when she got married, she told IPS, and the constant abuse has left a profound impact on her and her children, especially her son who is anxious and largely uncommunicative.

It was only after she suffered a nervous breakdown following an especially violent assault that she finally acted.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying him things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood that my attitude had fuelled the abuse and that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.”

Today Suruchi has put the past behind her. She lives independently and is pursuing a degree in law. However, her story is all too common in millions of homes across India.

A 2006 government survey, the last time the state collected comprehensive household data, stated that 40 percent of Indian women faced domestic violence.
Considering that women comprise over 48 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion people, this means that hundreds of millions of people are living a nightmare in what is considered the world’s largest democracy.

However many experts believe that a 2003 survey conducted by a non-profit and supported by the Planning Commission of India that threw up a figure of 84 percent paints a more accurate picture.

“It tells us that many cases are going unreported,” says Rashmi Anand, a domestic violence survivor who runs a free legal aid and counseling service for victims in the capital, New Delhi, in collaboration with the police.
Interestingly, figures for domestic violence reported in crime statistics in many states are significantly higher than those that find their way into national-level databases.

In a 2013 study by the New Delhi-based think tank National Council for Applied Economic Research, over half of the married women surveyed said that they would be beaten up for going out of the house without permission (54 percent); not cooking properly (35 percent) and inadequate dowry payments (36 percent).
Indian law bans dowry, but the practice remains widespread.

Studies also indicate that economic and social gains have put women at far greater risk in a deeply patriarchal country like India.

A 2014 report in Population and Development Review, a peer reviewed journal, shows that women who are more educated than their husbands are at higher risk of domestic violence as men see in it a way to re-assert their power and control over their wives.

In 1983 domestic violence was recognised as a criminal offence under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. However only in 2005 was a separate civil law to deal with the specifics of domestic violence introduced.

Among other things, the law defines domestic violence and widens the scope to verbal, economic and emotional violence. It also takes into account a woman’s need for financial support and protects her from being thrown out of her home and provides for monetary relief and temporary custody of children.

Since it came into force, activists say there has been a gradual rise in the number of women seeking help.

“Earlier women would seek legal help only when they were thrown out of their marital homes”, says New Delhi-based lawyer C.P Nautiyal, who counsels victims of domestic violence.

“Most women believe that suffering verbal abuse or being slapped by their husbands is expected behaviour. Since the law came into being there is greater awareness regarding domestic violence.”

However, there is still considerable stigma attached to being divorced and this prevents many women from reaching out.

“Economically women in India have made great progress but not so much when it comes to personal growth,” says Anand. “The attitude remains skewed when it comes to relationships. A woman continues to be defined by marriage and this cuts across all classes.”

Veteran lawyer and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes agrees.

“There is a lot of pressure to stay married,” she tells IPS. “I have found that even highly placed women don’t like to reveal that they are divorced or separated. It’s like being raped, they will hide it as much as possible.”

Experts say that it is women from under-educated or underprivileged backgrounds who are reaching out for help in greater numbers. “Those who come from the upper classes are generally more reluctant to walk out as they stand to lose social status or a certain lifestyle,” Agnes says.

However it is precisely those women who are reaching out in greater numbers that the system is failing the most.

Most keenly felt is the lack of adequate government-run shelters. Barring the southern state of Kerala where shelter homes for domestic violence victims have been set up across 12 districts, authorities in other states have been neglectful.

“I am constantly looking for places where I can send impoverished, battered women to stay,” says Anand. Of the five shelters for women in crisis in the capital New Delhi, only two are functional. Even these can accommodate just 30 women each, and not for more than a month.

“Women are kept like prisoners there,” Agnes tells IPS about the shelters. “They can’t leave, not even to go to their places of work. Children above seven cannot stay with their mothers. Only those who are utterly destitute and desperate consider staying there.”

Another critical need is for fast-track courts to ensure cases get heard rapidly. The Indian legal system is notoriously slow and cases drag on for years, even decades.

However tougher laws alone cannot stem the tide of domestic violence as long as attitudes stay rooted in patriarchy.

The last government study done in 2006, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), revealed that over 51 percent of Indian men didn’t think it wrong to assault their wives. More shockingly, 54 percent of the women themselves felt such violence was justified on certain grounds.

Activists say such biases are reflected every time a victim of domestic violence comes seeking help.

“We see it on the part of the police, NGOs, stakeholders and religious authorities,” points out Agnes. “The protection officer is supposed to collect evidence, file an order and take the victim to court. Instead the tactic is to tell her, ‘He slapped you a few times that’s all. Don’t make a big deal and sort it out’, and she is sent back to the hellhole.

“We have to stop this current approach of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound [if we want] change to come about,” she stressed.

*Name changed upon request

This article appeared on IPS. To read click here

All-female transport: Ladies, fasten your seatbelts!

Growing up in Mumbai, Havovi Wadia moved with ease through the city, never thinking twice about travelling alone at any hour of the day or night. Over the last few years, however, her movements have changed. “I travel every month and usually leave home at 4:00 am for early flights,” says Wadia, who works with a non-governmental organisation. “I invariably return to Mumbai on a late flight and I worry every time about getting home safely at night.” Wadia’s family insists on staying on the phone with her until she reaches home.

After the infamous Nirbhaya (‘the fearless one’) case of December 16, 2012, when a 23-year-old medical student was gang raped and murdered on a moving bus on the streets of Delhi, female commuters like Wadia are hesitant to take public transport. Many have turned to taxi services that can be booked online. But in December last year, news broke of a 27-year-old woman who was raped by a taxi driver for Uber, an online startup transportation company. “Now, I have become uncomfortable with using these fleet services,” says Wadia. “I worry constantly.”

Given that India’s public transport system is rated the world’s fourth most dangerous for women and laws have largely proven ineffective in combating sexual violence against women, it seems there is one solution for female commuters fearing for their safety: transportation by and for women.

Transport services catering only to women popped up nearly four years ago in India. Lately, the number of services has mushroomed, with several states announcing plans for women-only transportation.

Officials in Gurgaon, near Delhi, say they will help women interested in buying taxis and running a women-only service and in January this year, a company called Meru Eve launched a fleet of 20 cabs in Delhi, all equipped with panic buttons and pepper spray. Delhi police also trained the drivers in self-defense in order to protect themselves and their passengers.

Mumbai-based Priyadarshini Cabs boasts of being among the first such services in the market. The company was launched in 2010 and business is booming, with five new customers every day over the last three months. “We started with just two or three taxis and a meager 10 calls a day,” recalls CEO Susiieben Shah. “Today we have 25 taxis and receive a minimum of 75 calls in a 24-hour shift.”

Kerala's She Taxis AZIZ9669Kerala’s SheTaxis was launched in 2013 and CEO Dr PTM Sunish says the Nirbhaya rape case “brought home the need to ensure maximum safety for women” on the streets. “In Kerala, women are moving everywhere for work and we wanted to find a way to guarantee their security,” he says. SheTaxis started out with just five taxis in one city but today, 50 of the company’s vehicles ply the roads in four cities in Kerala. All SheTaxis are equipped with wireless tracking gear and panic buttons linked to call centres as well as police control rooms, ambulance and fire services.

For 42-year-old marketing executive Priya Nair the service is a blessing. “I live far from my office and work in shifts, with very late work hours,” she explains. “Thanks to She Taxis, I don’t have to worry about how I’ll get home from work. I feel so safe in these taxis that I’ll often take a nap on the ride home,” she says, laughing. A school counselor Aarathi Nair adds, “In a country like ours where there are so many incidents of violence against women in public, this is the only way to feel safe while travelling in the city.”

SheTaxis’s entrepreneurship model sets it apart from other such ventures as taxi drivers are also owners of their vehicles, thus truly making it a service by and for women. Razia, 36, says that getting behind the wheel in her SheTaxi has been life-changing. “I make INR25,000 a month now,” she says. “It gives me great pride to be successful at something that most people see as a ‘man’s job’.”

However, the road to success has not been as smooth for some companies. Female drivers in Kerala have the advantage of a higher literacy rate and efficient government in their state, leading to greater acceptance, while drivers in Mumbai and Delhi routinely face criticism or ridicule.

COO of New Delhi-based Sakha Cabs Deepali Bharadwaj says the company’s female drivers are routinely harassed. Launched in 2009, the company is linked to Azad Foundation, a non-profit organisation which empowers underprivileged women who are victims of domestic violence, training them to enter professions traditionally closed off to women. “Road transport officials keep our drivers waiting for months for a license, while licenses are granted to male drivers at the earliest,” she says.

“Men say, ‘women cannot drive’ or ‘what will we do if women start driving?’” says Shanti, a 33-year-old Sakha driver. “I tell them that maybe it is time for men to start doing women’s jobs.” And if a verbal put-down doesn’t work, any Sakha driver can utilise the martial arts training given to each employee. Bharadwaj adds proudly, “Our drivers have learned to expect biases and handle them.”

“The most common employment option for women is a job as domestic help,” says Bharadwaj. “With Sakha, we wanted to break the mould of a male bastion. For women from marginalised backgrounds, driving a car is very empowering, and they are charting unknown territory.” Shanti says she took a job with Sakha after her husband refused to support her and their three daughters. “The self-defense techniques they taught us gave me confidence and after I began earning an income, I found the courage to walk out of my abusive 13-year marriage.”

In order to slowly maneuver their way into this male-dominated profession, these transport companies have sought legitimisation on official levels. Shah says the Bombay High Court was moved in order to have women-only taxis included in the pre-paid category and after three years of campaigning, the government agreed to reserve permits for female drivers.

There’s still much ground to cover, however. “The government must ensure the same process is followed when it comes to issuing licenses to men and women,” says Bharadwaj.

For initiatives such as Sakha or SheTaxi to succeed, it is crucial that the companies operate as business ventures and not social enterprises or not-for-profit organisations. It is only then that the companies may begin to campaign effectively against a lack of infrastructure holding back growth.
For instance, one critical issue that faces female drivers is the lack of public toilets in cities. “Where are these women supposed to go while they’re on duty?” asks Bharadwaj. “If the government wants this transportation service to be organised and effective, it needs to address shortcomings such as this. Otherwise the companies will not be able to meet the rising demand for female-only transportation.”

While India has made significant headway despite the challenges, Pakistan does not seem to be too far behind. The recently amended anti-rape laws in the country, which promise to punish even those who hinder prosecution, shame the survivor and trivialise the crime, is perhaps the first step towards securing a safe passage for women hesitant to report a sexual assault.

This article appeared in the Express Tribune on March 8, 2015