In a landmark ruling earlier this year (April 6, 2008), the Supreme Court (SC) sentenced a man to two years' imprisonment for driving his wife to suicide following taunts over her 'dark' complexion. Referring to the man's acts as severe mental torture, the court said that disparaging and sneering remarks could be worse than physical torture for a sensitive person. Not only will this stance taken by the SC send a tough message to the perpetrators of emotional violence, it will also draw attention to its pervasive nature.
Domestic violence is a widely known but loosely used term; as is apparent, it may not be fully understood by both the abuser and the abused. It connotes many, different and inter-related kinds of violent actions. Yet, only the most visible one - physical violence - has come to be, literally, the face of domestic violence. The apparent conspicuousness of physical violence often overshadows emotional abuse and violence. As a result, most of what is spoken or written about domestic violence constitutes physical battering, not emotional. Of course, all abuse - physical, sexual or financial - contains elements of emotional abuse. Yet, there are many people - mostly women - who primarily suffer from emotional abuse and violence. According to the World Health Organization, between 20 per cent and 75 per cent women across the world, had experienced one or more of these acts, most within the past 12 months. It may appear strange then that their plight lacks voice, especially when qualitative research consistently finds that women frequently consider emotionally abusive acts to be more devastating than physical violence.
The reason behind this silence could be that emotional abuse and violence is complex to define and measure. It constitutes many kinds of behavior or actions that cause emotional suffering. For instance, denying emotional responsiveness, failing to provide care in a sensitive and responsive manner, being detached and uninvolved, interacting only when necessary, ignoring a person's mental health needs, treating the spouse or any other as a 'job to be done', and so on. Being subjected to the silent treatment for hours, days, weeks or even months on end can also be emotionally draining for many. A common form of emotional abuse is the denial of sexual relations. But as women, generally, are not supposed to initiate or demand sex, this isn't deemed as violence.
Another reason why emotional abuse and violence remain under cover is because many women choose to suffer in silence. The social and cultural conditioning of women as guardians of family honor makes them feel responsible. Besides, women themselves may not perceive emotional violence to be as life threatening as physical violence. They may also be under the impression that such behavior will disappear with time.
However, the truth is that emotional abuse follows a pattern; it is repeated and sustained. If left unchecked, the abuse only gets worse with time. What women themselves fail to realize is that, in the bargain, they could end up with their sense of self-worth and self-perception severely undermined.
It may be a subtler form of violence but emotional abuse can cause serious mental trauma and agony. The scars of continued emotional abuse can have serious physical or psychological consequences for women, including severe depression, anxiety, persistent headaches, back and limb problems. As shown in 'Provoked', a film based on the real life story of Kiranjeet Ahluwalia in the UK, who killed her abusive husband, victims do not just destroy their own physical and mental health, they can even turn violent themselves after years of savage degradation.
Take the case of Renu and Others versus State of Haryana (1991), where the court had ruled that accusing the wife of being barren amounted to mental cruelty. In yet another case, Gonanath Pattnaik versus State of Orissa (2002), the Court stated that 'cruelty', for the purposes of constituting the offence, need not be physical. Even mental torture or abnormal behavior may amount to cruelty and harassment in a given case.
The flawed and incomplete understanding of domestic violence is not just harbored by popular discourse, but is revealed by police attitudes as well. Knowing domestic violence as physical assault only, they may look for injury marks to establish the crime. But for a victim of emotional abuse, there are no outward bruises to show and prove one's violation. Often, the victim cannot truly understand or explain how she is made to feel. In many situations, when the police show up, the perpetrator may appear calm and collected while the victim may appear hysterical. The emotional violator often is reported to play 'mind-games' by lying, contradicting, fabricating stories, denying or minimizing the scope of his action/s inconsistently. Many perpetrators invalidate their partners' perceptions of neglect and abuse. The motion picture 'Gaslight' (in the film, the husband convinces his wife that she is going mad, so he can have her certified insane and confined, and can then lay claim to her property without impediment) illustrates this dynamic quite effectively. Such complexities make the identification and verification of emotional violence rather tricky. Given the sensitive nature of such situations, law enforcement agencies - in metros, towns and villages - must be adequately oriented, sensitized and skilled to handle such cases.
Thankfully, the new 2005 avatar of the law on domestic violence in India - Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 - carries a more substantive definition of violence. It goes beyond physical violence to include forms of violence that hurt the dignity of a woman and impinge upon her rights. It also stretches beyond relationships of marriage and includes co-habiting partners, and others who share a household, such as brothers and sisters. Most importantly, it acknowledges the acts of 'omission or commission', since omissions can be as grave and criminal as commissions.
But having a stringent law in place is just half the battle. Since emotional violence is harder to bear than physical violence, the popular perception that views domestic violence just in terms of physical violence needs to change. Women should especially be made aware of the ramifications of emotional violence. Their families still need to be sensitized to the dangers of ignoring emotional abuse.
Since laws cannot totally prevent violence, what is ideally needed is the active engagement of men against domestic violence. Helping men review their perceptions of masculinity and understand power dynamics in personal relationships could be the first positive step. Society - most specifically men - needs to engage with this concern more actively.