In Delhi, the daughter of a former union minister files for divorce citing mental torture by her well-known businessman husband. In Mumbai, a leading actress contends her actor husband kicked her while she was pregnant. In Kolkata, neighbors respond to distress calls from a woman battered by her husband for refusing to join his drinking revelry. And in Chennai, the wife of a highly placed bureaucrat finally speaks up after enduring years of physical and mental abuse for being unable to bear a child.
Violence against women is neither culture- nor region-specific; it cuts across community and class, making no distinction. Shocking though it is, the fact is that violence against women has become an acceptable norm of life.
Statistics reveal that 45 per cent of Indian women are slapped, kicked or beaten by their husbands. About 74.8 per cent of the women who reported violence have attempted to commit suicide. Based on a sample size of 10,000 women, these figures are from a study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) in collaboration with the International Clinical Epidemiologists Network in seven cities of India, in the year 2000.
However, a more recent ICRW study (2002) conducted on men, masculinity and domestic violence in four Indian states, finds that men are not naturally violent.
"Well, just because a person is a man, it cannot be assumed that he will resort to violence. The study found that there are vast numbers of men who do not engage in violence. There are complex linkages between masculinity and violence. The behavior of men stems from their understanding of masculinity and what their role should be vis-ï¿½-vis women, especially their wives," says Nandita Bhatla of ICRW.
Men have always been taught to perceive themselves as the superior sex, says Jyotsna Chatterjee, director, Joint Women's Program, Delhi. It is this conditioning, she says, that makes them believe they have to control their wives. "In fact, there are instruction manuals detailing when a man can beat his wife. This is readily available (in Delhi definitely and perhaps elsewhere too) and its sales indicate that it is being read. Among other reasons listed, the main justification listed in the manual for violence against women is disobedience. Obviously there is sanction to beat the wife if the husband feels his wife is disobedient," reveals Chatterjee.
The ICRW study also found that disrespect towards the husband was a key factor in linkages between violence and masculinity. According to the study - conducted in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Delhi - 77 per cent of the men felt their masculinity was being threatened if their wives didn't listen to them. They said force was justified to assert their superiority.
The use of violence by men must be seen from different perspectives, according to Dr Radhika Chopra of the department of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. Men's violence must be seen in their different roles as perpetrators, witnesses and narrators of violence, contends Chopra, a specialist in gender and masculinity.
"Violence is framed and formed by cultures of power and deprivation," says Chopra. "There is enough evidence to demonstrate the unequal gender distribution of critical resources, an inequality that is weighed against women. Also, violence within a household does not remain untouched by political ideologies of violence or cultural dimensions of caste. So, the question of men and violence demands that we rethink the ways in which men inhabit particular subject positions in relation to violence."
This is why men's perception of masculinity and its association with different markers like age, caste, socio-economic status and education become important, points out Bhatla. The ICRW study found that while masculinity is rooted in a broader patriarchal ideology of differences in attributes, roles and responsibilities between men and women, sexuality is a very critical marker of masculinity.
The study found 79 per cent of the men asserted violence as a legitimate means of controlling their wives' fidelity. Violence in the marital relationship is closely associated with power, control and the
privilege of being able to express and satisfy sexual needs. Although control and sexual violence decline steadily with age, the ICRW study found a disturbing correlation between violence, socio-economic status and education.
The highest reported rates of sexual violence were found from men who were relatively more literate than those who were illiterate. Thirty-two per cent of men with 0 years of education and 42 per cent men with 1-5 years of education reported sexual violence. While this figure increased to 57 per cent among 6-10 years of education, it stayed at this level for men with high school education and those who had moved further up the educational ladder.
A similar pattern was seen among men in the privileged socio-economic class. The lowest rung in the socio-economic ladder reported the lowest rate of sexual violence at 35 per cent. The rate almost doubled to 61 per cent among the highest income groups.
Starling as it is, the finding that relatively high education, and socio-economic status increases the risk of violence against women does not surprise theatre personality and activist Tripurari Sharma. She says she was shocked to learn recently that an educated and respected actor in her theatre group was abusing his wife, also an established actress. "He was the most helpful, cordial and endearing man. His wife would attend rehearsals with bruises at times (that she would cover up). Later, I found out she was being beaten. If the actress herself had not told me, I would have never believed it. I think it is a myth to think that the higher the education and economic status, the less the risk of violence against women."
Many experts, including Sharma, feel that one way to address this harsh reality is to begin gender sensitization at an early stage. Intervention strategies need to focus on attitudinal change in families, and the negative impact of the use of violence has to be stressed in a structured form in schools, towards promoting gender equity.
Besides, women themselves need to break out of the silence and the stigma related to violence within the home. Unfortunately, women continue to accept violence as a part of their married life until it becomes intolerable - statistics show that more than 55 per cent of women perceive violence as a normal part of marriage.
For interventions to be effective - especially those that emphasize gender equity as a strategy to prevent domestic violence - it is imperative that more and more women refuse to accept violence, no matter what the circumstances.