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Violence against women on the rise in literate Kerala

By Aleyamma Vijayan

Why does a state that boasts India's highest literacy levels and excellent social development indicators see a 300% increase in violence against women? Possibly because literacy and education do not change mindsets. In a deeply patriarchal society, education teaches women only to be good wives and mothers. A special report from Kerala as the fortnight-long Campaign Against Violence Against Women begins on November 25

A national conference of special significance for women in this country was conducted recently in Delhi by the Lawyers Collective Women's Rights Initiative. The occasion was the first anniversary of the passing of the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) and the release of the first monitoring and evaluation report on this piece of legislation, aptly named 'Staying Alive'. This may be the first time in the country that a law is being evaluated on its first anniversary!

The report states that 7,913 cases totally were filed under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 in the one year since its enactment. The figures are based on information received by the Office of the Chief Justice of India from different high courts in the country.

According to the report, the greatest number of cases have been filed from Rajasthan (3,440), where no protection officers have been appointed or any infrastructure put in place. Second comes Kerala, with 1,028 cases registered under the PWDVA.

Regarding the prevalence rates of domestic violence in Kerala, the figures vary. The recent National Family Health Survey 3 seems to suggest that domestic violence affects only 16% of families. But according to an ICRW-INCLEN (International Centre for Research on Women and International Clinical Epidemiologist Network) study (2000), Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, ranks first among five cities in India in prevalence of domestic violence. Violence in Thiruvananthapuram is about 64% in urban non-slum areas and 71% in rural areas, as shown in the graph. This is higher than Bhopal, Lucknow, Nagpur and Vellore.

Another study on gender-based violence in Kerala, undertaken by Sakhi in 2004 for the Kerala government's department of health, revealed that 40% of respondents had experienced violence in the home at some point in their lives.

Why do the figures vary so much?

Firstly, because of the general misconception that gender-based violence constitutes only physical violence. The UN Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women defines gender-based violence as "any act of violence against women that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private spaces".

This violence could take the form of physical violence, sexual violence, threats of physical or sexual violence, psychological or emotional abuse, or economic violence.

Then again, our understanding of the causes of violence also differs.

Causes of violence in intimate relationships

There are several theories on why people resort to violence. Some focus on the individual aggressor, with psycho-pathological explanations that hinge on personality traits; others take the socio-pathological view that argues that the external environment plays a large role in an individual's behaviour.

Feminist analyses of violence point to power relationships between men and women that deny women equal access to power and resources thereby making them vulnerable to violence at the hands of men. The cause of violence here is traced to patriarchy -- the ideology that bestows on men the power and authority over women's lives and their bodies.

Domestic violence takes place within the four walls of the home, and women are conditioned to accept this as part of their lives. They are conditioned to believe that their husbands have every right to beat them or punish them. In the Sakhi study, 36% of women admitted as much, and it's a view shared by most people in India.According to the third National Family Health Survey, covering the period 2005-06 and released during the second week of October 2007, about 40% of ever-married women have experienced violence, and over half the sample believes that "wife-beating" is justifiable. So if a woman goes to a police station complaining about violence by her husband, she is told to "adjust" and that the occasional beating could not be called violence. Or that she must have done something wrong to justify the violence!

The true facts about domestic violence emerge only when the interviewers in a study have the right attitude and perspective and are able to establish a good rapport with the women. In fact, they require special training and sensitivity to be able to understand the various dimensions of the problem.

In most families, it's the head of the family who meets the interviewers. Or the women have to speak in the presence of other family members. This often forces them to give inaccurate answers. Sakhi found that one of the main hurdles in conducting the study was to speak to the women alone. When they did get the opportunity, the women were extremely willing to share their problems.

What is clear from all these studies, however, is that there continues to be a high prevalence rate of gender-based violence in Kerala. The state government's Economic Review 2004 admits that atrocities against women in the state have increased 300% in the period 1991-2001.

Why this huge increase in a highly literate state?

Most people have a glorified image of Kerala as a matrilineal society that boasts several positive social indicators. However, the matrilineal system existed only among the Nairs and a few other communities. And none of the social or political movements that contributed to great change in Kerala (class, caste, etc) ever took up gender issues or upheld the dignity of women, as did Periyar in Tamil Nadu or Jyotibai Phule and others in Maharashtra.

Literacy and education do not change mindsets. In a deeply patriarchal society, education teaches women to be good wives and mothers. This attitude has been supplemented by missionary education, which brought with it a Victorian morality.

In this context, one must remember that Kerala is at the forefront of suicides in the country; around 36% of them are a result of family or marital problems. One would assume that large-scale migration out of Kerala to other countries has resulted in a change in attitude. But most people from this state go to work in the countries of the Middle East which are extremely traditional in their outlook towards women.

The women of Kerala are organised by political parties that have their own agendas. So, although there are a number of mass-based women's organisations, specific gender-related awareness-building and leadership-building is taking place only very slowly. There is little autonomous political space for women to organise around their own issues, and the autonomous feminist movement in Kerala is weak.

But change could happen fast in Kerala, thanks to high levels of literacy. Greater awareness, redressal mechanisms etc could help women move forward, as has been seen in recent times. The State Women's Commission is flooded with cases and, in one year, 1,028 cases have been filed under the PWDVA. If strengthened and made to function, panchayat-level jagrutha samithis (vigilance cells), initiated by the government through the State Women's Commission, have the potential to act as a community response system to address the problem of violence against women.

The PWDVA is a powerful tool in the hands of women as it affords them protection and the right to continue to live in a shared household. The first and immediate impact of domestic violence is dispossession -- throwing the woman out of the house and taking custody of the children. Now, a woman can get a protection order to stay in the same household, whether it is rented or owned by her husband or his relatives. She can claim immediate maintenance, compensation for any loss to property, etc.

The annual review meeting highlighted the lack of support mechanisms, like shelters, under the law to effectively offer this protection. It also showed up the need for greater gender sensitisation of all stakeholders such as the judiciary, the police, lawyers, bureaucracy, etc. In the end, however, it is women themselves who have to take measures to protect their human rights.

Staying alive

The following case studies are from the 2004 Sakhi report on gender-based violence

Case study 1

"I am 27 years old and belong to a poor family. Last year I was married to a man who works as a rubber-tapper. We had to give Rs 10,000 and five sovereigns of gold. Our relatives and neighbours helped... Later, I realised that he was an alcoholic and after two days of marriage he started to abuse me physically and mentally. He accused me of having sexual relationships with anyone that I talked with, including a nine-year-old boy from the neighbourhood. He choked me, banged my head against the wall, slapped me left and right on my cheeks, twisted my hand, threw things at me, etc... He sold my gold and bought eight-and-a-half cents of land in a distant place, in his name. He used the money to drink. My mother-in-law always takes his side. After three months, we moved to the new place. A few months later, I had a pain in my neck and one day I fainted. I was admitted to the ayurveda hospital and there, slowly, my body was paralysed. My mother was with me in the hospital. Even there he used to come and harass me. One day when only my head was moving, he came, sent my mother to buy something, and tried to throttle me."

Case study 2

"I am 36 years old and I have four children. My husband is a coolie. I was married when I was 16. My father gave Rs 4,000 and four sovereigns of gold. My difficulties began soon after my marriage. He is always suspicious. In my husband's house, there was no latrine. So I had to go out to satisfy my basic needs. I would go in search of places where there was nobody around. When I took some time, his mother and he used to say that I was going to meet someone. If I talked to anyone, my husband immediately suspected me of having a relationship. I could not laugh or talk; even to sneeze I needed his permission. If he comes to know that I have told you these things, he will kill me. He doubts me 24 hours a day... I don't go out of the house at all. Any reason is enough for him to suspect me and beat me up. Look at me, I am so weak; I can't get up and walk around. He used to beat me even when I was pregnant. I am so afraid of him. Now he has gone to see the children. He may come back any time. Don't write all this; he will kill me."

Case study 3

"I am 48 years old. I have eight children, six of whom are working and staying in different houses. My husband is a wageworker. Only the two young children stay with us. We are socially and economically very backward. Our house is just four walls and a mud floor... After his work, everyday he drinks and reaches home almost crawling. Once he gets home, he shouts at the children and beats us up for some silly reason. The children hide out of fear. He kicks me on my genitals. Sometimes when it is unbearable, I run and hide behind some trees... I am so weak that I am not even able to go to work. Yet he forces me to have sex with him often. If I refuse, he beats me. I became pregnant 12 times. I had two abortions... Even while I was pregnant he had no kindness. He even refused to give me food. My deliveries were worse than that of a dog or a cat. All my deliveries were in this house, in this dusty, dirty house."


(Aleyamma Vijayan is a social activist working with women and marginalsied communties since 1978. Presently she runs the SAKHI resource center for women)

InfoChange News & Features, November 2007