While there is no simple answer as to why men abuse their wives, the findings of a recent study suggest that women who own property are less likely to encounter spousal violence
The estimated incidence of spousal violence in India ranges between 20% and 50% -- a figure that probably underestimates the extent of the problem, as many women do not report domestic violence due to the social stigma attached to the phenomenon. Few issues, however, have concerned women's groups more, uniting them across class, political affiliations and regions.
There have been numerous studies seeking to identify the factors that increase a woman's risk of suffering spousal abuse. Studies analysing the effects of a woman's economic situation on spousal violence and focusing mainly on the woman's employment status throw up mixed results. While some find a lower risk among employed women, others show a greater risk. Some say it makes little difference.
No study has, however, examined the impact of a woman's property status on the occurrence of domestic abuse -- both physical and psychological. A joint study by Pradeep Panda of the Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum, and Bina Agarwal of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, has analysed this issue in some detail. The survey covered 502 married rural and urban women within the age-group 15-49, in Kerala's Trivandrum district. This was a good location for the survey as Kerala has several traditionally matrilineal communities that recognise women's property claims and therefore has a sufficient sample of women who own property. In this study four categories came up for analysis: physical and psychological abuse, long-term violence (violence that had occurred at least once during the woman's married life) and current violence (violence that had occurred within the past year). It also looked at various forms of physical violence including slapping, hitting, kicking, beating, and psychological abuse -- insults, belittlement, threats, etc.
The surveyed households covered every income category. The respondents' average age was 33 years, the average length of marriage was 12 years, and, in 78% of the cases, the marriages were arranged (two-thirds were with the woman's consent). About 43 households belonged to traditionally matrilineal castes.
Reflecting Kerala's low fertility and high literacy rates, 83% of the couples had two children or less; 96% of both sexes were literate. Only a third of the women were employed (mostly in irregular or seasonal work), compared with 93% of the men (most of them had regular jobs).
Overall, 34% of the sampled women owned either land or a house or both. Some 6% owned only land, 14% had only a house and 15% had titles to both. While the majority of propertied women belonged to traditionally matrilineal castes, 35% of the matrilineal caste women did not own property.
Despite Kerala's favourable human development indicators, the survey revealed a high incidence of both physical and psychological violence towards women. On a long-term profile, 36% of women (41% rural and 27% urban) reported at least one incident of physical violence after marriage. Most experienced multiple forms: 61% of the 179 women who reported being hit, kicked, slapped, or beaten by their husbands experienced all four forms. Ninety per cent experienced at least three. Most faced three or more incidents.
The incidence of psychological abuse was even higher: 65% reported some form of abuse, and 68% reported three or more incidents. Insults and being demeaned were especially common. Similarly, current violence was high: 29% of the women were physically abused; 49% were psychological abused during the previous year.
Of particular concern was violence during pregnancy -- 38% of women reported being slapped, kicked, hit or beaten during pregnancy. This could lead to miscarriages, low-birth-weight infants, even foetal and maternal death.
The study's findings did bear out the fact that ownership of immovable property by women is associated with a dramatically lower incidence of both physical and psychological harassment, as well as long-term and current violence. For example, as many as 49% of the women who owned neither land nor house suffered long-term physical violence, compared with 18% and 10% respectively of those who owned either land or a house, and 7% of those who owned both.
The effect of property ownership on psychological violence is even more dramatic. While 84% of property-less women suffered abuse, the figure was a much lower (16%) for women who owned both land and a house.
The ownership of property also offers women the option of leaving an abusive environment -- of the 179 women experiencing long-term physical violence, 43 left home. The percentage of women leaving home was much higher among the propertied (71%) than among those without property (19%). Moreover, of the women who left home, although 24 returned, 88% of the returning women were property-less. Few propertied women returned.
So, not only are propertied women less likely to experience marital violence, they are also able to escape further violence. Hence, property ownership serves both as a deterrent and as an exit option for abused women. Belonging to a matrilineal caste group does not seem to make a difference, over and above property ownership.
Interestingly, while a fair proportion of women (propertied and property-less) faced dowry demands, only 3% of propertied women faced dowry-related beatings by their in-laws and husbands, compared to 44% of property-less women. This suggests another form in which the ownership of personal property lessens the incidence of domestic crimes against women.
The protective impact of house or land ownership on reducing a woman's risk of violence emerged as significant even after such factors as household economic status, a woman's age, duration of marriage, childlessness, educational and employment levels of both husband and wife, spousal gaps in education or employment, the husband's alcohol consumption, childhood exposure to violence and social support from parents and neighbours were controlled.
In contrast to a woman's property ownership status, there seems to be no clear relationship between risk of violence and employment status, except if the woman has a regular job. This reduces the risk only of long-term physical violence. Employment does not offer the same protection to women as does property ownership. Many women are unpaid workers on family farms or have insufficient earnings to rent a place for themselves. Rented accommodation is not readily available to women and there are social barriers to be considered. Indian landlords are often suspicious of single women tenants. Land access enhances a woman's livelihood options and gives her a sense of empowerment.
(InfoChange News & Features, August 2003)