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Sep 27, 2016

Tale of Two Women

Savvy Soumya Misra

A few weeks ago I chanced upon an article about an alleged suicide of a 30-year-old woman. The victim, a doctor with a reputed hospital in New Delhi, was harassed by her husband and in-laws for dowry. The doctor, as per newspaper reports, had injected herself with a poisonous substance to end her miseries. 

This was not a rare piece of news - dowry deaths are common in India. The latest National Crime Records Bureau Data shows that there were 7,646 victims in 2015. The good news is that numbers have reduced from 2014 which had seen a 5.2% rise in cases of dowry deaths from the previous year. In 2014, there were 8,501 dowry deaths. However, the bad news is that despite being illegal, dowry continues to be given and taken unabated. It has just donned inoffensive nomenclature – gift and property.  

Despite its usual everyday prevalence this news was striking and in contrast to what I had just experienced a day before. I was back from a field trip to Chitrakoot Dham (Karwi) where I met Mubina Khatun. The 30-year-old was at her grocery shop in a by-lane in Karwi town. I was meeting her through Vanangna, one of our gender partners in Uttar Pradesh. Married in 2009, she was physically and mentally abused, and harassed for dowry. The state has had the highest number of dowry deaths in the country. By the last count, (National Crime Records Bureau -NCRB-2015) UP accounted for 31% of dowry deaths.  

In 2009, when Mubina got married she brought with her some jewellery and a two-wheeler but soon after her husband and in-laws began harassing her for a four-wheeler and gold. Not once during our conversation, while reliving the past, did she mention contemplating killing herself. She instead left her husband and in-laws in 2011, came back to live with her parents, approached Vanangna for help, started a grocery shop, and even took the responsibility of her widowed sister and her four children. She filed a case against her husband and in-laws to retrieve her dowry; the case is stuck for want of the defendant’s accepting the court summons and appearing for hearings. 

What was striking was the fact that while someone who was barely educated managed to spring back, the other, a medical doctor decided to take her life. Mubina, a survivor of domestic violence, basically tried to ‘get on’ with her life. The doctor, on the other hand, became a victim of domestic violence. Both the cases of domestic violence emanated from implicit and explicit demands for dowry. However, this article is not so much about cases of dowry deaths or domestic violence or the numbers that surfaces through various datasets and surveys, this is about reaching out for help, and getting support from parents, families and friends. 

During visits to the rural, semi-urban and urban centres in the last two years, it is fascinating how Dalit and Muslim women, especially, from the rural and semi-urban areas are more vocal about domestic violence. Unlike their urban counterparts, they seek help. They might choose to go for legal recourse or simply seek counselling, they might want a compromise or simply want to move out and retrieve what is rightfully theirs but they do talk about it. In most cases, the survivors of domestic violence have attached themselves to NGOs, taken control of their lives and supported others like them. 

This is not to say that women in urban centres refrain from counselling, they perhaps go for a legal recourse and a divorce eventually, but it has been noted even by counsellors that ‘those who are educated and well-off’ (from urban centres) take a lot of time to decide, and talk about it or approach for counselling. This is attributed to ‘social pressures’, and especially the concerns regarding the ‘the honour of the family’. 

One could attribute this to higher rates of domestic violence in rural areas. For instance, if we consider spousal violence, which is one of the constituents of domestic violence, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 3 showed that there was a 9.8% difference between the rural and urban numbers. So more violence means more reporting. 

Let’s bear in mind that women in the rural and semi-urban areas are usually non-literate or semi-literate, with absolutely no control over their bodies, left without any source of income, and usually stranded with a child or two. The women in the urban centres, more often than not, would be literate and with some source of income or capacity to earn a living. The latter should then be more confident to take control of her life. So why do they not walk out? Again, counsellors say it is the pressure of the society. After all, the onus of maintaining the fabric of marriage lies solely with the woman. The man is the absolved party. 

This is not to say that all women in the cities adjust and adapt (after all, according to the last census, 2011, divorce and separation rates in cities are rising) or that all women in the rural and semi-urban centres fight it out. But there is definitely some food for thought here. 

Mubina was fortunate to have supportive parents and siblings. Perhaps the doctor did not. It then begs the question why some parents do not support their daughters. In this day and age, why a woman is still considered a burden. Why do they not make daughters economically independent and drill in the confidence that they should not suffer any sort of violence, any sort of discrimination, anywhere. 

It’s time to tell them ‘this will always be your home and you can come whenever you want’. It’s time to stop telling them that they should only leave their in-laws on a bier. Because they already are. 

 

Written by: Savvy Soumya Misra, Research Coordinator- Development Practices at Oxfam India

Picture credit: Nishanth Jois

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