Abstract: Women are still the victims of violence, seldom receiving any protection or justice. Apart from robbery, burglary, aggravated assault and homicide which men too are subject to, there is another type of violence specially targeted on to women, because of their gender. This comprises child abuse, incest, courtship violence, date rape, battering, marital rape and elder abuse. Another group of atrocities are meted out to women, neatly packaged as tradition or culture. These include dowry, sati, widowhood etc. Violence against women can be prevented if effective measures are taken. The process should include rehabilitation of abused women, assuring them of safety and providing them with mental health care. The whole effort would require a combination of theoretical inputs, police action and planned social restructuring, and only then will women’s oppression be understood and eradicated.
Keywords: violence against women, abused women, mental health care, violence in marriage, trauma, social support, coping mechanism, planned social restructuring, oppression through violence, victims of violence, impact of violence.
Nearly three decades have passed since the U.N. declared 1975 as the International Women’s Year and the period between 1975 – 1985 as the International Women’s Decade. Every year, the 8 of March is celebrated as International Women’s Day. However, notwithstanding the progress made in industrial and scientific technology, women still continue to be the victims of violence, seldom receiving any protection or justice. Nevertheless the voices against violence on women are becoming stronger and a conscious attempt is being made towards public awareness and social change. As an acknowledgement of the need to recognize women’s potential, the Government of India declared the year 2001 as the “Women’s Empowerment year.”
Though women, like men are victims of violence which include robbery, burglary, aggravated assault and homicide, there is another type of violence specially targeted on to women, simply because of their gender. This type of violence comprises child abuse, incest, courtship violence, date rape, battering, marital rape and elder abuse. Apart from this, another group of atrocities are meted out to women, neatly packaged as “tradition” or “culture.” Some of these include dowry, sati and widowhood. Child marriages or customs where young girls are married off to older men or where young widows are forced to shave off their hair, are still common in some cultures. Female infanticide is rampant even today in some parts of Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu and the practice of amniocentesis(the pre-identification of the sex of the foetus) is still practised.
“An Englishman’s home is his castle” goes the proverb, implying that, it is in the sanctity and security of the home that an individual seeks comfort and protection from the outside world. But what happens to the woman whose world within the four walls of the home turns from a castle to a prison, and from the shackles of which there is little escape? Ironically, though there is enough data to suggest that the family is the most physically violent group or institution that the individual is likely to encounter, “The perception that the family is the most loving and supportive group or institution has blinded us from seeing the violent side of family life”(Straus, 1980). The family has been described as “the cradle of violence” and the marriage license as “the hitting license” (Steinmez and Straus, 1982).
Traditional sex role socialisation reinforced the idea that the women’s needs were fulfilled and their identities derived only directly through men. Cultural norms encouraged the belief that the failure of the marriage represented the women’s failure as individuals. Thus, it is in the process of trying to save the marriage at all costs, that women suffered from intense feelings of shame and guilt, and this kept them trapped in their relationships. Victimisation also occurred through a process called “brain washing” in which not only were the victims merely psychologically exploited or physically injured, but the abusers used their power and the sanctity of family relations to control and manipulate the victim’s perception of reality.
Sexual jealousy has been described in almost all battering relationships, wherein the batterers consistently accused the women of having sexual affairs with other men, and the “third degree” methods were used in “making the women admit to their infidelity.” The Gestapo approach has been described as a phenomenon, in which the men interrogated their partners for hours until they admitted to some infidelity, merely to end the argument. Through this method of manipulation, the women were made to believe that they were incompetent or adulterous, and this continuous process only resulted in the victims tending to blame themselves and feel responsible for the domestic turmoil.
Culture too plays an important role in this process. In any culture, if there is to be the maximum expression of an individual’s mental health, each person should equally share in the right to experience and express the full range of emotions. Needless to say, many cultures, including Indian, consider the integrity of the group or community to be of greater importance in sustaining the quality of life, rather than the needs of the individual. The Indian woman is directly or indirectly encouraged to sacrifice her own needs, feelings or interests constantly for the needs, feelings and interests of some other person or community; be it children, husband, family or community.
This social conditioning resulted in the basic difference between how men and women viewed themselves and the reasons for their violent interactions. Women understood themselves in terms of their relationships with their husbands, while men understood themselves in terms of the work they did. There is a tendency in the wives of violent husbands to perceive their husband’s violence as caused by factors internal to them. The husbands on the other hand, displayed a marked tendency to see their violent behaviour as caused by external factors. Living in a culture which is unsympathetic to women in general and which is in no way conducive to mental health, the woman is forced to look for survival strategies that will help her to cope with the trauma. Factors, which influence the impact of stress on an individual’s mental health, are the individual’s biological and psychological characteristics, coping abilities and the social and environmental context of the traumatic event.
Women subjected to domestic violence suffer from both physical and psychological symptoms as a result of the trauma, taking a toll of their physical and mental health: Case studies have revealed that physical symptoms mainly consisted of a general feeling of fatigue, lethargy and vague somatic complaints. Psychiatric diagnosis included major depression, generalised anxiety, obsessivecompulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. Suicidal ideation and deliberate attempts at self-harm have also been reported. There have also been cases reported of women turning to alcohol and drug dependence following domestic abuse.
Coping behaviour of the abused women varied. In some women, symptoms increased rather than decreased with time. Others responded to the crises with increased self-reliance and growth. Some women remained permanently with their abusers while others moved on from one abusive relationship to another. Likewise, there were individuals who went in for a permanent separation, either early in the marriage or more surprisingly, after years of abuse.
Alongside the psychopathological symptoms and perhaps even more traumatic, is the cognitive impact of violence. The experience of violence and victimisation shatters the belief that the world is meaningful and that one is invulnerable, and victims see themselves as weak, moody, frightened and out of control. The method of trying to adapt to and cope with the trauma is a painful process. Some of these attempts include
(a) denying the abuse (It didn’t happen)
(b) altering the affective responses to the abuse (It happened but it wasn’t important and has no consequences)
(c) changing the meaning of the abuse (It happened but I provoked it and it is not abusive)
Some women have been known to react to victimisation with hostility and aggression. Studies have shown that adults who were abused or neglected as children were more likely to be involved in delinquency and adult criminal behaviour. Likewise, parents who were abused when they were children were approximately six times more likely to abuse their own children. There are also reports available of women who succumb to the abuse and continue staying on with the perpetrator despite repeated victimization. Repeated violent victimisation rendered women less skilled at self-protection, less sure of themselves and their own worth, and more apt to accept victimisation as a part of being female.
Other factors indicated that abused women were more likely to stay if
(a) the abuse was less severe and less frequent
(b) they had experienced violence as children and
(c) they had fewer resources and less power in terms of education or employment. In short, the more entrapped a woman was in her marriage, the more she suffered at the hands of her husband, without calling for help outside the home. There is another perspective, which surmises that women themselves are to a large extent responsible for their abusive status. This behaviour has been referred to as “learned helplessness” and serves as an explanation as to why some women who even after separation from their abusive husbands, tended to re-marry similar kind of men.
The success or failure of any coping behaviour is strongly influenced by the social context in which it occurs. The social context comprised the individual’s significant ‘others’, i.e., the people that the individual liked to be with, those who made her feel secure and those she could turn to in times of crises. In the case of battered women, the family’s reaction to their emotional dependence ranged from total withdrawal to excessive indulgence. Very often the family was not strong enough to go through the torture of the battered woman. Many relatives also displayed ambivalence in their attitude, thereby reinforcing some unproductive behaviour in the victimised women. The self-esteem of abused women has been found to be particularly low.
Social support has been found to enhance the victim’s ego-strength and coping ability. Social support also played a positive role in decreasing the frequency of physical abuse. Victims with high ego-strength were found to be more daring and courageous in making the decision to will fully walk out of the traumatic situations. Socio-demographic variables, which are positively correlated with ego-strength and coping ability in abused women, are education and the employment status.
Understanding a complex phenomenon like violence against women so deeply embedded in the socio-cultural context, is by no means an easy task. Though many women would prefer to opt out of the abusive situations, it is important to understand why it becomes difficult for most of them to do so. Religious philosophy, customs and rituals serve to reinforce the phenomenon of Sati-Savitri and Pati-Vrata and keep alive the tradition of male dominance and female oppression. In trying to leave her husband’s abode, the Indian woman would be defying cultural norms and would end up inviting society’s wrath, ostracism and disrespect. It is the inability to face these frightening consequences that makes most women choose to cope within the boundaries of their tormented surroundings. Many women also express suicidal thoughts but do not attempt suicide. It has been found that one of the factors deterring abused women from suicide is their dependant young children, for whom these women visualised a bleak future.
The solution to this problem would entail a long-drawn process. Prevention should be initiated at two levels, i.e. short-term and long-term. The short-term framework would be to provide assistance to the immediate and desperate situation in which millions of women find themselves. This process should include rehabilitation of abused women, assuring them of safety and providing them with mental health care. The long-term framework has to be exercised both at the individual and social level. This would involve the strengthening of individual capacities and reducing individual vulnerabilities. Progress at the social level would entail environmental modification and change in the areas of cultural attitudes and values towards women.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman Prime Minister, had remarked, “Women’s emancipation or equality is part of our general development plans, but Government action can neither be effective nor adequate unless women themselves become more aware of their rights and the corresponding responsibilities.” This formidable task would require a combination of theoretical inputs, police action and planned social restructuring, and only then will women’s oppression be understood and eradicated.
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GEETHA JOSH. Is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist based in Mumbai. She has taken her M.Phil from NIMHANS, Bangalore and her Ph.D from Mumbai University. She is working in a General Hospital in Mumbai. Actively participates in workshops and seminars and is involved in Mental Health Awareness programmes. She is a post-graduate
examiner in Clinical Psychology and is visiting faculty at the Mumbai University and SNDT University. Has published articles in Journals and books on Adult and Child Mental Health.