A blog on Domestic Violence
She walked in one day to the counselling center and asked for help. Though frail looking, her eyes shone with a rare courage, often seen in one who is determined to survive. She said that her husband had been beating her with two belts, accusing her of sleeping with other men and suspecting her of trying to poison him. She even had her in-laws supporting her, which is very rare. They have been married for 22 years. He is a builder, while she is a homemaker. Their problems began only 6 months ago…
“I am a doctor”, she said. “I am married to a well-paid software engineer. Just about a year after the marriage, we had a fight and have been living separately. I have a baby now and he doesn’t seem to care. He has beaten me, locked me out of the house and is now asking for a divorce. I don’t know what to do…”
There are two things in common about these women – One, that neither wanted to file a complaint, let alone go for a divorce. Two, that all of them said “….but, my husband is a good man.”
What counselling is all about
An ACP casually asked me once if being a counselor meant giving people “advice” on what is good and bad. I wish it were that simple.
During my experience as a counselor with the woman’s helpline, I have often thought what marriage means to most women and men, since majority of our cases are of marital disputes. As a counselor, perhaps my greatest learning has been to listen without bias and to fully hear both sides. An important aspect in doing that was to develop the ability to drop my mind and my assumptions of why people should be in a marriage. How can I ever completely understand why a woman who says that she has been tortured by her husband wants to continue in a marriage? The more I thought about how differently I would deal with such a situation if it ever happened to me, the more I realized that this is not my decision to make. With every case that bewildered me as an individual, I learnt to respect the client’s wishes and drop my mind for the time being.
It is in many ways a relief that I, as a counselor, do not need to pass a judgement against anyone; that I can keep aside my personal experiences and simply listen and be involved in someone else’s life and reasons; and that I get to look at life and marriage through someone else’s eyes.
My role as a counselor in simple words is to help whoever shows up. In that light, I see all my clients as people in need of help, rather than people in need of punishment. My role is certainly not to dole out advice, but to help re-establish communication between the couple. Often, couples have their own expectations from a marriage and are unable to see or appreciate the relationship for what it is. Such filters come in the way of listening to each other and they only hear what they want to believe, rather than the reality. In the process, both stop expressing and listening, and this becomes suffocating for both.
This is where counselling gives them an opportunity to vent out, to listen and to be heard. Many a time, it would be during a counselling session that the couple talk honestly to each other for the very first time, and see each other for who they really are. Enabling each to see this reality is an important step. Finally, counselling is not about making a decision for someone else, but facilitating them to arrive at their own decisions by helping them see their reality.
Why some women chose to stay in a troublesome marriage
Those of us who are in a good marriage may find it natural to see things in black and white – if a man beats a woman, he is bad and must be punished. If he doesn’t, he is good and even if they have some fights, she should compromise and stay in the marriage. Those of us who are in a good marriage, might not have paused to think about what exactly is working well for us. There is a possibility that we might overlook or not appreciate why things are working well, and perhaps lack the insight to understand what goes wrong in an incompatible relationship.
Of all the relationships we make, there are two which we like to take for granted. One, the relationship with our parents. Two, the relationship with our spouse. I say ‘take for granted’ because there is a certain comfort and security in knowing that you can be completely and shamelessly yourself in these relationships and you will still be accepted. It is not surprising when couples say “…whatever I am, good or bad, he/she knows me better than anyone else”. This security is something couples, especially women are afraid to lose. The societal pressure, the tag of being a divorcee, etc. are only add-ons.
Most women realize that once they book a case against their husband, they lose an opportunity of reconciliation because there would be no trust left in the relationship. And this last vestige of trust is what women try to preserve in their attempts to save a marriage. We need to accept and respect the fact that the reason most women approach a helpline is not always because they want to see their husbands in jail, but because they desperately want to make their marriage work.
Understanding the “other party”
When I just started counselling, I remember how I would feel anger on behalf of the woman who cried and expressed the torture that they have had to bear. As they narrated their plight, my mind would draw a picture of a man who only understood violence, whose hands raised only to beat his wife and who looked and talked like a monster. And then, as our procedure requires, we had to call the other party, the husband.
I have often laughed in retrospect at my own dramatic assumptions of the “other party” once I actually saw and spoke to him. In majority of the cases, the man was polite, decently educated, having a good job and, terribly afraid! It is easy to misunderstand this fear for aggression, as in the case of one husband who sarcastically remarked that he did not know that he had no right to beat his own wife. As counselling proceeded and he was given a chance to narrate his story, the same man cried saying he feels absolutely helpless when his wife throws a fit and does not know what else to do to stop her from hurting him and herself.
Similar is the case of another husband whose wife was constantly abusing him, even in the counselor’s presence. Her reason was physical and mental torture by her husband and her in-laws. On asking the husband why he ill-treats her, he said that his wife often used foul language to the extent of remarking that he must be sleeping with his own mother! The wife admitted that she said these words because she didn’t like that he gave his mother more importance than her. If a man hurts with his hand, a woman sure knows how to hurt with her tongue.
No, I do not believe that beating another person can be justified in any way. It is morally wrong and legally, an offense. But, there are always two sides to any story. I do not wish to generalize, but there have been quite a few cases where the fight begins with the woman nagging, ridiculing or simply shouting and screaming for lack of a better way of communicating what she feels. And a man being a man and not a saint, reacts. Both are at fault, and yet nobody is at fault. These people, both men and women aren’t the type who make a habit of using violence or hurtful language. But circumstances and their difference in personalities bring out the devil in each other. The important thing, however, is that in most cases both want to move beyond it and make their marriage work.
And again, I remind myself that its not about what I would do in the situation, but what the client wishes to do based on their belief and value system. And I learn to respect that.
The cases of extreme violence
Out of around 30 cases that I have handled over multiple sessions, I distinctly remember that 5 were cases of severe violence which was life-threatening. In one of these cases, the woman called me up and cried inconsolably that her husband attempted suicide and tried to kill her and their children. When I met her, she narrated horrid tales of his violence in beating up her and her children with hot iron, disrobing her violently, suspecting her, and finally in trying to kill them all. And then she said in a quiet voice “…at other times, he is really good to us”.
The husband survived the suicide attempt and was brought to the center the same day. His physical appearance and mannerisms were an extreme contrast from the wife’s narration. After a brief conversation, he revealed that he loves his wife and children, and feels terrible about hurting them. Quite puzzled, I asked him why then does he do it? Very hesitantly, in a feeble voice he said “I have never spoken about this…. but I hear voices which ask me to do these things and I feel compelled to obey the voice”. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and is on medication now and the couple have been peaceful. Similar was the case of the husband whose story I began this write-up with. He is suffering from what the Psychiatrist called Delusional Disorder. The nature of his problem is such that he suspects everyone, including the counselors and Psychiatrist and feels that everyone is getting together to cause him harm. We have not yet been able to get him admitted for treatment. In the remaining three cases, we helped the women file an FIR due to the nature of the violence.
In my experience, cases of extreme or repeated physical violence have had influencing factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse or some form of a psychiatric disorder which has gone undiagnosed. In such cases, there is a real threat to the woman, and we do not attempt reconciliation, unless the woman insists and if the perpetrator is willing to go through with the prescribed treatment.
The cases that end up in a divorce
Unlike what I initially thought, the few cases that did end up in a divorce (5 that I have handled), did not always have violence as the reason. There was a case where the man had an extra-marital affair and a child through the illicit relationship and hence wanted to leave his wife. But, in majority of the cases, the reason was that two good people were simply not compatible –a criteria which is overlooked in marriages that are fixed seeing the education and income levels of the couple. In one of the cases, after the couple consented for a mutual divorce, they smiled at each other saying “we could probably have been good friends in other circumstances”.
Unfortunately, the current divorce proceedings require a valid complaint against a spouse in order to file for a divorce, if it is not mutually consented. This is why the mud slinging happens, leading to a lot of bitterness and ugliness in their attempts to prove why they want a divorce. As far as possible, we try to facilitate a peaceful separation through mutual consent in cases where there is clearly no hope for the couple to remain in the marriage. In what might be a relief for most couples seeking separation, there is now discussion on adding a new clause which would recognize “irreconcilable differences” in personality as a valid ground for divorce.
Legal support available
We do not lack strong and meaningful laws in India which favor women. Yes, there are problems in implementation, but a larger issue is that women do not wish to punish their husbands, and instead look for protection and some support to continue the marriage. Perhaps, it was keeping this in mind that the The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence (D.V) Act came into being in 2005.
Until this Act came into being, we had laws for women who wanted to marry as per their choice, women who wanted a divorce or wanted relief from dowry harassment. But what was there for those women who were in a troubled marriage, and didn’t want a divorce? What was there for women who were victims of violence within their own households, the perpetrator being a close family member?
The D.V. Act came into being for such women who undergo suffering almost on a daily basis, but are looking for protection and support, rather than for separation. Some of the well thought-out provisions under this act include
- For the first time, it covers all categories of woman, be it a wife, a live-in partner, a daughter, sister, a widow, etc. The only condition being that the victim and the perpetrator have been living in the same household. It also provides protection for those who help the victim against violence from the perpetrator.
- There are Protection Officers(mostly female) appointed for the sake of implementing the D.V Act who are in-charge of helping the victim avail the relief, seek protection and go through with the entire legal proceedings
- Protection order – Under the D.V act, a woman can apply for relief via a protection order. For the first time, the law enters the private space of a family and ensures that the woman is protected from violence within her own house. If needed, police protection is also provided.
- Residence order – This is another very well thought out provision because in most cases of domestic violence, the women is asked to get out of the house with the man stating that it is his house and that she has no right to stay unless he allows her. The Act clearly states that every women has an equal right to remain in the shared household even if she is not the owner. The residence order can be issued ensuring that the victim can continue to stay in the same household if she so desires, or move out to another place of residence which the accused must provide for
- Monetary compensation and maintenance, which is to be paid as per the financial capacity of the perpetrator
- Child custody is also enabled under the D.V. Act
- Assistance in filing a case under IPC section 498A (Matrimonial cruelty) if she so desires
- Set timelines for implementation – The magistrate should fix the date for first hearing not later than 3 days after the application has been received by court. The magistrate should dispose off every case within 60 days of the first hearing
- Filing an application can be done by the victim, the police, the Protection Officer or an informant on behalf of the victim. There will be no liability against the informant in providing the information in good faith.
In short, it is like a one stop solution for victims of domestic violence. The entire Act can be read at this link –http://wcd.nic.in/wdvact.pdf
The grey area
It would surely make life easier for all of us if we could simply point at a man and say if he is good or bad, and treat him accordingly. Unfortunately, real life incidents aren’t black and white. Understanding the context and history is extremely crucial to even get a grasp of what is going on in a marriage. True empowerment of a woman cannot happen by cutting her off the men in her life. While we need to strongly support and help women in distress, we need to be careful of not turning into a society of man-haters. Afterall, a healthy society needs a man as much as a woman.
Note: The opinions presented in this write-up are my own, and not necessarily of the organization where I volunteer as a counsellor.