The grisly murder of Shraddha Walkar, a 26-year-old woman, by her 28-year-old live-in partner Aftab Amin Poonawalla in the national capital has generated a lot of pain and anger. Aftab must be tried, convicted and punished for the brutal murder and for covering up his crime. But that’s a job for the police and prosecution. What can we, ordinary people shocked by this killing, do to bring change and prevent such violence faced by women? Here are six thoughts from me, about what needs to change in society to prevent such murders, and what each of us can and must do to help bring about such change.
1) Campaign for timely action against domestic violence
I’ve seen posts saying they fell in love, lived together and suddenly one day Aftab strangled her when she suggested they marry. The sad thing is, I’m sure this wasn’t sudden. Usually, boyfriends/husbands murder women after long periods of domestic violence. If only people reacted to domestic violence and took action to stop it, it could save women’s lives. Sadly, domestic violence is largely seen as a “private matter”, a “lovers’ quarrel” and hardly anyone interferes. Moreover the woman’s own parents and natal family often discourage daughters from leaving an abusive marriage, telling her instead to adjust, or merely try to get the husband to behave better, because, in Indian society, divorced women are stigmatised.
2) Demand governments ensure sustained, non-judgmental support, help and shelter for victims
Far from “misusing” domestic violence laws, most women in fact avoid reporting domestic violence, because the nature of such violence is that it’s followed by displays of remorse; women truly believe the perpetrator loves them and won’t repeat the violence; and in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator makes the victim believe she is responsible for provoking violence in him. A pervasive culture of blaming women for the violence done to them by men contributes to this tendency in women to blame themselves for violence by men in their lives. In most cases, women will do almost anything to save a marriage, even when they approach feminist organisations or the police, it’s with the hope that the latter can somehow get the husband to stop being abusive and violent.
3) Stop isolating women in intercaste or interfaith relationships
In intercaste or interfaith love/marriage, it is even harder for women to seek help for domestic violence, because the woman’s family usually disowns her. Even if they merely disapprove of her relationship instead of disowning her, she hesitates to complain about her partner for fear it will confirm her family’s prejudices. By the way, I’ve known this exact same thing to happen even in love marriages where Hindu Brahmin women have loved and married Hindu Brahmin men – the fact that the woman’s parents didn’t really approve of “love marriage” made the woman hesitate to tell them her husband was alcoholic and the marriage increasingly toxic. Likewise, women students hesitate to complain of sexual harassment or rape, for fear parents will curtail their education in the name of their daughters’ “safety”. If only parents and communities made it clear to women that they will always have support no matter what, it would make women much safer.
4) Draw attention to intimate partner violence, not just by strangers
Women are more likely to be killed in their homes by their own loved ones than they are likely to be killed by strangers – the opposite is true of men.
a) UN studies showed that of all women who were the victims of homicide globally, almost half were killed by intimate partners, compared to less than 6% of men killed similarly.
b) A study in Ireland found that 87% of women who were murdered in the country between 1996 and 2016 were killed by a man they knew, and 63% were killed in their own homes.
c) In September 2014, a Delhi high court bench, commenting on the large number of murders of women in their matrimonial homes, with the husband as the prime accused, said, “It appears that the married women in India are safer on the streets than in their matrimonial homes.”
5) Be there for women facing domestic violence
It shouldn’t even need saying that Shraddha must get justice, and Aftab, punishment for his horrific crime. But is it enough for Indians to just express disgust and anger for Aftab on social media? If we are to fight the violence women face, we have to do much more.
a) We have to demand better help and government funding for much better helplines and welcoming shelters for women facing domestic violence. Right now, most helplines are struggling and facing cuts; shelters lack resources; protection officers under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), a civil law to protect women from domestic violence, are overburdened with cases and lack training, refresher training, guidance and resources; and above all, many shelters tend to be run like prisons rather than like places where women can regain confidence and feel safe and cared for. We need to demand the state and Union governments give the PWDVA teeth and ensure all the resources and trained personnel necessary to support victims of domestic violence.
b) We have to realise that many women in that situation will not opt for police intervention, and even if they leave the marital/shared home, they are likely to return many times before they actually make a complete break from the abusive partner. It’s our job as ordinary people (not a job to be left to feminist activists alone), to be there for victims of domestic violence, to listen, to let them decide when and how much help they need rather than taking control away from them. It is also our job to offer help and intervention of the kind they choose every single time that it’s needed, without ever shaming them for being unable to leave the abusive partner. It’s only if you offer non-judgmental help that she can control, that the victim will call you every single time she’s in danger – and that may save her life.
c) We as a society have to do much more to support those in intercaste, interfaith, same-sex, live-in, same-gotra, and love marriages of all kinds – to prevent organised violence and harassment faced by men/same-sex partners at the hands of the women’s family/parents and caste, community and political groups in collusion with the police; as well as to make sure that women or same-sex partners in such relationships are not cut off from society and thus deprived of the chance to seek help in case they face violence and abuse.
d) We need to push back against media/social media campaigns that isolate a single case as though it were a stand-alone atrocity by an “inhuman” man, and instead make sure we connect the dots between the individual case and the larger pattern of gender-based and domestic violence, so that the individual case leads to broader social and political change that can prevent such violence in future.
6) Fight the communal bogey of ‘love jihad’, which harms victims of violence
When Hindu-supremacist groups cherry-pick a case of violence against a Hindu woman by a Muslim partner and claim it’s proof of “love jihad” – a conspiracy theory which claims that Muslim men prey on Hindu women in the name of love – they do great harm to the ongoing feminist struggles against gender-based violence. How so?
a) First, they are methodologically completely wrong. It’s only if statistics show that Muslim men abusing or killing Hindu women form a disproportionate part of the whole picture of men abusing or killing women, that you can prove a pattern of Muslim male violence against Hindu women. And even that would not amount to “love jihad”, which investigations by the police forces of multiple states over the years since 2009 have proved to be a lie.
b) By getting a vast number of Hindus to believe that Hindu women only face sexual or domestic violence at the hands of Muslim men, they are preventing Hindu women who face domestic, intimate partner and sexual violence at the hands of Hindu men from being seen, heard, believed, and thus helped.
c) By falsely framing the problem as one of “Muslim violence against Hindu women”, their propaganda prevents people from recognising and addressing the real problem that Shraddha’s murder points to: rampant intimate partner violence faced by women in India and the world over.
Kavita Krishnan is an activist.
This article was originally published on the author’s blog.
Featured image: People at a protest demanding an end to violence against women. Photo: cathredfern/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0