Trigger warning: This article contains details of violence, abuse and rape.
From the hushed horrors of marital rape, to pervasive physical, economic, sexual and ‘subtle’ emotional abuse, the space of intimacy is often a toxic chamber of the patriarchy. As women bear the overwhelming burden of intimate partner violence, we report survivor stories, and insights from stakeholders across healthcare, media messaging, activism and law.
Over the last decade or so, it looked like India was slowly bridging the gender inequality gap. More women entered the workforce, the age of marriage was increased and a decline in fertility rates was noted — all indicating a female-friendly future where women’s professional and private lives would bear more agency, dignity and happiness.
However, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 — an annual study of gender parity by the World Economic Forum —it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. Among the 146 countries surveyed, India ranked 135 when it comes to overall gender equality.
A recent report on female labour force participation (FLFP), by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt, a private research firm in Mumbai, indicates about 21 million women in India “disappearing” from the workforce, “leaving only 9% of the eligible population employed or looking for positions”.
Economic matrices of gender inequality can hardly be read in isolation; they are indicative of deep patriarchal fissures in the social fabric. The malaise runs deep from the workplace to the streets, as well as homes. In fact, in India, the domestic space is not a space of safety, freedom and solidarity for a staggering number of women. Even as women continue to perform unpaid domestic labour and taxing emotional labour, they continue to experience inequalities in the intimate realm.
A global public health burden
COVID-19 has only worsened the existing state of affairs, inducing a shadow pandemic of gender-based violence (GBV).
Eshika, a case worker at Kolkata’s not-for-profit feminist organisation, Swayam, says, “While the lockdown meant work from home for both working partners, the share of domestic labour continued to fall on the woman’s shoulders. She had to serve the husband food even if she had a meeting scheduled. We received complaints where unfulfilling such expectations led to verbal abuse, often escalating to physical abuse.”
Swayam also received complaints from women whose COVID-positive husbands spat on them, voluntarily putting them at risk out of a privileged and warped sense of male entitlement – the underlying thought being, ‘If I’m suffering, so should she’.
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a global public health burden with one in three women experiencing it.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide, almost one-third (27%) of women aged 15-49 years who have been in a relationship report that they have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.
The WHO also points out that the likelihood for women to undergo partner abuse in their lifetime is at a higher range in the Global South than women from the Global North.
India recorded 3,78,236 cases of crimes against women in 2018, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. A majority of these cases were registered under ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’ (30.9%), Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
More recent data from India proposes that 40% of women suffer abuse from their partners.
The home is often a site of untold patriarchal cruelty celebrated for the so-called security, material benefits and social dividends that it offers. When it comes to health and survival, the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 says India is among the only five countries (out of the 146 surveyed) with gender gaps more than 5%. The other four are Qatar, Pakistan, Azerbaijan and China.
This story delves deep into various insidious patterns of IPV, and seeks to answer the question: Why don’t women leave violent partners or walk out of abusive relationships/marriages?
The question itself is guilty of blaming and gaslighting the victim — a convenient trope stemming from positions of privilege. It is also tone-deaf to the fact that there are various intersectional challenges and a deep patriarchal conditioning at play, which serves to perpetuate the vicious cycle.
In this piece, we examine what renders the space of conjugal ‘intimacy’ as unsafe. We look at the culture that normalises violence in bedrooms and beyond, and perpetuates the myth that urban women or educated and working women are not victims of IPV or survivors. We talk to survivors, who narrate their stories of pain and resilience, and to experts, who weigh in on challenges and ways to create a more empathetic, equal, caring, and just framework for battling intimate partner relationships.
Pornography, sexual abuse and marital rape
India recorded an average of 87 rape cases daily in 2019, and an overall 4,05,861 cases of crime against women during the year, a rise of over 7% from 2018, according to government data.
If a man in Ayodhya was moral policed and publicly beaten up for allegedly kissing his wife with her consent — there are several reports of men ‘demanding’ unnatural sex from their wives/partners, and hurting and injuring them in the process without their consent.
Delhi-based rape activist Yogita Bhayana, who heads the organisation People Against Rape (PARI) in India, tells us, “The moment a woman marries, it is as if she gives absolute power to the husband to demand anything from her. It could be unnatural sex deliberately used as a tool of punishment. It could be sex at any time, despite whatever physical or mental condition she might be in. It is as if she has given unlimited consent to be raped and tortured.”
It is not surprising that in a culture that stigmatises premarital sex and premarital romantic relationships – where love is censured by diktats of caste, class and religion, and honour killings take away the lives of young women and men – men mostly gain their sexual education through pornography, while female pleasure is largely shamed.
From domestic labour to sexual slavery, anything can fall under this purview of male demand.
During the lockdown, misogynist “wife jokes” were circulated on WhatsApp groups, under the garb of humour, supposedly giving vent to men’s frustration over being ‘trapped’ at home, missing out on socialising, and having to be nice to ‘gharwalis’ (homemakers) as ‘kaamwalis’ (domestic helps) were now out of the picture, reinforcing sexist stereotypes and gaslighting women.
The internet has made access to pornographic content easier. If there are incidents of working-class men in rural pockets of West Bengal demanding sex from their wives like the female characters they watch in a porn film, in Kolkata’s peri-urban areas too there are several unfolding narratives of marital rapes and intimate partner sexual violence.
Incidents have been reported of women/wives being held at gunpoint to force them to re-enact the porn video their husband is watching, informs Surama Ghosh, who deals with cases of intimate partner sexual abuse at Swayam.
In case a woman is found to be sexually ‘frigid’ (a term used to denote ‘inability’ to reach orgasm or get aroused), there are reports of male partners/husbands inserting objects ranging from alcohol to perfume bottles inside the female partner’s vagina, she informs.
Unfortunately, crimes against women are not taken with the sincerity and seriousness that they demand, asserts Supreme Court advocate Shobha Gupta. Otherwise, you would not have courts suggesting compromises or marriage settlements between rapists and survivors. Judges also inhabit the same patriarchal social fabric.
Shobha, who runs a rights organisation called ‘We The Women’, says, “Marital rape needs to be talked about despite all the illegitimate and irrelevant concerns of society, and the age-old mindset, which upon marriage gives license to a man to do to the body of a woman as he pleases. The idea that she is now his property, and she should subject herself to his wish and desire. Any forceful physical interaction by the husband should fall under rape,” she explains.
Intimacy is no bed of roses for urban women
For Kolkata-based survivor Desrine Judeline Lowden, when she figured out that her husband was having an extra-marital relationship with another woman, the outcome was horrific. The 45-year-old survivor was in her early thirties when she was beaten up by her husband, an aviation sector employee. It resulted in a bleeding nose, verbal abuse and her then partner asking her to vacate ‘his’ house.
“One of the reasons for intimate partner violence is ‘extra-marital affairs’ leading to economic and physical abuse perpetrated by the husband upon the wife,” says Sumana Bhattacharya, a case worker at Swayam.
With two girls aged four and five years, Desrine was made to feel guilty by her spouse and his family for being a “bad” woman, a “nagging” wife, and for not cooking properly. He had already invited the new romantic interest in his life to their home.
The indignity, ruthlessness and sheer sense of abandonment that several women have to go through during this process underlines the anti-rights and anti-welfare nature of intimate partner violence.
Kolkata-based best-selling author and founder of a community of single women, Status Single, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, shares that she herself is a survivor, who was in a relationship with a “raving sociopath”, who was given to excessively controlling behaviour and would inflict violence on himself and threaten her – all to ‘possess’ her.
Often, Sreemoyee writes about aspects of emotional abuse in a relationship, where the emotional unavailability of male partners— resulting in terrible neglect and lack of care, especially in times of medical processes, operations etc — render women feeling belittled and lonely even while being in a relationship.
Several members of Status Single are survivors of intimate partner violence — physical, sexual, and emotional abuse — from dealing with temper issues, to being slapped, being subjected to pornography-based sexual demands, and body shaming, among others.
“Nobody teaches women about emotional abuse,” says Sreemoyee. “For women to come out of toxic relationships, planning an exit strategy is important. Collect evidence. And, remember, women are not men’s rehabilitation centres.”
Anti-slavery, sexual rights and gender rights activist, and co-founder of Love Matters (a digital Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights information platform), Vithika Yadav agrees.
“Portrayal of love in mass media has been toxic. Women characters are portrayed as regressive, who are on a mission to change the man, who is adamant, aggressive, violent, and abusive. They are shown to take this upon themselves to reform the man, and in the process, bear all the abuse. This has only helped normalise intimate partner violence in popular culture,” she says.
Neha Passi, a 36-year-old survivor, is a Delhi-based graphic designer. She got married in 2014 via an arranged match. She describes her family background as fairly liberal – she was encouraged to study, pursue a career and have a social life.
During the brief courtship with her then-to-be-husband, it became clear to her that he was a possessive person. He began ‘monitoring’ her – from the way she would cut her hair to the way she would talk to someone on the phone. For Neha, this was her first intimate relationship ever, and she perceived such control to be a way of caring or loving.
But during their honeymoon, things took an ugly turn when her husband accused her of trying to attract male attention through her body language at a nightclub. This was followed by repeated accusations and monitoring of time spent outside the home, culminating in Neha quitting her job, and eventually becoming economically vulnerable with her then husband demanding an account of every penny she spent.
During sex, he would ask her to affirm time and again that she had never had premarital sex – a sign of his own insecurity and sexual anxiety. At other times, he and his family would subject her to verbal and emotional abuse on account of her being dark-skinned. He would also often injure himself in front of her and accuse her as being the reason behind his pain.
Even though Neha would be at home, using only the limited money she was given, the suspicions, taunts and accusations only grew. The emotional abuse took a toll on Neha, whose health deteriorated. She lost a lot of weight, and became a shadow of her former self.
Neha, who is now divorced and works at Love Matters, has been on a solo Europe tour, a journey that eventually helped her reclaim fun, freedom, and happiness – just like the titular character in the Hindi film Queen, she says.
Love, control, aggression: Violence in popular culture
‘Woh mujhe maarte hai kyunki woh mujhe pyar karte hai‘ (He hits me because he loves me) — is an accepted notion and, therefore, women hesitate to find anything wrong in such behaviour or to report it, explains Alpaxee Kashyap, Consultant, Policy and Documentation, at IWWAGE, an initiative of LEAD. She shares insights into the notion of “male privilege” and patterns of physical and psychological patterns of IPV in rural India/North India.
“He thinks, ‘If I hit my woman, she will respect me, and she will be under my control. After all, she has been given to me!’”—This was a view shared by a female survivor of violence in a remote village in the state of Uttar Pradesh.”
— Alpaxee’s 2018 ICRW (International Centre for Research on Women) report titled Addressing Intimate Partner Violence at Local Level in India.
“Male privilege, a product of patriarchy, is sanctioned by many institutions like family, marriage, society and cultural celebrations, and therefore is very deep-rooted. In rural India, it was seen as an accepted form of social behaviour,” says Alpaxee.
Vithika of Love Matters says, “The fact that we do not talk about sex with confidence, and about sexual education as an imperative, coupled with sexual repression and repression of female pleasure, lead to misconstrued notions about sex, intimacy, and healthy relationships.”
A case worker at Swayam shares that appearance monitoring is also a pattern. Take the example of a couple who both work at banks. When the husband comes home, he declares that the wife is not looking nice and that she should have decked up. There are reported cases where not wearing what the husband demanded — dress, earrings, or lipstick — could result in sexual aggression or withholding of pleasure.
“Between 2001 and 2017, data published by NCRB shows that ‘love’ was a far more frequent reason for the murder of women than terrorism. Beyond honour killings, it remains common for us to read reports of young single women being murdered for simply rejecting the romantic overtures of men interested in them,” writes Shrayana Bhattacharya, in her book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence.
The Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) estimates that there were 1,000 acid attack cases per year in India. However, only around 250 cases are reported. A study examining Indian news reports, suggests that 35% of these occurrences were as a result of revenge women for rejecting romantic, sexual or marriage proposals.
Vithika explains, “Deeply ingrained misogyny gives rise to submissive views of women, which goes hand in hand with male entitlement and not accepting refusal.”
Fighting for rights
Being asked to leave her “matrimonial home” came as a rude shock to Desrine. She mustered the courage to go to the police station with her children. While her then husband was granted a divorce, Desrine was left without proper maintenance and went on to file a Domestic Violence (DV) case.
Varying from incident to incident, women ask for mediation and maintenance for their children as well as the right to continue to stay at the “matrimonial home”.
These are matrimonial homes that the couple, in several instances, usually built together through joint finances, ‘dowry’m the wife’s streedhan (the wife’s belongings/jewellery received at the time of marriage) and domestic labour. However, in most cases, the ownership lies with the male partner, rendering the woman devoid of any assets and freedom of mobility.
The situation is worse when the woman doesn’t have a stable or no income at all. Section 498A, which officially made domestic violence a criminal offence, was added to the IPC in 1983. The section of the law specifically covers cruelty towards married women by their husbands or by their families.
Then, there’s the 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act which deals with actual or threats of physical, mental, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse, as well as harassment regarding dowry/property. It gives a woman the right to reside in their “matrimonial household” – she cannot be evicted from the house as she rightfully shares it with her husband. DVA 2005 also includes live-in relationships within its purview.
Supreme Court advocate Shobha Gupta, says, “DVA should include or should be interpreted to include intimate partner violence also. Going by pure definition, we are certainly still not there because it covers abuse within a domestic relationship. But if the courts now, fortunately, recognise the liability of partners in live-in relationships, so much so that a child born out of a live-in relationship would enjoy the same entitlements that are the rights of a child born to a woman in wedlock, then why not take another step and include intimate partner violence?”
At one point in time, Desrine felt suicidal and later, developed sugar and thyroid complications.
Today, her grown-up daughters are studying in college, and earns money by giving tuition and working for NGO spaces including Swayam, Desrine proudly asserts, “A woman can live without a man.”
Economic agency means nothing for a woman if the ownership and control of their finances are not in their hands.
Take the case of two doctors — a married couple — where the wife complains that she has no right on her own income and everything goes into a joint account. She is answerable for using her own money to her husband. If she asks for a share of her own money, it culminates in physical abuse. The husband is an ENT specialist, and the wife a surgeon. However, the wife breaks down at one point, and says, “I want to quit.”
On the other hand, there are examples of working class or lower middle class women whose families tell their daughters to come back and break the cycle of abuse. They say, “Work hard to survive, but it’s better than living in hell.”
Today, Gurugram-based advocate and survivor Rachana Shukla runs a YouTube channel ‘The Spiritual Citizen by Rachana’ and works with PARI to raise awareness about domestic violence. But there was a time when the 53-year-old was asked to keep a diary record of daily spending and dutifully “show” it to her abusive husband.
She had to ensure that even a “paanch rupaye ki dhaniya (coriander leaves worth Rs 5)” was never left out. Rachana filled in the space of a caregiver for her step-daughter. Although Rachana ran a successful cultural organisation, which she eventually had to give up for lack of funds, she never pursued a regular job despite having studied law. Her husband made it very clear that he “wanted a homemaker, so I never really tried to expand professionally”.
She had no access to debit cards or a bank cheque book. Rachana was intimidated and bullied by her well-established former husband, who despite having a cushy job in the corporate sector, had created an environment of fear, reminding her how she was dependent on him for each and every thing — from buying a gift for her brother during Rakhi to buying an outfit for herself or hosting a festive dinner at home.
Her health deteriorated and she developed thyroid complications.
Eventually, her then husband made sure to disinherit Rachana from any claim to “all movable and immovable assets” via a will. He had told her, “Main tumhe dhakke marke tujhe ghar se nikal dunga, tum railway platform pe soti dikhogi (I will throw you out of the house, you will have to sleep on a railway platform)” — knowing fully well how difficult it is for a woman in her early fifties, who has never worked formally, to start afresh.
And, yet, Rachana felt the strongest the day she decided to break this cycle. Reading, spirituality and her pets have helped her heal during the self-love journey.
Motherhood and the healthcare lens
For Kolkata-based survivor Uma Maity, 36, her engagement with Swayam has paved a journey of slow but steady self-actualisation. Uma, a semi-trained physiotherapist, faced severe financial abuse by her husband and mother-in-law, to the point of surviving on leftover starch water from boiling rice during her pregnancy as her pharmacist husband would not share his income with her.
She was once administered medicine by her husband that burnt her food pipe. She had been chronically underweight, making her unsuited to the painkiller. Today, she lives separately and looks after her child.
As seen in the instances of Desrine and Neha as well, there are health implications of IPV.
Sanjida Arora, who leads the effort on building evidence on impact of violence on health, at CEHAT (Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes) Mumbai, shares, “There is evidence to indicate that women facing intimate partner violence are more likely to come in contact with healthcare providers as compared to police and judicial systems. Healthcare providers are in a unique position to identify women facing IPV based on presenting health complaints and providing them first-line support.”
This role of healthcare providers has also been recognised by The Protection of Domestic Violence Act, 2005 and India’s National Health Policy, 2017.
The ‘Dilaasa’ model, which was established in 2000 as a collaborative initiative between CEHAT and MCGM in Mumbai, is a first-of-its-kind initiative. This initiative focused on the building capacity of healthcare providers and setting up of a hospital-based crisis centre for survivors. Trained healthcare providers actively identify women facing violence based on their health complaints like attempted suicide, injuries, repeated pregnancy, delay in seeking care, and so on. The providers listen to survivors, validate their feelings, provide first-line support, and refer them to a Dilaasa centre.
The Dilaasa model has been recognised as an evidence-based model and has been replicated in several states, including Haryana, Goa, Meghalaya, Kerala and Karnataka.
An analysis based on Dilaasa records have shown that about 59% of women experienced sexual violence from husband. Sanjida shares, “The data from Dilaasa centres show that women’s experience of IPV can range from slapping, pushing, criticism, insult, verbal abuse, stalking, forced sexual intercourse, forcing into sexual acts against woman’s wish to denying access to any money, food and shelter. Violence from intimate partners during pregnancy is also highly prevalent among women.”
For Kabita Acharya, another survivor now working in the space of women’s rights as an agent of change, pregnancy was a nightmare. Her husband kicked her in the stomach, and even tried to burn her with a flaming gas stove, as he wanted her to accept his extra-marital relationship. Kabita, well-versed in karate, was able to save her life. However, the trouble didn’t end there as it continued through limiting funds and provisions for cooking. Later her husband induced alcoholism in their daughter in order to alienate her from Kabita. Despite all this, Kabita has continued to hold on to her matrimonial home, and bring her daughter out of the cycle of alcoholism.
For a woman to not choose motherhood is usually an option not welcome in an average household. And, if she is unable to conceive, she is shamed for being ‘infertile’.
And if it is owing to her husband’s medical condition, the blame is still lies with her. In a recent case at Swayam, a couple had mortgaged the wife’s jewellery to avail IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). When it didn’t work out, she was subject to physical abuse – the ‘lacking’ is always pinned on a woman whereas male partners refuse to even go for a medical check-up. “Nothing is wrong with our son,” claim the mothers of those men.
In reality, the power of the mother-in-law stems from the ultimate power that patriarchy has invested in the male child/heir.
The patriarchal obsession for a male child/heir also reduces women’s role to that of giving birth to a male child and erodes their emotional selfhood. This plays out pervasively and structurally in IPV. “Masculinity and preference for a son sanction and justify the power that a man holds over woman, which in return justifies violence,” reminds Alpaxee.
Subtle forms of coercion
Sumana adds, “The cycle of violence has to be understood through the varied nuances of anger, aggression, the pangs of abandonment, the parting from a shared home/family, and joint property, and, of course, the bitter realisation of how powerful male control can be.”
In fact, the shame and stigma is often more in upper and educated classes where intimate partner violence remains within the four walls of what is called a space of ‘respectability’.
There are subtle forms of abuse: A woman speaks of how her husband never looks at her. He asks her to bring food, and when she does bring some, he signals her to keep it down on the table – he won’t accept it from her hand. The mental pressure mounts on her.
Despite educational qualifications or access to systems of information, media and law, the case workers at Swayam say that even now there are some women who, when they come to register complaints, are brought by parents, or hand-held by relatives. The last word is that of the father if not the husband’s. It is the soft line of patriarchal sanction.
A popular cult in Bengali culture is that of the supposedly “soft” or romantic man. Another is that of the humorous portrayal of the henpecked husband in local mass media, and that of the mother’s boy. While no one can ascertain the accuracy of cultural labels, the perceptions exist, sometimes real, sometimes mythical.
A case worker at Swayam speaks of how there are some women who ask them not to call their husbands for counselling, as they fear the activists would end up becoming a “fan” of their husband – such is the demeanour, personality and aura, the ‘social face’, as opposed to the ‘intimate’ one.
A theme explored in the Disney+Hotstar web series Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors (2020), which foregrounded the theme of IPV and marital rape through the life of the protagonist, Anu Chandra (Kirti Kulhari). Anu faces trial for murdering her husband, Mumbai’s ultra-sophisticated lawyer Bikram Chandra (Jisshu Sengupta). The courtroom drama unearths Bikram’s gaslighting technique — how Bikram sanitised violence inside the home through social gestures of conjugal care.
“Marriage is a social and cultural institution that teaches women to ‘adjust’ and sends women off the maternal home leaving many women no place to return. They understand and accept violence very easily,” says Alpaxee. Even in urban areas, the label of a divorcee and the stigma act as deterrents.
A report titled “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World” highlighted that despite increasing rates of divorce, only 1.1% of women are divorced, with those in urban areas making up the largest proportion in India.
Coming out of an intimate relationship isn’t always easy. For there are the so-called good and bad parts, as Eshika reminds. For some, the relationship might have started on the foundation of love and romance — the term “love forming” or “honeymoon period” is used to describe this – or is dotted with moments of care and tenderness.
Time is also an important consideration. A contested divorce can go on for ten years.
Yogita asserts, “Often the barrier to a woman breaking out of a cycle of intimate partner violence is the result of the lack of support or acceptance from a woman’s natal family, which when received acts as a positive force.”
From a village in northern India to the interiors of Eastern India, or the US, what unites women across caste, class and geographies is violence, male control and power, all rooted in patriarchy, opines Surama of Swayam.
Vithika, who has been steering meaningful interactions about intimate relationships to bring out positive outcomes in health, well-being and relationships, says digital mass media is critical in shaping positive messaging. Love Matters has pioneered the popular virtual film on IPV – Kya Yahi Pyar Hai.
“Through our films and stories, we talk about what is good and bad in a relationship: what feels good, about concepts of respect and coercion, about the positivity of love, about rights, communication, negotiation in a relationship, about how regardless of gender identity, everyone has the right to pleasure. We differentiate care from control since a long time control has been perceived as care in intimate relationships,” she explains.
As the Swayam case workers conclude, (some) men are often not aware about the “right and wrong” when it comes to intimate or domestic relationships. Or about the fact that there are laws in favour of women. So, they take the approach of joint counselling. They work with both women and men, and boys too – as prevention is better than a band-aid treatment.
Patriarchal mindsets and gender hierarchies can only change through grassroots and community interventions, agrees Yogita, who also works with boys to help correct biases through positive and awareness-based sensitisation programmes.
This story is part of Laadli Media Fellowship 2022.
Note: Prior consent has been taken from all survivors interviewed in this piece for publishing their names and identities.