A collection of stories of Domestic Violence in Indian Rural Women
An Introduction to Domestic Violence
Defined as a pattern of behaviour in any relationship—marriages, living together, dating— used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner by the United Nations, Domestic Violence can occur in various forms and undermine through physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological aspects, and even as threats of actions that influence another person (Kaur et al, 2008).
No corner of the world is untouched by Domestic Violence.
1) 30% of women, 1 in every 3, have experienced intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. That's 736 million women around the world.
2) 245 million women from ages 15 and above have experienced intimate partner violence in the last 12 months alone (World Bank, 2022). This means, that out of the 10 women you have most recently met, it is statistically likely that 3, if not 4, are being abused.
Nationally, women are subjected to violence from both husbands and members of both the natal and the marital home, as they remain less privileged than boys in terms of their position in the family and society, and access to material resources (Ahuja et al, 2000). Marriage continues to be regarded as essential for a girl; to control a woman’s sexuality by labelling it as a family reputation which needs to be “handed over” to the husband who practically “owns” their wife (Ahuja et al, 2000).
In India, while boys tend to experience greater freedom, girls face extensive limitations on their ability to make decisions regarding their work, education, marriage and social relationships (UNICEF). One in three women in India is likely to have been subjected to violence of a physical, emotional, or sexual nature by their partners (Krishnamoorthy et al, 2019).
The differences in educational attainment level or marital age between spouses, lack of autonomy within the home, dowry pressure, childhood abuse, unemployment, alcoholism, and poverty are all linked to high rates of domestic violence in India (Ahuja et al, 2000).
The lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the occurrence of domestic violence in the country. An increase in the prevalence of domestic violence at 32.5% was seen during the lockdown, with the most common form being verbal abuse and most of the abuse committed by the spouse or mother-in-law. While the medical community focused on controlling the spread of COVID-19, women who experience domestic violence may have been neglected considering healthcare system challenges caused by the pandemic (Kamath et al, 2022).
Violence against women, including sexual or physical violence, is linked to many long-term health problems. Long-term mental health effects of violence against women can include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression or Anxiety. This can further lead to the problem of substance abuse and drug addiction. Sexual violence can result in irreparable injury to sexual violence and a loss of self-worth.
Domestic Violence in women triggers a domino cycle that affects far more than the victims. It affects generations, families, and communities. It affects more than 4 billion females that inhabit the planet.
Graphic Descriptions of domestic violence (physical, emotional, verbal, sexual), sexual assault, depression, mental health struggles, suicide and death.
Please note that all names in the stories below have been changed in order to protect the respondent's PII data.
Children running across corridors, refusing to finish their homework, refusing to slow down, refusing to listen to any reasoning, eight hours of this every day. Of children talking back without any fear. But Gauri is used to this, she has been left unheard, and has been disrespected. Almost a decade later now, Gauri carries a wisdom that her experiences have taught her, a strength she has snatched from inside herself, and a determination she never leaves the house without.
Gauri Singh hails from the quiet backstreets of Badalpur in New Dehli and like many 16-year-old girls like her, was a bundle of dreams and untapped potential while she was coming of age. But unlike those girls she idolised, her life came to a complete standstill when she was married off at the age of 18, her mother’s breast cancer forcing her family to let go of all the liabilities in the house. Before she got married though, Gauri, like every other marriage she has seen, was measured against stacks of rupee notes as her in-laws decided her monetary value in the traditional Indian practice of dahej or dowry. Her father, an immigrant working outside India, had promised to send Gauri off with Rs 5 lakh rupees in her bank account, and an additional Rs 10 lakh rupees and Gold jewellery for the satisfaction of her future parents. But this incessant need of weighing Gauri's weight in Gold would only be the first of the troubles that she would go through in the next decade.
A young new bride navigating her final teenage years in a man she had met only once before and in a house she had never stepped foot in, Gauri was the target of Domestic Violence on all fronts, from her very first day. Forced to wake up at 5 AM daily, she would not be allowed to take any breaks until 3 PM and was told to work till midnight, till the very last person of a family of 9 had taken to bed. Dictated by her mother-in-law, she cleaned the house five times each day, each week—once with salt water, once using detergents, twice with a dry cloth and once with just water. Lathered in sweat, and sometimes blood from the cuts on her hand, she was made to carry boxes of dirty clothes, rugs and utensils on her back despite the availability of younger family members or machines to aid her. Even when the sun would shine like Titan’s fiery wheel at noon in peak summer, Gauri was forbidden to switch on the ceiling fans of the house, because they did not want her to add burden to the electricity bill of the month. Such draining routines lead to Gauri facing serious health issues as she approached her mid-20s including a lack of blood and severe fatigue. But this did not earn her any bit of sympathy from her family-in-law and was rather coined ‘unessecarily dramatic’ for throwing unreal tantrums around the house. For weeks at length Gauri would go without medicines, inhabiting a feverish body that has been sucked of its strength to fight, closed off from seeking any medical treatment.
Not only was Gauri cut off from medical and physical support, but she was also alienated from any funds and finances the family harboured. Repeatedly, she had been denied any access or information about her bank accounts, and when one winter evening she accidentally laid hands on a fallen bank passbook, she was pushed down the bed, where she crashed on top of a glass table, by her husband. This caused her to sustain some serious injuries: broken limbs, gashes on her head, and some internal bruises. It was then that her parents understood the severity of the situation and started sending for her clothes, bags and sometimes, common grocery and sanitary items. When I spoke to Gauri for the first time she realised that she was being made the victim of gross abuse. She recounted to me the first of many incidents where her life was threatened by her husband and his family. The family was en-route to a wedding, all 9 of them packed in an already teeming train department when her sister-in-law had pushed Priti out of the train, which was already gaining momentum. As she told me then the horrid injuries to her knees, she unconsciously moved her hand near her kneecap, reliving the moments she thought she had lost everything she had ever held precious.
She spent the next 1.5 years under the careful protection of her parents, as members of her husband’s family continued to harass her by threatening her to come back home and making false promises of change in her husband’s behaviour. Tired of daily conflict, and resolved to not be a burden on her ageing parents, Gauri returned to her in-laws in the hopes of living a better life. But that was not the case. On a warm June evening, Gauri discovered her husband’s infidelity. When she confronted him, she was called dark and ugly, fat and unfit, poor and uneducated. It was that night that her physical abuse turned into blatant sexual violence, and two months later, Priti discovered that she was pregnant with their first child. For the next nine months, her life would be tainted with comments like “I made you pregnant because I am a man”, “You women are nothing compared to our power”, and “Look at you now, succumbing to my power”. She heard it all with her head down, with diligence, with innocence, withholding her anger, withholding her rage—she was to be a mother after all, Gauri had said to me, she had to learn to listen to irrationalities. And yet, Gauri was never allowed to experience the first joys of motherhood, of holding your child close to heart, of listening to them babble and cry, and watching them acclimatize to the world, of letting them feed from you and letting them sleep on you. Because her son was taken from her the moment he was brought outside the operation theatre by her husband’s family, who was overjoyed at the prospect of gaining an heir, of gaining a boy.
The most important moment of Gauri's life came in 2011 when she was poisoned by her husband in their kitchen, where the air was ripe with the luscious aroma of peeled grapes and paan leaves. When she woke in a hospital room 5 hours later, she had been told that she had been put under watch because she had attempted to take her own life, and that her son had been taken away due to negligence of his life. But she knew better than to fall for these schemes, now well-versed in her husband's and his family's capabilities. She immediately requested for her parents to come, and filed an official police report against her husband and his family. Even though the fight for her freedom did not end there, it was its gradual beginning. The anger of the police report led to her husband getting Gauri's brother beaten up, so much so that he had to be put on life-support that night. Fortunately, her parents were able to secure her son through police support and brought him to the place he would call home for the rest of his life, the Nithari Village of Uttar Pradesh. Gauri herself was given a phone by her parents and was escorted by the police to Nithari two days later. Little did she know that it was not only the two of them ready for new beginnings but a third, patiently waiting in her mother’s womb.
But Gauri's struggles did not end there. She fought for over 5 years in the Saket Court in Dehli under Article 498, and in Karkardooma for the charge of Domestic Violence under Article 125, all while trying to raise two toddlers which regular trips to the court. Her husband refused to help in any way in the upbringing of their children and made it impossible for her to get divorced from him. She was denied her right to property that her husband had brought in her name and was forced to live with her parents, brother and sister-in-law. A few months later, she was asked to leave her parents’ house by her sister-in-law, who did not appreciate having Gauri and her children around. More so, on their customary visits to their paternal grandparents, Gauri's children bared the brunt of the physical torture that had once been inflicted upon her. For almost a decade now they have not seen their father or revisited their paternal grandparents. Instead, they find solace with their maternal grandparents—for whatever time they can because of their aunt—under the protection of the Banyan Tree that stands tall outside their house, and the juicy mangoes that are given every summer day.
Now as Gauri sat before me, she was no longer the sacred and tormented 18-year-old who has succumbed to her husband, but a 32-year-old single mother who has given her all to make a better life for her children. A teacher, owing to her love of the youth and education, responding to feisty students with sassy comebacks now, she is able to finance a wholesome life for her children and herself. She has ensured that both her kids are enrolled in schools and receive the education that she herself had never received and constantly desired, the lack of which lead her into a life of dependence and violence. Most importantly, Gauri has now found her own voice. No longer does she remain quiet when she is inconvenienced or silenced, disrespected or screamed at. Today, she is Gauri Singh, who fought custody battles and domestic violence charges, raises 2 children on her own, volunteers at NGOs and provides for her parents. Today, Gauri Singh is no longer a victim of Domestic Violence, she is a survivor.
Sapna spends her free time caring for her husband like she has been taught to do her entire life. She baths him, feeds him, and helps him walk on the days his cardiac conditions make it hard for him to carry out his tasks. Before sleeping every night, she dutifully massages his hands and cares for them so that they don’t become stiff. The same hands that once abused her.
Sapna has never picked up a book in her life. She does not know how to read, she does not know how to write, and she does not even know which side of a magazine is the right one to start from. Sapna is one of six other siblings, all born to destitute parents in a village with grounds cracked from the midsummer heat, and metal rusted from negligence. She told me, when I first spoke to her, giggling with nonchalance, that the place she was born in and where she was raised could not be found on any map in the world—such small and worthless was its existence. In fact, Sapna does not know the exact day she was born. The only proof of her age is in words passed down through her family of that one thunderous day when she had emerged into the world, and in the tired wrinkles that dawn her face every now and then. When I had suggested to Sapna the idea of ever having received an education, she looked at me with her eyes squinted, wondering if I was trying to make a joke. Because for her, education is a privilege so out of reach, inexplicably bizarre, and hopelessly unthinkable that she couldn’t help but laugh at my questions. And so, quickly, we both moved on to what she did know, what she had experienced in this life, Domestic Violence.
Sapna had never heard of or seen substances like alcohol or drugs when she was growing up. Three days into her new marriage, a marriage she was forced into at the tender age of 15, she was well-versed with them. She could smell the reek of vodka on her husband’s breath, she could see the coursing nicotine in his dilated pupils, she knew. She knew because when her husband performed substance abuse, he would come and leave the marks of his actions on her. Once intoxicated, her husband would blatantly bash her around the house: slap her, kick her, push her down when she was sitting up, twist her hands, and once, even attempted to burn her right cheek off. Unaware of his state, he would scream, yell, howl at her, call her names and discard curses. For her husband, Sapna became nothing more than an object, a careless, easy-to-overpower ‘thing’ that he could control ominously.
When I frustratedly asked her if she told anyone this was happening, a soft smile settled on Sapna's lips. She looked away as if replaying those days that she had once experienced. Then, she fluttered the answer out as a whisper, “No.” She continued to explain how her parents had always known what was happening when they would see her covered in poorly hidden bruises and fresh cuts, but they never supported her. Never did they ever tell her that she could go to them and that she would be protected. She was raised to be a dutiful wife, and they would not let her run away from that. And so, she never sought legal or police support either. Her fear? “What would people say? I was always ashamed of that,” she confessed to me, still looking out the window, as the sun was setting, leaving behind in its place an orange hue.
Sapna's husband rarely showed up to work, instead always choosing to bury himself in recreational activities. He didn’t allow her to work either. As a result of this, she had to learn to run the house with the few scrapes of pennies that the house earned monthly, remnants of the money that her husband has already spent on buying boxes of liquor bottles and cigarettes. The scariest part of a night when he was drinking, Sapna told me, was not even the violence. For her, it was when he would ask for food, and she would not know how to tell him that there is no money for food and if he would have noticed, she herself hadn’t eaten for the past three meals. Because she could not bear to let him down, could not bear to tell him that she had been unsuccessful in performing the only duty she had.
But the worst part, the most gut-wrenching thing about Sapna's whole experience was that never once did she realise that what was happening to her was abnormal and wrong. So much on so frequently she had seen it around her, in neighbourhoods, in relatives’ homes, in her own home, that she thought that this was part of a marriage. That, this had to take place in order for a marriage to survive. “I know now,” she had laughed, releasing a breath she had been holding since I started speaking to her, slowly stopping the fiddling she had been doing with the pallu of her green chiffon sari.
Sapna's husband does not hit her anymore. A decade into their marriage, he suffered from a severe cardiac arrest, which is when they found out about the complications of his heart. He was ordered to lay off the substances if at all he wished to live, and so, afer months of withdrawal pain and relapsing terrors, he did. Now, he visits the medical store monthly to procure his medicines and diligently goes to work. All of their earnings are now handled by her, with her paying all the bills and returning debts, in control of the household finances. With two grown-up kids, neither Sapna nor her husband wishes for a violent environment around the house. She, in her strength and determination, has found a way to communicate with him so that he understands, and now they restrict the shouting in the house to absolutely necessary. But, she told me, that I should not consider this a happy ending. Because of some miracle, if she has been allowed to live a changed life, it does not mean that the others in the neighbourhood have. Their husbands still drink, now hitting and abusing both their wives and their children. They still live penniless, surviving on the scraps of the day.
When asked about her wishes for the future of women, Sapna, now working at an NGO as a caretaker for children, has one simple answer, “Stop the alcohol access, it will save a million lives.” She reminisces that, if she had been allowed to marry once older, or provided access to education, things would not have been the way they were. Sapna also strongly believes that a woman needs to be able to earn for herself. Now well-versed in the crucial art of handling finances responsibly, she believes it’s imperative that a woman has her own stream of income and a collection of savings. No longer is Sapna a 15-year-old girl dwindling in the shadows of her abusive husband, but rather a 32-year-old financially-independent woman—majority breadwinner wife, headstrong, with her own opinions. And, such is her empathy, that she still cares for the hands that once abused her.
Ankita-Devi spends her days with the tag of ‘the inferior gender’ forever following her around. It is with her when she wakes and is inevitably restricted to the duties of kitchen and cleaning, it is with her when she steps outside the house for groceries, and it is with her when her husband comes home and reminds her of it. She has never known life without it, and it is her biggest fear that her own children will never either.
She sat in front of me with a newborn in her lap, a girl she told me, that was born just two months ago. She was the fifth child Ankita-Devi had given birth to, in the 30 years she had spent on this planet. Back home when I had done the calculations, I realised that she had spent almost two years pregnant, and had raised over three kids while being noticeably with-child, all on her own. Ankita-Devi also did not know how much her monthly household income was, innocently shaking her head as she continued to tell me that it was not her place to know all of that. When asked if she was educated, she scoffed, shrugging her shoulders, “Obviously not.”
As I slowly turned the conversation towards what we both knew we had to eventually speak about, Ankita-Devi’s posture suddenly changed. She gripped the girl in her lap tighter and looked around the room before she shared her concerns with me. “Will he hear this? Will you tell him about this?” she fired away at me, worried that the details of her conversation with me will be leaked to her husband, and she did not want to make him angry. Because his anger is not his, it is her body’s.
Ankita-Devi is a mother to four girls, and in the backwaters of the village she spends her time in, nothing can be more shameful. For the entirety of her life as a mother, she has had to hear nasty, disgusting things about her ability to give birth to a child, how she is cursed only to bring girls into this world. Her incompetency in birthing a boy is the most unlikeable, unloveable, significant detail of her life, she told me then. And it was this anger of not fathering boys that drives Ankita-Devi’s husband to hit her, abuse her and violate her. Despite repeated denials from her side, her husband forces himself upon her, all in the insatiable hunger of being a father to four boys, not four girls.
It is, like an age-old tale, also about money. Four girls in a house bring with them the responsibility of four marriages, four families to appease, and four dowries to fulfil. And, with Ankita-Devi’s husband deep into alcohol because of his piling stress, funds for the girls’ marriages are limited if any. She told me, staring into the amber eyes of the girl in her lap, that she did not understand how to help him, and deep down feels immense pity for his state. She cannot find a well-paying job, not with the duty of raising five children and running a house. He cannot seem to let go of his addiction, spending their very last pennies for himself. In between live their five children, hopelessly relying on these two people for everything they will ever need in life.
Ankita-Devi’s eyes swelled with tears when she recounted her own childhood for me. Her parents were the poorest of the entire community—unable to afford food, water and shelter, let alone education—that surrounded them but were fortunate enough to be blessed with two boys who would come to take care of them, years later. From the very beginning, Ankita-Devi had understood that she was the burden in the house, the visitor, the temporary stranger. In one way or another, her parents managed to pay off her dowry when she was 16 and sent her away to a man she had never seen before in her life. “Now my brothers work and earn and support my parents,” she told, regaining her posture and her stoic expression.
And for Ankita-Devi, such casual violence was never the norm. She had never before seen a man laying a hand on a woman, her own parents never touching each other no matter how angry. Nor had she seen it in the neighbourhoods around her, or in her friends’ houses. From where she came, the boundaries of anger were restricted to verbal spats or silent treatments. For her, never had anger ever meant the right to hit someone or touch someone without their permission, without their absolute agreement.
At the end of our conversation, her daughter had also awoken and was begging for some attention from her mother. “I want to study. I want to work. I don’t want to be married and for the love of god, I want alcohol to disappear,” were her last confessions to me, spoken in such a hushed voice that I had to replay my audio recordings to identify her words. Her defeated sigh when I told her she could go now echoed the fatigue and injustice of millions of women that inhabit this country. Ankita-Devi is not a hero, neither has she found herself yet. Ankita-Devi’s story is not one of inspiration, change or determination, rather it's a clear reflection of the lives of the women who are living in places too remote for the privilege of awareness, or ‘wokeness’. Women, who spend their whole lives carrying around the tag of ‘the inferior gender’.
In an academic institution, crises come and go. Some days it is the electricity that is malfunctioning, or the infrastructure that is misbehaving, or the children that are lost, confused, loud. Sometimes documents get misplaced and the wrong examination papers get distributed. Somehow, often, boxes of chalk and markers and stapler pins disappear. But all of it—everything—will be fine, if Rashi is on campus. After all, who could ever replace her experiences?
A Bachelor of Art graduate, Master of Art post-graduate, and a consistent academic performer, Rashi is about to turn 50 in four years. In the almost twenty-five years it has been since she last walked on a college campus, Renu had the capability to do remarkable things in her professional life. She had the passion and the vision of setting up her own teaching practice or providing extracurricular classes to young kids. As she nears her golden jubilee birthday, she is clear in one realisation: her marriage shattered all her dreams.
Rashi's husband was a trader and after some initial years of consistent income, suffered through terrible loss in business and amounting debts that was not able to pay back. With a sinking business and failing to find a way out, he turned to alcohol for self-medication. This started about twelve years ago; it is still the same. The stress of her husband’s disappointment was released on Rashi, as he began to violently hit her using his belts, TV remotes, metal bottles and occasionally, using cigarettes. Amongst nights spent suffering in pain, it was the thought of needing to arrange money and food every morning that helped her push through.
“My in-laws never supported me,” Rashi had confessed, crossing her arms on top of each other, and giving me her small but noticeable encouraging smile when I struggled to frame a question in Hindi. Rashi's mother and father-in-law had also never understood that with their son spending his time at home, wasting the hours of opportunity away, Rashi had to assume the role of the sole breadwinner for the house. “It was as if they never saw any faults in their son, instead blamed me for being unreasonable,” she told me, the lines no longer holding the anger and frustration they must have held a decade ago, rather the serene voice of reflection.
Rashi's lifeboat came in the form of her parents. After delaying telling them about the abuse, or meeting them from the fear of her bruises that the drugstore’s foundation was unsuccessful in hiding, Rashi finally broke down and confessed to her parents what had been happening. At once, they rushed over to her husband’s house and without fear, disciplined him into understanding that if he did not stop, they will take her away. They did not care about society or false hopes of change, it had been made clear that if he were to raise a hand on Rashi again, she will no longer stay with him. Over a decade and a half has passed since that fateful July night, when the owls were hooting and the rain was carefully caressing the branches of the mango tree when Rashi's parents stood up for her. Her husband has not hit her since, nor has he threatened to do so.
“I wanted to leave, but where would I have gone?” Rashi had repeated the thoughts of her younger self for me. Her house would barely get Rs 5000 to 6000 monthly, and that was narrowly enough to make rent. Her next words have remained with me till now, 6 months after I stepped out of the room where I spoke to her, and will be etched in my memory forever— “If a woman is independent, she will not tolerate anything because she will have a voice, she will have power.” Rashi shared how so many women she knew who went through such violence were only still tolerating it, only not speaking out because they have nowhere else to go, no one else to take them in, and no resources to sustain themselves. The violence is the only thing they have ever known, and the only thing they will continue to know. If a woman were earning a good Rs 20,000, in Rashi's opinion, per month, then she could live by herself, live a safe life away from the abuse.
“A serious fault lies in the legal and the police systems of our country when it comes to domestic violence,” Rashi affirmed with a firm nod of her head. She shared that it is not as if the police are inactive when it comes to the reporting of a Domestic Violence case. It is easy for them to take abusive husbands away from their houses and into the dingy corners of a lock-up for three days, thrash them, threaten them, and force promises of never doing such things again. Then they will be sent back with more anger, and a stronger desire to take revenge from their wives than ever before. Their solution is, I discussed with Rashi, extremely short-term and yields a negative domino instead of helping the situation. But, shedding light on the duality of the situation, Rashi had added, “But it is the wives too. So many times it is them who come running to the stations, pleading with the police to not hit their husbands anymore, believing that they have truly changed.”
Now working as a manager in an NGO, Rashi also shared the impact of violence on young children. “They learn what they see,” she had said, telling me about a young teenage boy whose mother was getting hit by her second husband and how he had himself become violent and restless. “He would break boards here, throw chairs and smash tables,” Rashi recalled, pursing her lips in sympathy as she spoke, “because that is what he had experienced. One day, in complete confidentiality, he told us that his father would bash him with large wooden sticks.” Her eyebrows knitted together, and her crossed arms tightened when she told me how her own children had been so terribly affected by the violence in her house. They had gotten scared, especially her daughter, when they would see her mother getting hit. “They couldn’t sleep at night, didn’t walk around the house for the fear of making a noise. One of them even struggled with intensive nightmares of abuse and had trouble breathing.” When asked about what she did to make this better for them, her answer was practical, but the wobble in her voice was evident, “I sent them away. They live with their aunt in Dehli now and have for so many years. I did not want them to see this, did not want them to carry this with themselves for the rest of their lives. This is mine alone, it was never meant to hurt them.”
Rashi also emphasized the need to establish alcohol control and availability in areas prone to Domestic Violence, a step she thought would help fix the lives of countless families across the country. She also insisted that the normality of violence needs to be worked upon. It has become so common, so frequent, every day and every night, that no one cares anymore. My last question to Rashi was the advice she had for newer, younger wives who face this on a daily basis. Solemnly, and with a soft smile, she had replied, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to involve the police. Don’t be afraid of society. I may sound like a hypocritic, seeing as I have rarely been able to my own advice but this is your life, you are the only one responsible for fixing it, for protecting it. No one will come to save you.” I ended our conversation with a hug, her wisdom, patience and clarity engulfing my whole self, as it does for the faculty and students on campus, whenever she is present.
10 PM in the night and the air outside is thick and moist, and it looks as if it is going to rain. But none of these harsh conditions affects the family inside. As if contrasting the weather, they are warm and calm. There is the children’s father tucking them in bed, telling them stories of faraway castles and fairies and princes. Then there is their mother, Sita, finishing up the calculations for the budget of the month on the table outside. In the world of numbers and steady work, she is happy. In the middle of an approaching rainstorm, she is happy.
At 26, Sita has already lived and seen nine more lives than she was supposed to. As a young girl, she had lost her parents to circumstances she did not wish to recall. And if the loss of the two people closest to her hadn’t already affected her enough, she lost her brother, her truest confidante, to uncles who conducted activities that were endlessly dangerous. By 11 years of age, she had been left all alone in this world. On her 13th birthday, she had been promised to a man almost double her age by her father’s sister and her husband. At 13, Sita had told me, she hadn’t even started menstruating, didn’t even know what it was, and was already expected to swiftly reproduce heirs for her husband’s family. At 13, Sita didn’t even know her body. But, at 13, her husband fully did.
It was Sita's utter innocence, and her tender age, that created trouble for her at her husband’s house. “I was so young and I hadn’t had anybody to teach me how to behave, or how to properly talk. I didn’t know anything about anything, but suddenly, I was expected to have known everything,” Sita shared with a laugh, her dimples clearly visible when her mouth stretched. This is why she had started getting hit, by her brother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her niece and nephews-in-law, her mother-in-law and her husband— everybody in the house, and everybody was older than her. In the first year of her teens, Sita recalled, she had been so lazy, always wanting to sleep. Every day she would eat her dinner and go to sleep, every day she was abused because of that. “My mother-in-law would tell me that now that I am married, it is my job to cook for everyone, clean for everyone and do all the chores around the house. I was 13! Have you seen 13-year-olds today?”
Sita's husband would get frustrated about his wife’s inability to be a good, diligent housewife. “I couldn’t cook, I had never cleaned a thing in my life. I would add water to the wrong things, forget to add salt, and it was spoiling the entire meal. I was so scared of messing up, of burning food, and then that is exactly what I would end up doing,” and so, she would get bashed by her husband for being imperfect. Sita would also get violently screamed and cussed at, discovering for the first time the existence of such crude language.
When asked if she ever told anyone that she was experiencing violence against her, Sita shook her head a firm no. I asked her why, and she confessed that she never had anyone to support her, never had anyone stand by her, forget to stand up for her. And she had explained it with such a beautiful metaphor, “In life, you have some shades, like the ones use to protect you against the scorching sun. These shades come in the form of people, who can protect you when things become hard to handle. They are usually in the form of parents or siblings and I had none. I had no shade to support me through the scorching heat, I got burnt. Eventually, I had to learn to handle the heat on my own” Sita's married family were also Rajputs, known for their consistent respect towards others, which was another reason Sita did not want to tell anyone. She did not want to bring shame upon her family and did not want to be the reason they were defamed.
Sita's belief that violence can never end, and cannot be reduced, gravely shocked me. She told me that there will always be someone who knows less, and there will always be someone who wants to disobey and rebel. As long as both these groups of people exist, violence can never fully be terminated. “Helping people these days is also dangerous. They do not listen, do not hear. Just do what they want. So I also keep quiet and not interfere, because I have to think about my daughters also.”
Sita's educational qualifications ended in the 5th grade and recently in these months, she had tried to get back into studying again. “I believe education is the key towards saving girls from violence. If they study and get skilled and then earn for themselves, they are making the right use of this body and of their mind. Not only will it make you happy, but also it will make you independent and self-reliant. You wouldn’t need anybody for survival, just yourself.” But for Sita, it has been getting extremely difficult to receive her degree now, with her husband’s business of tailoring failing. He does not get any orders, so she has to make sure of getting food on the table, along with taking care of the house. He can sit for months at the house without any work, and that puts all the responsibilities on her shoulders.
Sita is no longer 13 now, but rather a grown adult who has learnt how to handle the situation in her house now. She is not insolent or disrespectful anymore, and, to her in-laws' relief, she can cook and clean. Ever since her children have been born, Sita has not been abused. Her maturity and their peace and stability in the house, has led to neither parent creating a restless environment. Today, she is also the sole breadwinner for her house, earning a steady income of Rs 16,000 a month. Her husband takes care of the children and ensures that they are reaching school on time and sleeping at the right times. “We live happily now, which is very good for my kids. My daughter will not see what I have.” Today, every night, she goes to bed happy, and satisfied.
The hospital’s corridors are dark and quiet, with the exception of the muffled sobs ringing through the rooms. The central air conditioning does not work, and so beads of sweat collect on their forehead and line their backs. When they’re asked to remove their extra coats, they have to practically peel them off themselves. She is scared, but he is steady. When the lady in blue rags calls their names, asking them to come inside, he takes her hand, and squeezes it—a message, “I’m here”. Usha looks at her husband; she does not know how they’ve made it this far.
Usha does not know how old she is. She does not know when she was born, she did not even know what date our conversation was taking place. She cannot tell apart numbers and alphabets, she cannot even recognize alphabets. When asked about her house’s monthly income, she does not count her own contribution in the answer, only her husband’s, which is a meagre 500 rupees. This is even more surprising because Usha earns 10 times more than her husband earns, monthly. “But I have always been told that the only income that matters is my husband’s, so what is the point even talking about mine?” Usha had asked me, with her eyebrows knitted together and a small smile breaking out against her lips.
Only a few weeks after her marriage, Usha's husband’s family had broken the facade of the happy, satisfied family they had presented for Usha's family. “There were fights every day. Everyone would scream at the top of their voices and abuse and hit, and this would include me. I would get hurt in the middle of their physical altercations because they would drag me in the middle, and force me to withstand the punches and kicks,” Urmila had told me, her voice cracking as she recalled her darkest days. But soon after, Usha's husband had taken the decision to move them away from the joint family they were living in, and instead start a nuclear family. For her, this was a miracle, a messiah move, a good samaritan taking her away from imminent violence. Little did she know, it would only get worse from there.
In the 1 bedroom that doubled as a kitchen and a bathroom for Usha and her husband, every night she would endlessly suffer at his hands. Sometimes, he would pull her hair so hard that patches of it would come out. Sometimes, he would push her against the wall so hard that she would cough up blood for the next week. “I could have died in that one room and no one would have cared. No one would have bothered to find me or help me. I had no one to support me or care for me,” Usha had confessed to me, her throat clogged with her grief, her breath stuck somewhere in her chest, a hard knot refusing to move.
A year into their marriage, Usha was pregnant. And that changed everything for her. When she found out, Usha knew she had to put an end to what she was tolerating because there was no way she would have let her child grow up with that. “Every day after I found out, I gathered courage bit by bit. When I had the child, one look at his face and I had found all the courage in the world. No one could stop me from providing him with the best things in the world,” Usha laughed as she reminisced about the first moments she ever held her son. The day her son was born, Usha sat her husband down and explained to him how what they were living in, what they were living with, was not sustainable. That she will not allow this for their son. That they had to change, he had to change. Since that day, her husband has never so much as raised his voice at Usha, let alone hit her. Of course, she realises that the circumstances might not have been as easy as they were if she had birthed a girl. But with determination, she told me that she would have fought for her child, and her own life, despite the child’s gender.
When asked about why she thought she had been abused, Usha told me about how her mother had passed away when she couldn’t even talk. Soon after, her father also left, and Usha does not know where he is. “My chacha-chachi (uncle-aunt) have raised me because they had pity on me. But they were eager of getting rid of me. So, they married me off with one sari and nothing else for the dowry. This angered my husband’s family who thought they were worth a lot more than what I brought with me. This anger was unleashed on me.” Usha further shared with me how she and her sister were forced into marriage by her uncle who was on his deathbed. “He said to us that we are girls, and should get married as soon as possible, preferably till he was alive to give them away. Their brother could married whenever he wanted because he was a boy. But we were poor, there was nothing we could do.” Usha's lack of wealth and family protection proved nearly fatal for her in her husband’s house, and for her son, she wants the complete opposite.
“My husband doesn’t let me work. He does not like it when I go out of the house. He doesn’t even let me go to the market. It took nearly a decade of our marriage to convince him that if I earn too, then we can give better things to our son. I want him to have everything I never had,” Usha had shared eagerly, her posture leaning forward and her eyes mirroring the hope she holds in her heart. But, at the end of the day, Usha was grateful for the life she had gotten, for the change that had happened. Because around her, violence was a common thing, not required to pay much heed to. She told me how every single house that surrounds her own has writhing screams emerging from them every night when husbands get drunk and hit their wives. For her, violence is so unbearably common. “But my husband does not drink, and for that I am blessed. He is a happy man, who loves spending time with our son and doing whatever little he can through his vegetable shop to earn for us. We are okay now.”
Unfortunately, Usha has also been suffering from a terrible Uteral disease that brings her a great amount of pain. Regardless, she is nothing if not a fighter. “My husband and I have been fighting this together, he brings me medicines, takes me to the doctor, cares for me. He does not mind if some days I cannot manage housework, telling me we are not greedy for money or societal validation. He makes sure I get to rest on time and do not over-exert myself. He is in debt because of me. Even now, he is planning to take me to a big hospital in New Dehli so that we can do everything to beat this.”
“Stop alcohol,” is all she had to say when asked about what we could do to eliminate the threat of domestic violence in rural India. In the last minutes of our conversation, Usha told me that she has not visited her home since the day she left it for her husband. “I did not tell anyone about the violence because I had no one at home, and I knew that if I went to the police, they would send me back home. And those were the same people who told me that I should tolerate everything that happens to me, and should produce a boy as soon as I can.”
Today, Usha has seen examples of women leaving their husbands, earning for themselves, and succeeding in life. It makes her heart smile when she sees independent women walking down the street. They are a beacon of hope for millions like her that had the courage to bring some change, and some stability in their life, even though they have a long way to go. And for her, the support of a steady, ever-present hand, is enough when she dawns the hallways of unknown hospitals.
Recount how many people you know who, without having any remote understanding of finances, have been given the task of running an entire family with nothing in their hands. Who most assume the role of parent, provider, earner, distributor, doctor, lawyer—all at once. Without any support, and with endless problems in your way. It seems hard until you speak to a woman who is living it.
Soma-Devi, 38, has been living a life that, rarely, if anyone, can brave. Her son has been unemployed for the past 9 months, occasionally getting a temporary job, but still not earning enough to contribute to the household. Her younger daughter was rushed to the government emergency room in the local hospital one day after she was found unconscious on the floor. There, after multiple scans and tests, Soma-Devi was told that her daughter had severe swelling in her brain, blocked lungs and a positive diagnosis for Tuberculosis, commonly referred to as TB. With nothing but the 10,000 rupees Soma-Devi brings into the house on her own, treatment is impossible. It has now been four months since her daughter went unconscious.
“10,000 is nothing in today’s times. Nothing. Imagine figuring out how to divide 10,000 between medicines, rents, bills, debts, and interest. It bleeds you dry,” Soma-Devi had shared with me, her voice carrying the tone of defeat, her eyes never quite meeting me, always focused on the table between us. She has not received any education either, even though she wanted to. However, her circumstances were such that her Dad had passed away when she was young, and so her Mom had no other option but to get her wed against her wishes when she was only 17. And now, without any educational qualifications to get her a well-paying job, Soma-Devi has the task of dividing 10,000 rupees between 9 members of her household, every month.
Although she never experienced violence personally due to being the sole guardian in her house, Soma-Devi has known it to happen in places around her. “It is because of need. It all comes down to need. When men feel helpless and lost and angry, they take it out on women. When women feel the same thing, they take it out on the children. These children grow up and then take it out on their spouses. That’s how the cycle has always gone, how things have always happened.”
Soma-Devi offers an account of how it is living in such poverty, with gross violence surrounding you. And how, so much of life drains out of you when you become the creator, keeper and executor, all at once.
A noisy Sunday evening: cars honking, passer-bys shouting, music blaring from somewhere far away. In the middle of all the noise sat Anita on her rocking chair, diligently listening to the spiritual guide giving a sermon on her phone screen. His voice was muffled, but it was enough to be the only thing she was really concentrating on. The video was titled, ‘Violence and Spirituality: How they are intertwined’. Anita laughed. Who else would know this if not her? She let the video play on.
Anita did not remember how old she was when she got married, only that she was extremely young, she did not even remember the function itself—that’s how early on in her life she had been given away. And it was not only her who opposed the match, it was also her mother. But, like all things in Anita's life, the men she knew made the decision for her: the groom, the dress, the dowry. An entire life wrapped and lost, by her father and her uncle. All of this was because her family did not have the money to let Anita live with them.
As a young girl, Anita had told me, she saw children of her age attending school, receiving education. “I really wanted that too. To wear a uniform and go to school and learn. It was my dream. But it was overpowered by my family’s needs. They needed money, not knowledge. So I started working to get money in, and not waste my time receiving education,” she had shared, a nonchalant shrug accompanying her last words. Now, along with her son, she spends her days working anywhere she can—cleaning, dusting, washing, ironing—only to earn around 4000 rupees every month. This, she needs to divide between the four family members living in their old, forgotten house.
When I first asked Anita if she had experienced any form of violence against her, she confidently declared, “No.” Admittedly, I had been disappointed, more and more respondents were now not fitting the strata profile. But then, once my drive wore off, a smile emerged on my face. For Anita, I was happy. I was about to end the interview there when she had spoken up, “No, nobody from outside has ever hit me before. Only my husband, but that doesn’t count.” She chuckled after finishing her sentences, and the stoic expression on my face returned. Noticing the shift, she too had mirrored my features. I approached her slowly, asking her if she knew whether or not her husband hitting her, was, in fact, not okay and that it does count. “But that is normal, frequent. Keeps happening. Well, kept happening. It doesn’t happen anymore.”
Anita and I, under the fading tint of the setting sun, discussed what she thought was the cause of her violence. I was not surprised when she said that her husband was a drunk. “Intoxication makes you a different person; it controls your mind. Your body is not in your control anymore. This was my husband’s hamartia. Every night he would finish dinner, drink more liquor than he can handle, and turn into something else. A wild, insatiable beast. Or an animal.” Anita continued to tell me that when in the state of intoxication, her husband would often forget the family of the house, quite literally. He would not remember that he had a son, or a daughter-in-law or grandchildren—no memory of it, no recollection. If he were asked questions, he would be confused and grow more angry. It was only the morning after, when the effect of the substance wore off, that his senses would come back to him. Only then would he realise that the house he inhabits was also inhabited by others, others he knew, maybe even loved.
“Of course he hit me. Slapping was the most common. If he was angrier than usual, then I would get punched and kicked. The most I have ever seen is getting pushed off from the bed,” Anita told me then, not in sorrow or anger, but as factually and as plainly as someone were to recite the preamble of a constitution. These were things that had once happened to her, but even though her face didn’t betray emotion during our conversation, it does not mean she didn’t suffer back then.
When asked if she ever told either her parents or the police that this was happening to her, her answer came once again as though she had practised it before, logically and well thought-out. “No, I did not tell anyone. I didn’t because I knew that this was it for me, this marriage, this husband. There was nothing else; my father had sent me here. I couldn’t get married again, so whatever it was, I had to make it work. Even if I did leave my husband, there is no guarantee that the next one wouldn’t turn out the same. It was my life, I had to manage it.”
Anita, a rigorous practitioner of spirituality, enlightened me with her views on how domestic violence and Karma are related. “I am an individual, my husband is an individual. Our actions are not connected, neither are the consequences of those actions. If he hits me, it is his soul that is going to get tampered with, his Karma that is going to build up. It will not affect mine, and so I must do whatever I can to live a happy, compassionate life. Despite whatever is happening. If I were to inflict the same pain on to him, I would be no different, my Karma would build up. This is a very hard thing to understand, I know. It is hard to expect women to be happy and live a clean life when they are being tortured. But the universe only understands Karma. Pain does not nullify with more pain, it nullifies with no pain. And so, I am doing everything I can to not build mine.”
Anita does not believe that violence against women is common, but she says that it is because she makes it a point not to interfere in other people's lives or their Karma. It is also because of this belief that she does not believe any amount of education or financial independence can allow women to escape the cycle of violence. “If it is written for you, it will happen. This is not something anyone would accept, but it is what I believe. All you can do is try to live your life freely.”
It is in pursuit of building a life free of pain and full of freedom that 2 months ago, Anita migrated her family from her village to the outskirts of Noida. But, she has realised over time, it is even harder to survive in the city than it is in the village. “I am poor in both places, but in my village, I am less poor. There, I could afford an education for my daughter because I want her to study. But here, I cannot.” And thus she works day and night, only to put some money together untainted by debt, that she can use to pay for her daughter’s education. She pushes her husband and son to work too, so that together, the three of them can earn a life of their own, a life they want to live in. A life, where she can spend her Sunday evenings listening to the sermons she has preached all her life.
Rita's favourite game to play as a child was hide-and-seek. A young girl: her friends would hide, and she would seek. Always. She loved seeking—finding, exploring, discovering. Every evening, without fail, she would seek all over again. But that young girl never knew when the seeking would become real. When she would spend days and nights and then some more days and nights just seeking. Only to find nothing.
Rita -Devi’s husband has been missing for three months. After suffering from some severe mental health issues in the past years, her husband left the house one night and has not returned since. “This is why I have never been hit because I don’t have a husband,” Rita -Devi told me, worry fresh in her voice, her eyes swollen from her lack of sleep. With whatever little she can put together for her household every month, Rita -Devi must ensure the survival of her son, and herself. She does not have the resources to search for a husband, and every day more of her willpower diminishes, with growing prices and debts.
“I really wanted to study. But when the time was appropriate, I didn’t. My parents didn't want me to study. Now, how do I? I am a mother,” Rita -Devi had shared with me as the aroma of brewing tea surrounded us and the blaring horns at the road, filled the room. She told me about how now if she tried to study, she would be questioned by society. They would call her a neglectful mother, someone who didn’t care about her husband or her family. Only herself. “How do I answer to all that?”
When I had asked her what she thought were some of the general reasons why domestic violence occurred, she had, after careful consideration, confessed, “The reasons are never general. Every case has its own reasons. That is also why general solutions don’t tend to work—either they don’t cater to the actual issues, or they are too remote to help.” Further, she continued to tell me how grossly normalised violence has become in marginalized or underprivileged communities. How the occurence of it is now expected and its absence is a privilege too great to imagine. “It is not nice; I do not like it. I know how this might sound, but violence is never the answer. Certainly not how it is imposed on the female community.”
Today, Rita -Devi is trying to hold together her family, which is falling apart in front of her. Every bit, every penny, every moment counts. This is not hide-and-seek anymore.
The tea is warm, but not hot enough. The fan on the ceiling is working, but not fast enough. There are flies everywhere. But the food is good—rich, scrumptious, oily. Perfect. The family seated in front of Meera had been elaborating on their son’s exemplary achievements in life for the past ten minutes. They didn’t know that all of this didn’t matter to her. She didn’t care about his college ranks or job promotions. All she cared about was when her daughter could meet him, spend time with him—days, weeks, months—and decide for herself whether she wanted a life with him or not. That was the only way this was going to happen.
Meera had not seen her husband’s face until they were made to stand together behind the priest who would declare them married. She did not know him, or how he was, or what he did. Her parents had decided on the match and within a week she was to be married. Sitting in front of me decades after, she had shared that that was how it was. Your parents would decide everything; you had no say in the person you were going to spend the rest of your life with. But at 18, this is not what Meera wanted. “I wanted to study, not get married,” she had told me, sitting there with her hands crisscrossed, intertwined. “But the village I lived in only had a school till 6th grade. If you wanted to study after that, you had to leave, go to a town. And my parents did not want that, did not allow me, a girl, to go far away, only for studies.”
Meera's father was a drunk, there was no other way to put it, no other way she wanted me to put it. “He used to drown in alcohol, and with us being four sisters, it meant four more responsibilities for him to get rid of.” Her father spent most of his adult life worrying about how he would get not one, not two, not three, but four girls married, with a dowry. And so, as his solution, he quickly married off Meera first, so that he could get some time before having to marry her other three sisters. But, it was Meera's mother that worried the most, her worries being too remote for the others to understand. “My mother used to fear my father’s death, because of the liquor. She did not know how she would manage our marriage without him, so she urged us to get married quickly. And that’s what happened. All of us were married off as soon as we turned seventeen or eighteen.”
At her in-laws’ house, Meera was never given any financial freedom. She did not have access to the money, did not have permission to use it, and was not even allowed to discuss it, earn it or touch it. Her in-laws were adamant about her being in the dark about the household’s financial transactions. This was especially problematic because they made Meera do all the work of the house—cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing, shopping, everything. Despite the presence of 11 other members in the house, she had to work day and night for a dozen people. And when you don’t have groceries and you are not given money for them, but you are expected to put food on the table, then what do you do?
“I would get so tired, so exhausted. I would be dripping in sweat, with backaches and headaches and no one would care. It was as if I had been brought there only for doing their work. Nothing else,” Meera confessed, the lines beside her eyes stretching when she looked out the window, at the soaring sun and the blue skies above us. The unavailability of money troubled Meera throughout her time in that house, but most significantly when her children were born— two girls, and one boy. “I wanted to educate them, buy them gifts. But there was no money for me, for any of it.” But through it all, Meera's husband remained a pillar for her. Even with his minimum salary, he gave everything he had to Meera. Looking at her condition, he started a side hustle of local photography, so he could bring more money for her, for their family. “100, 200, whatever he earned in the day, he would keep it in my hands. That is how we were able to support our children. Make them go to school, make them happy.”
Meera, who now works in an NGO and earns 6,000 rupees monthly, also shared with me what it was like to see physical and emotional violence in the kids she tended to or in neighbourhoods around her. “It is so common, it is so, so common. Everyone is troubled by it, I see it in the kids and their mothers.” On my request, Meera told me the story of a boy in the NGO, who was suffering in the same ways. “His name was Soham. He used to come hungry here many times. When we once questioned him about it, he told us that his dad was hitting his mother and him, hitting everyone in the house. In his anger, he would throw the food down– on the floor, outside. He would throw it away, not let us eat. So he and his family would just sleep hungry.” Soham's hail mary was the NGO, where he was fed proper meals and provided a safe haven for resting.
While discussing how to eliminate the problem of violence, Meera spoke to me about counselling as a solution. She shared that it has helped many couples when husbands are spoken to with the help of a third party, their problems are identified and gradually resolved. “But it is unreliable, it will not work always. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.” Meera strongly believes that it is the senseless trust of wives that has to break, those that think that the violence will end on its own, that the next day won't be the same as today. That somehow, miraculously, their husbands will transform. “That is false and wrong,” Meera had said, expressing her feelings on the matter, “For every problem in the house, the woman will get hit. You earn money and your husband will get drunk from it, and then he will hit you. If you don’t earn money, stay at home and try to cook from nothing, you will get hit. That is just how it is.”
Today, Meera can work wherever she wants, whenever she wants. She can earn her own livelihood, and she can use the money for her family—her husband and her children. Despite having two daughters, Meera never worried about getting them married early for her sake. No, first, they studied. They never not knew their husbands or the families they were going to. They spent their own time and decided for themselves. She had made sure of that.
The words take up all the space in her head. She thinks of them, tries saying them out loud—rolls them around on her tongue. She tries to figure out their correct pronunciations. After all, she doesn’t really know what they mean. Only that they are not nice.
Ritu was given a choice to continue studying after the fifth grade; she did not take it. Before the ‘why?’ rolled off my tongue, she had already started to tell me the answer. Ritu's family was devastatingly destitute, and her parents lived their lives under a constantly present cloud of sadness, both things visible to 10-year-old Ritu's still small, still wonderous eyes. Her education would have become another burden on them, and she did not want that, did not want to become part of the cloud of sadness that hung above them. And so, she dropped out of school when she completed the fifth standard, and eight years later, she got married.
Ritu, like most women she has known, has a husband that immerses himself in substance abuse. Riding on an intoxicated high, he comes home every night and unleashes verbal abuse on his wife. “He shouts so loud sometimes that I fear he might hurt his throat. He calls me everything, every bad thing you can think of. He calls me those things so many times that I have to remind myself to not believe them, not think they are true,” Ritu shared with me, her voice barely audible, just another octave away from a whisper. When asked about why she thinks her husband drinks and abuses, she has the same answer that has haunted her life before, and her parents before that—sadness. “He becomes sad, upset. Then he drinks.”
But the worst part of what Ritu confessed was when she told me that when this had started to happen with her, she immediately informed her mother, in the hopes of some help. “She told me at once to not go to the police or tell anyone. She told me to let three days pass by, to wait it out. She told me, one day it would stop. I just had to keep hope. And I believed her. I believed that he would get better and stop, so I didn’t go to the police.”
Four years have passed since and Ritu has now realised that such violence is so common, that so many women get shouted at. She has also realised that it is so hard to stop. And, so, so hard to understand.
Carefully, as though it might break, Dikshika applies medicine over the scar on her hand. When she got it over three days ago, she didn’t care; it would go away by the morning. Three days later, the realisation of her own fragility, her own age had hit her. The scar would not heal so easily now. No, it would take medicine and care, and it would hurt. These were not the old days. But still, so much was the same.
Dikshika-Devi is now the oldest member of her household, with seven granddaughters, three grandsons, three sons, three daughters-in-law and her husband. And yet, with so many people to earn for the house, they have no savings at all. “We are poor in its proper sense. Everything we earn, we spend. There is nothing left to save,” Dikshika-Devi shared, her greying hair falling over her eyes, and the wrinkles on her skin highlighted by the overhead lights. And for Dikshika-Devi, contributing was not easy, because she was educated, and the only way she could communicate was through her spoken words. “I really did want to study when I was young. But my parents were poor, that even basic food and water were a luxury.”
Quickly, we moved on to our main topic of conversation, because Dikshika-Devi hated beating around the bush, thanks to the lessons she has learned over the years. “No one else, only my husband hits me. Till now. We have been married for years and years, we have grandchildren, and he still hits me. And now that I am old and frail, he gets angrier, because it gets easier for the marks of violence to show. I do not have the strength of being young and active anymore. So when I get beaten, it hurts, and it shows. This annoys him.” She continued to share how he would do hard drugs, drink with them and come home rotten, an animal. Her husband does not even allow females in the house to go to a hospital for delivering their babies, he does not allow them to step out of the house at all. They have to manage everything in the four walls they are trapped in—from sadness to happiness, sickness and health, death, disaster, everything.
When asked why she didn’t go to the police with this, her ironic answer surprised me. “I didn’t go because he is old, and if they hit him, he might get seriously hurt. I don’t want that. And, society will talk. They will say I sent him to the beating, disgrace me for that and disgrace him for hitting me. It would ruin the family.”
Dikshika-Devi continued to tell me how this is all everyone talks about, the violence that everyone can see but nobody acknowledges. It happens everywhere, ridiculously common but nobody does anything. “Violence is a bad, vile thing. But it always has a reason. Without a reason, there is no cause to hit anyone. If you find the cause and fix it, violence can stop. You will either have to ask the wife to tolerate it, or the husband to stop. And I believe that the justice system is helpful. People should use that.” Every night now, Dikshika-Devi sleeps with the wisdom she has gained over the years. And the scars.
Howls. Sobs. The sound of leather on skin. These sounds that she hears all day, come back to her every night. She can see the sounds on their bodies. The poorly hidden bruises, and the scars that will take too long to heal. She wants to reach out and caress them, tell them it will be fine. But she will not lie to them, will not make matters worse. All she can do is let out a prayer in her own solitude. And, hope.
Twenty years ago, Parveen had thought that now that she had reached the age of twenty, there is nothing left in her life to do but get married. Because, as she had been taught, it was the only thing in her life that mattered, the only she was eligible for. “My mom and dad chose for me and I had to say yes. So, I got married. Back then, it was not like today’s generation. You just had to do it.” Parveen also told me how when she wanted to study as a young girl, her father did not allow it. He did not believe that education was for girls, or that Parveen should leave the house. And so, gradually, all Parveen could do anymore was get married. So she did.
Parveen has never experienced violence personally, but she has known it from around her. “When we used to live in the village, it used to happen everywhere. Every house was closed off, separate, so no one bothered helping anyone. But everyone knew it happened—they could hear it, they could see it. But in the city, over here, I’ve never heard or seen it. Never known a woman here who is going through this. That’s the difference between urban and rural environments.” She also shed light on the causes of violence, having told me that it is most rampant in houses where alcohol and meat are consumed. “But none of that happens in my house. My husband, my children, my in-law family, they are all nice, happy people. They don’t indulge in anything like this. Our family is happy, we don’t even fight.”
At the end of the day, Parveen is a strong believer in minding one’s own business. She thinks that misunderstandings arise when someone tries to mingle in places, and misunderstandings lead to anger. And so, she keeps her caresses to herself. Because, the brunt of that anger, always, has been borne by the wife alone.
She’s 20, in college. This is the first time she’s heard the definition of domestic violence. Her friend, who got married three years ago, is telling her about it. But what Gargi doesn’t understand is why her friend is telling her this, and not her the authorities. Why will you not come forward? She asks her when her friend declines to tell anyone. She’s frustrated. “For shame,” her friend replies.
Gargi, married at 28, a Master of Art post-graduate, now 55, leads a happy life with her husband and her family. Of course, she shared, they fight sometimes. But he has never abused her, and for that she is grateful. At the same time, she is surrounded by violence around her, and during our conversation, she shared her experiences of witnessing violence and interacting with the victims.
“Violence is very common—everyone knows. 99% of the time, from what I have seen, it happens against wives who are wedded from other places, and then brought to their husband’s houses. Wives who don’t belong to the husband’s locality,” Gargi explained the role of location and identification in the occurrence and frequency of Domestic Violence. She further shared how at the centre of most violence cases lies money. “Money is the main cause. See, everyone wants to send their kids to school, in any way they can. And the problem is, the husbands don’t work, if rarely, and all the wives work. They have to. Anywhere they can find.” She told me how this when mixed with the presence of alcohol, can become a recipe for disaster. “Most nights the husbands will come back drunk. When they want alcohol, they also want greed. They don’t care about the kids, whether there is food at home or not, clothes for the weather or not, notebooks and stationery are available or not. They only want greed. And the mother cannot tolerate this. So, she gets hit.”
Deeper into our conversation, Gargi replied with a firm “Yes” when I asked her if violence was so common it had been deemed unworthy of discussion. She shared that most men, almost 98% of them, have the same mentality. Exceptions occur if they are well-educated and qualified, but otherwise, when such men increase in number, violence only increases, it will never reduce. “And everyone somehow wants to find faults in the wife for experiencing violence, as if it was their responsibility. People will ask, ‘When you know he is drunk, why are you questioning him?’ ‘Why do you speak back to him? Of course, you will get hit.’ But the husband will drink every day, so when should the wife ask the questions? Questions she is fully entitled to.”
Gargi firmly believes that education and financial independence can protect a woman from violence. “Education is so, so important. So is being independent. It is paramount. And you will always find that in educated households, such cases are rare if any. Because they know. And not only education but also the law. The law is helpful, but many cases are unable to reach it.” When asked why this is, Gargi confessed, with a small smile that there is always only shame and respect that stops anyone. The woman is afraid of being ashamed and disrespected, and so they think not taking any action is the right thing to do. “They will tolerate anything, everything. They will suffocate every day. They will give up living, and continue to barely survive. But they will not come forward. And for what? For shame.”
Hitting the buckets hurts her back a little more today. But she cannot tell this to her employer. After all, this is her bread and butter. This is the reason she’s allowed to stay at her in-laws’ house. She will pick up the buckets, she will clean the floor, she will wash the utensils. She will do everything. But she will never, ever complain.
Runa was thirteen years old when she got married, and fifteen when she birthed her first child. The first time she could make her hair without the help of her mother-in-law was well past her third anniversary. And Runa was only trying to help because she thought she could fix the situation, the first time was hit by her husband.
When the first rays of the sun touched the Ghasola Village, situated not fifteen minutes away from the bustle of the main city, a fight broke out in the neighbourhood, right outside Runa's house. She did not know why this had happened when it had happened, how it escalated so quickly. She did not even know why her husband and her brother-in-law were outside, right in the middle of the fight. All she knew was that she could help. She could calm everyone down, and tell them to sort it out inside. She could see the horror on the faces of the children around, the worrying lines on the mothers’ faces. She had to do something, and so she did. Since that day, she has been regretting it.
Runa pushed past the people crowding the fight, pushed past those others punching and kicking each other, and pushed past until she saw her husband. Before she could get two words out, Runa was gripped by her shoulders and carried inside. The door of the room was locked. Her husband stood before her. And then, for the next hour, she was beaten up, beaten up to bruises and scratches. Then, verbally abused. All this because her husband thought she was trying to interfere in the ‘business of men’, that she was trying the meddle in matters that did not belong to her, were not worthy of women.
Many times her husband and brother-in-law came how drunk and completely intoxicated. The only female in the house that wasn’t their mother or sister, she was hit, then abused, then hit again. And she never knew why. She couldn’t dare question it or tell anyone. Constantly, she was objectified. Looked at as a ‘thing’ to be used and then discarded, all because she belonged to the ‘inferior gender’
For Runa, these incidents only got worse with time. And every time they happened, she had to get ready and step out of the house and show up at work, all the while acting like nothing had happened, that nothing bothered her. That what was happening was normal, because she did not have any other choice. No other choice. So, she picked up the buckets and carried on.