Violence against women is prevalent all over the world, across different socio-economic classes.
“An estimated 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017 globally, more than half (50,000- 58 per cent) were killed by intimate partners or family members, more than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner.” UN Women
Over the last 30 years or so, most of the females who worked with us in India as domestic help had very similar stories. Their husbands were emotionally, physically abusive, and alcoholic. There are no reasons to think that domestic violence is prevalent among lower socio-economic classes though. It’s just that, middle or upper classes deal it with a lot more confidentiality and secrecy. Poverty takes additional layers of shame and taboos away from the people of lower socio-economic groups.
Why women live with abusive partners?
Quite surprisingly, the majority of these women continue to live with abusive partners, in spite of enduring lifelong physical violence. When inquired about their choices (or the lack of it) in putting up with this situation, the answers they would give usually give are –
“I don’t have any money of my own”
“ He is my husband, how can I leave him?”
“Who will feed my children?”
“My family will never support me”
“How I can survive on my own!”
Though the reasons might appear to be predominantly economic, there are actually many social, cultural, and psycho- social factors behind one’s choice of living with an abusive or violent partner.
Lack of economic independence
Women in all societies were traditionally homemakers. Preferences for marrying non-working, ‘homely’, ‘non-independent’, and submissive girls are still very popular in India. Families think non-working women are ‘ideal’ wives and daughters-in-law for several reasons. For hundreds of years, society ignored the dangerous caveat in this ideal system – when a woman and her kids are completely dependent on a man who turns out to be a wife-beater, she has absolutely no choice but to live with the monster who considers himself as her master, not her spouse!
Millions of women live with their abusers because of the sustenance and survival of their children and themselves. Some women are not brought up to be equipped with the skills they need for economic and emotional independence. When their dreams of having an ideal family or a husband fail, they prefer to surrender themselves to the situation as there aren’t a lot of alternatives.
Sruti’s story is a classic example of to what extent patriarchal societies can be detrimental for women. Sruti was a young mother of three little children who used to work for us in Bangalore as domestic help. She would work very hard to pay the rent, school fees, and everything else for her family as her alcoholic husband would not contribute anything. She would often show up with bruises and swellings all over her face-signs of physical torture she had been enduring for years!
I tried making her realize that she should not be with that man even one more day. In my helpless attempt to try to understand why she was doing this to herself, I found out a horrific truth about our hypocritical society. She told me “If my kids starve or I can’t pay their school fees, my brothers and parents would help me with some money. If my husband dies tomorrow, they will come and take me back and will look after my children. But, as long as my husband is alive, I am bound to live with him. My family or community will never accept me or support me if I leave him.”
Families do force women to live with abusive, violent partners even when they are economically independent. Divorce is still a taboo in many parts of society.
Fear of being alone
Patriarchy teaches women that they are not enough on their own, they need a man around to protect them and look after them. Many societies consider husbands as women’s ‘guardians’. His role is to control them, ‘teach’ them lessons when they are wrong, and provide them with material needs. Regardless of age, educational and professional background, societies teach women to dependent on male family members! They believe that they need a husband to be complete. They fear to deal with the complex, cruel, and unsafe world on their own.
No country in the world can ensure women’s safety and security. Lack of exposure to the outside world adds an extra layer of barrier in women’s lives, while they are already dealing with adversity at home!! More and more women are breaking these barriers – facing several odds by themselves. Still, in many countries, women do not feel safe enough without a man around – even if the man is abusive. There is a proverb in India, “known enemies are better than unknown friends”. The sad truth is that women feel being beaten or raped by husbands is better than being molested, raped, or harassed by outsiders! That’s what, they fear, is going to happen when they are on their own. And they prefer to live with abusive partners instead.
What is the solution?
This multi-fold, complex problem doesn’t have a simple solution. Solving this issue needs participation and intervention of different stakeholders at different levels. Reporting domestic abuse to the authorities is not even an option for many women. Some countries don’t have any laws to protect women from domestic violence. Fear of retaliation and lack of support and protection from societies stop them from taking legal actions. Governments should make policies to financially support unemployed women and children affected by domestic violence. We should realize the importance of women’s economic participation. Families and societies must raise women to be confident and independent citizens who learn to step up for their own rights and safety.