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One of the largest surveys of its kind has just been published; 69,484 women ages 15 to 49 from all regions of India were investigated, and the shocking finding is that 31%  had experienced physical violence in the past 12 months. The corresponding figure for sexual violence is 8.3%.

Dr Sitawa Kimuna, from East Carolina University, USA, lead a team of researchers who conducted the study, published in the ‘Journal of Interpersonal Violence’. The authors argue these high figures are partly explained by cultural attitudes in India of  female obedience and modesty, controlled through abuse.

This stance is accepted not just by men, but also by women. Kimuna and colleagues mention another previous study which found 93% of women from a sample in rural Tamil Nadu judge wife beating in certain circumstances as justified – such as neglecting household duties, disobedience, or using alcohol.

This latest investigation concludes many women are taught not only to accept, but also to rationalize domestic violence and downplay its significance, and so keep their experiences to themselves. This makes violence against women very difficult to study in India; high prevalence rates may still be a gross underestimation.

Kimuna and colleagues additionally report a 2005 United Nations Populations Fund study which showed that approximately two thirds of married women in India were victims of domestic violence at some point in time.

The 2010 Indian National Crime Records Bureau found 50.3% of crimes committed against women included cruelty by husband and relatives accounting for 44%, Dowry Prohibition Act and dowry death combined accounted for the remaining 6.3%.

Previous research has found that a key predictor of whether a woman suffers domestic violence is how many children she has. The odds increase with more children. Researchers still don’t know why – is it children increase financial strain so predisposing husbands toward violence? Or is it women subjected to violence have less control over their sexuality and therefore childbearing? 

Another just published survey of 124 385 women from all 29 member states of India went beyond the last 12 months of Kimuna’s study, and  found almost two thirds of violence-related injury victims had bruises, 18% of victims had sprains and dislocations, 13% had broken limbs, and 4% had burns.

This study is entitled ‘A National Study of the Prevalence and Correlates of Domestic Violence Among Women in India’ and found that if women worked outside the home this increased their risk for violence. Dr Koustuv Dalal and Dr Kent Lindqvist from Linkoping University, Sweden, the authors of this research, explained this effect as down to the ‘superiority complex’ of Indian husbands. Published in the academic journal ‘Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health’, the study argues that historically, the man was the breadwinner of the Indian family, so a working wife challenges a husband’s status, thereby, provoking brutality. The study also found that Muslim women were more likely to suffer domestic violence. 

The WHO Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women, established a prevalence rate of 15% in Japan, which not only makes the Indian situation look particularly terrible in comparison, in terms of lifetime physical and sexual violence by intimate partners, but Indian rates could be even at the higher end of the scale internationally, because domestic violence is such a norm in India, that it might be more under-reported than elsewhere.

Mervyn Gifford from the Department of Public Health Science, University of Skovde, Sweden led a team which recently surveyed male adolescents (aged 15–19 years) in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal on attitudes to domestic violence. These are the young men who are going to grow into husbands of the future, so this study provides a glimpse into the outlook for domestic violence. Is there evidence that aggression is going to improve? Instead this survey provided further ominous evidence that India stands out regionally in terms of its backwards attitude to domestic cruelty. The study entitled ‘Male Adolescents’ Attitudes Toward Wife Beating: A Multi-Country Study in South Asia’ and published in the ‘Journal of Adolescent Health’ found that in Bangladesh, 42% justified wife beating; in India, 51% supported wife beating; and in Nepal, 28% supported wife abuse.

Kimuna and colleagues point out that Domestic Violence occurs behind closed doors and curtained windows so it’s one of the easiest  crimes to ignore –  indeed it’s even been described as  a “crime of silence”. Shame, embarrassment, the need to protect family honour all conspire to keep many women silent.

So what can be done about this epidemic of wife battering and abuse in India? Dalal and Lindqvist quote evidence from South Africa showing that microfinance-based empowerment programs for women have positive effects. Women gain from cooperative microfinance approaches to resolving their economic problems, and can also develop and share awareness of domestic violence.

But India’s legal system also needs to be much tougher on this crime. In September 2012, the UK Home Office announced that the definition of domestic violence would be widened to include coercive control.

Yet it was not until 1983 that India introduced its very first legal provisions in relation to marital violence.

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