I was seven when I first learned it was okay for a man to hit his wife.
My neighbour, a working man and father of two, would often throw objects at his wife in feats of anger. On the rare occasions that his wife’s scars would be visible despite her various attempts at hiding them, my house-help, a woman in her early forties would sigh and reflect on how she had faced worse. I was not old enough to encroach further, nor was I mature enough to comprehend the magnitude of this injustice. As I grew up, I gradually came to know that this phenomenon is a common occurrence, but the bit that I found hard to digest was the fact that it was rarely talked about. Victims would be extra cautious about hiding those scars, would put an extra effort at a smile, and would leave the conversation if god forbid anyone even begins to ask if everything is okay. The act would extend from mothers, who are victims, to their children. Children would learn, as children often do, to accept the trauma and live with it for years to come. What we as a society fail to understand is that a single moment of exposure to violence perpetrated by one’s own father on one’s mother cannot simply be forgotten. That single moment in itself is enough to instill into the child’s mind generations of gender inequality, fear of failed relationships, lack of faith in family, and most importantly, crippling self-worth.
It certainly is not okay for a man to hit his wife. But a day spent not doing anything about it is a day spent encouraging it.
Growing up in a country like Bangladesh, home to 170 million people struggling for survival despite the many challenges that often accompany developing countries, I have witnessed firsthand the pervasive and distressing atrocities that marginalized people endure on a regular basis. While poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and scarcity of clean water are often discussed as pervasive issues in countries like Bangladesh, there is an aspect that remains largely unspoken: the prevalence of violence against women, particularly intimate partner violence. This deeply troubling phenomenon, which affects countless lives, often goes unnoticed and unaddressed, perpetuated by the deep-rooted stigma that surrounds it. According to the BBS (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics), the rate of intimate partner violence (IPV) in Bangladesh ranges from 42% to 76% across regions and as many as 72.6% of ever-married women have endured one or more types of violence at least once in their lives by their husbands.
As per the statistics of UN Women, in 2018, an estimated one in seven women had experienced sexual or physical intimate partner violence in the last 12 months, and as of 2020, 47,000 women died at the hands of their partner. While the world average of women experiencing intimate partner violence in the last 12 months is 13%, the statistics are a striking 37% for women living in countries classified by the Sustainable Development Goals as least developed countries. The Asia-Pacific region is reported to suffer from the highest number of cases of gender-based violence with more than 18,000 femicides as of 2021, and Indonesia, an Asian country with the fourth largest population in the world, had an official record of 348,446 reported cases of intimate partner violence in 2017, after which the numbers increasingly went north - and this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The biggest problem in the domain of violence against women is the inaccuracy of data, or lack thereof due to the absence of a proper reporting system. While enabling a reporting system is primarily a logistical issue, the larger issue is getting women to actually report the cases.
According to the UN Women database, as many as 40% of women do not seek any help or support after they have been inflicted with violence by men. Among those who do seek help, only about 10% appeal to the police or look into formal institutions. The majority depend upon friends and family, who often either advise enduring violence or encourage silence.
Despite the alarming statistics, nobody talks about it - IPV remains an open secret, capable of scorching lives in its path, yet all too often, it is overlooked as people swiftly move on to the next pressing problem. IPV transcends social class, as women across all strata of society are conditioned to endure abuse while men are ingrained with a sense of impunity, reflecting the pervasive gender inequality that continues to afflict the world on a global scale, even in the 21st century. Not only has violence against women been normalised through generations but more often than not, the act is condoned, subtly but effortlessly making its way to the next generation. If you pay attention, the act of making allowances for men to be excused really begins at home - the commonly heard phrase ‘boys will be boys’ is a seemingly harmless but potentially dangerous idea that subtly condones gender-based violence by assigning zero guilt to boys in their formative years. It slowly and inadvertently creates an environment where it is acceptable for men to exercise violence on women due to the expected norm that men are dominant and women, submissive.
A rather interesting research has dissected masculinity and shown that this in fact is one of the root causes of gender-based violence. There are three types of masculinity; namely Dominant Traditional Masculinity, Oppressed Traditional Masculinity and New Alternative Masculinity. The perpetrators of gender-based violence belong to the Dominant Traditional masculinity, characterised by being violent and aggressive towards women. These are men who adhere to traditional gender norms and hold the socially accepted belief that men are superior to women. This theory is further suggested in another paper, which identifies the traditionalist, the pragmatist, and the egalitarian as the three diverse views of masculinity with specific ideologies on the gender hierarchy and acceptance of violence within marriage. The pragmatic saw violence as undesirable but occasionally necessary in order to change the wife's behaviour, but the traditionalist had the highest acceptance of violence as a tactic to defend the superior position of men inside marriage. Because they held that men and women are complementary to one another and are equal in every way, egalitarians could not find any justification for violence. Alas, we are yet to find a world where egalitarians reign supreme.
While the implications of IPV on its immediate victims are abundantly evident, it is crucial to recognize the far-reaching impact it has on the entire lifespan of children, beginning from their formative years and extending into the later stages of their lives. The harmful effects of IPV on women can extend to their children's health and exposure to violence often causes children to develop psychological, social, and school problems. Studies in low-income countries, like Nicaragua and Bangladesh, indicate that children exposed to maternal abuse face various adverse outcomes. These include reduced immunisation rates, increased prevalence of diarrheal disease, and a higher risk of mortality before the age of five.
The scars that violent households can leave on the overall health of children are monumental and can stretch over the years to shape their behaviors in ways that can even affect their families in later stages of life.
The issue of violence against women, including gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, wife abuse, and the many other terms that are used interchangeably, are not just a problem of today, but also a pressing concern of tomorrow. While there have been ample efforts to combat this issue globally, the issue simply is much larger than given credit for. It is high time more resources are put into place to tackle this issue so that violence against women becomes an archaic term for generations to come.
18 August 2023