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  • Writer's pictureMonash CDES Blog

Understanding the Disconnect between Experienced and Reported Abuse in India

Despite India implementing a series of stringent rights-based measures since 1961, starting with the Dowry Prohibition Act and followed by the comprehensive Domestic Violence Act of 2005, the country still bears a significant global burden of domestic violence. Not only has there been an overall increase in crime against women, but also the incidences of physical, emotional, and sexual violence experienced by ever-married women stands high at 32%, which in absolute numbers becomes glaring.


As a researcher on gender issues and also as a volunteer for women facing intimate partner violence (IPV), I feel compelled to highlight some of the complexities as we research and propose measures to eliminate IPV. The reporting of emotional and sexual abuse (14 and 6 %) as compared to physical violence (28 %) seems paradoxical. This paradox is particularly notable amid the spectrum of non-egalitarian attitudes and controlling behavior exhibited by husbands, justified and experienced by wives in the form of fear, reprimands, and constrained agency.


While physical violence is overt and can be proven in ways that are less complex, emotional and sexual abuse are more latent, subjective, and often dismissed easily than the visible scars and injuries and therefore can go underreported. Due to the sensitivity of sexual abuse, various factors such as shame, shyness, lack of privacy, and biases can contribute to poor reporting. Given that any instance of physical or sexual abuse intuitively evokes emotional distress, exhibited in different forms such as fear, helplessness, or diminished self-esteem, it is imperative to question the reported component of emotional violence as well.


Besides under-reporting, many times abuse cases are not reported because women are oblivious to the nature and range of abuses they experience. Examining cinema as a reflection of society reveals ample evidence in South Asian films, stand-up comedies, and daily conversations normalizing beating, punishing, and slurring as part of married life. This societal setup considers love as a justification for emotional and sexual abuse, with the ideals of a dutiful wife and modest woman collectively upheld to suppress or dismiss various reported abuse. In this process, knowingly or unknowingly, women become conditioned to endure various forms of abuse; with each occurrence raising the magnitude and threshold until it becomes unbearable, life-threatening, noticed by others, or when seeking help seems feasible.


An illustrative case is Savitri, who endured episodes of physical abuse, verbal aggression, and uncomfortable sexual demands from her husband and never considered them as violence. It seems to be a culmination of years of ignored abuse, because to her, what she was experiencing in her married space was nothing different than her mother’s reality and the reality of women around her.


Savitri normalized expressions of anger and aggression as inherent to men, shaping her understanding of masculinity. In her perspective, husbands were inherently more capable than wives in making important decisions. She expressed a sense of obligation to have food, shelter, occasional gifts, and permission to visit family and friends. Despite being shouted at, made to feel ashamed of her dark skin, punished for perceived faults like not cooking delicious food, and facing a constant barrage of belittling, Savitri remained in a conflicted state of mind. She felt hurt and violated yet justified her husband's actions, questioning her own worth and harboring a persistent sense of guilt and incompetency. Seeking assistance only occurred when she faced an acid attack and acts of violence that endangered her children.


Not only do women end up dismissing abuse, unaware that what they are experiencing constitutes one or multiple forms of abuse, but even those who experience it have set thresholds below which abuse is tolerated without being considered as an act of violence. I draw from the work of Sen and Nussbaum to pitch the latency of the construct of abuse, explained within the framework of adaptive preferences. This is when victims facing violence in their personal spaces are deemed to dismiss the abuse because they have adapted to certain types and thresholds of violence. Such adaptation can become so internalized that individuals fail to notice it, thereby limiting the preferences they express or the choices they make.


In fact, various factors, including limited economic and social opportunities, cultural norms, or a combination thereof, may shape adaptation to a spectrum of abuse. Women, influenced by fear, low expectations, and unjust conditions, may make distorted choices, and deprivation may compel them to adapt their desires and expectations for survival, accepting what they perceive as achievable.


According to the most recent figures from a pan India National Family Health survey (NFHS-5) men in India aged 15-49 own more properties than women. With married couples, only 32% of women aged 18-49 earn cash, however, they seem to have constrained discretion over spending their own earnings. Constraints on autonomy and agency are not limited to monetary aspects, it is noteworthy to learn that many married women have limitations to their say in decision-making in domains affecting their lives and have restricted mobility. Only 71% of women make decisions alone or jointly with husbands, as low as 56% of married women have 'permission' to go alone to the market, 52% to health facilities, and 50% to places outside the village.


Expressing justification for wife-beating is such that a considerable number of married women justify 'wife beating' for a range of behaviors such as neglecting children, disrespecting in-laws, or refusing to have sex with husbands (percentages ranging from 19% to 32%). Furthermore, at least 8% of women believe that a wife cannot refuse sex not only when she is tired or not in mood, but even when she is aware that the husband has sexually transmitted diseases or engages in sexual relations with other women. It's noteworthy to see educational attainment and status of employment or wealth of women doesn't significantly alter the non-egalitarian attitudes of men and women, as observed in NFHS-5.


The notion of the right to control in the form of 'permitting' or 'allowing' and 'reprimanding' is deeply discriminatory, reinforcing gender privilege that men hold ingrained in the social construct. Likely so, many men believe that the husbands should have a greater say in major purchase decisions or permitting wives to visit family/relatives, while wives according to them can have a greater say in daily purchases. Pausing to the likelihood of under-reporting, 19% agree men agree that husbands have the right to get angry or reprimand if their wives refuse sex and disturbingly, 6% of men believe they have the right to display a range of behavior such as anger, withholding financial support, forcefully engage in sex, or have sex with other women if their wives refuse sex.


It is also worrying to see a shift in the trend away from gender-equal relations over past years; there is an increase in the number of men justifying beating their wives and an overall decrease in egalitarian attitudes of husbands regarding equal or greater say of wives in all decision-making domains in the survey. Deviations from egalitarian behaviors often correlate with an increased likelihood of violence and abuse in such a context by placing women in the loop of fear and control.


The revealed preferences are so much influenced by structural inequalities such as social norms and oppressive conditions, that they may not truly represent preferred or valued reasoned living. Conceptualizing the malleability of such preferences will help to understand how people circumscribe their desires over time to adapt to poor circumstances and become more adaptive to injustice and deprivation. Post the conceptualization and understanding of how abuse is comprehended, the next step would be to develop innovative methods for data collection to improve the quality of reporting.

Reem Ashraf

23 January 2024


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