Rakhi (18), who hails from a village near Bakrahat, South 24 Paraganas, West Bengal was married off to Bhanu (31). It’s a matter of disgrace that Rakhi’s parents couldn’t afford her daughter’s education but could readily marry her off to a man who is 13 years elder than her and could readily pay a handsome dowry. It wasn’t even three months into the marriage, and the abuse started. Bhanu wanted more dowries and kept abusing Rakhi. Unaware of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) 2005, Rakhi is still facing her in-law’s atrocities and hasn’t yet lodged a police complaint.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in the 10 years since the introduction of PWDVA, over 1,000,000 cases have been filed across the country under sections pertaining to “cruelty by husband” and dowry. NCRB also registered cases under the abetment of suicide of women which have increased by 34% from 3034 in 2014 to 4060 in 2015. Data also state that from 2005 to 2015, 88,467 women have died in dowry-related cases. In 2015 alone, 7,634 women died over dowry.
Although feminist groups in India have consistently expressed their displeasure at the lack of adequate provisions for protecting women in the domestic sphere, no clear law or action has been passed to protect a woman’s right and integrity though the PWDVA has offered some relief.
An apprehensive Rakhi informed BE, “I am not sure whether I should go to the police. My parents are scared too. What if nothing fruitful turns out from the case and they continue to abuse me.”
In many cases, the women give up or don’t file complaints fearing lengthy court processes or harassment. Court delays, lack of resources, dearth of judges, lengthy processes add to the burden of the aggrieved. The government too has failed by not being able to provide sincere lawyers and a bench of protection officers who could work towards immediate redressal. PWDVA should also bring in its purview additional services like providing counseling, shelters and medical facilities.
According to an analysis by IndiaSpend, as many as 2.24 million crimes against women were reported over the past decade which makes 26 crimes against women every hour or one complaint every two minutes. Kalyan Bhaumik, Advocate of Supreme Court of India, told BE, “West Bengal stands second in domestic violence after Uttar Pradesh. Specifically the rural India is still less aware of the PWDV Act. In Domestic Violence Act, issues like getting property, share of the share household, maintenance (section 125)are included. The PWDV Act is an amalgamation of all those which was not earlier mentioned in the Indian Penal Code Amendment in 1983 (Section498-A) and is an offshoot of the previous act.
According to an answer to a question in the Lok Sabha, the NCRB only started collecting data under the law in 2014. The current data under PWDVA, as collected by the NCRB, include only criminal violations of court orders under PWDVA. The data also state that cases registered under the violation of the PWDVA increased by 8% from 426 in 2014 to 461 in 2015. However, this excludes actual incidents of domestic violence which are recorded under three sections of the Indian Penal Code namely Section 498-A for cruelty by husband and his relatives, Section 304-B for dowry deaths and Section 306 for abetment of suicide.
Domestic violence dominates
Like Rakhi, several other women suffer under the ruthless dowry culture. Though dowry has been deemed illegal in India since 1961, it is widely prevalent. Data from NCRB reported as many as 35,260 (83%) out of 42,410 cases were filed under dowry deaths in 2015, 11,319 (99.9%) of 11,320 cases recorded under abetment of suicide, 44,4367 (83%) of 534,431 cases filed under cruelty by husbands and his relatives, and 846 (99.8%) of 847 cases filed under the PWDVA.
According to a report by National Centre for Biotechnology Information, titled ‘Domestic violence against women in India: A systematic review of a decade of quantitative studies’, “The median and range of lifetime estimates of
psychological abuse was 22% (range 2–99%), physical abuse was 29% (2–99%), sexual abuse was 12% (0–75%), and multiple forms of DV was 41% (18–75%).”
Professor Naila Kabeer Professor of Gender and Development at the Department of Gender Studies and Department of International Development, in her paper titled ‘Relational Vulnerability’, elaborates the relational vulnerability of women as a reflection of women’s subordinate status within hierarchical gender relations in society. She states, “In India, where women are mostly treated as liabilities and identified socially only as someone’s daughter, wife, mother or sister, one can understand how the dependencies and relationships are spelt out in the identification itself. They barely have an identity of their own. They are merely identified by their relation (or subordination) to their male counterparts.”
The NCRB’s 2016 reports states that West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh ranked first and second in crimes against women. It also stated that over 34,205 cases of crime against women have been reported during 2016 and 59% of these cases were of domestic violence. West Bengal alone saw a total of 21,619 people being arrested or being involved in domestic violence. The cases were mostly of wife beating, demand of dowry and instigation to commit suicide.
According to the Hindustan Time’s Women Empowerment Index (WEI), the 10 worst performing states lie in a straight belt cutting across north and central India, starting from Rajasthan in the west and extend up to Assam in the east. The report says, “As many as 28.8% of married Indian women reported having suffered spousal violence.” The percentage is higher in eastern India.
The Indian Penal Code Amendment in 1983: Prior to the PWDVA Act 2005, The Indian Penal Code Amendment in 1983 held special provisions for cruelty towards married women by their husbands or their husbands’ families. Section 498-A of this Act officially made domestic violence a criminal offence and was added to the Indian Penal Code in 1983. One of the clauses of this section also facilitated the victim’s family or relatives to file a complaint for them. One of the main drawbacks was that it was only applicable to married women.
“Currently if a complaint of 498 is made, the investigative officer has to reasonably believe that there is an apprehension or breach of peace. If it endangers the life of the woman, the husband has to take the permission of the local police station before leaving the city. However, for burnt case immediate arrests take place”, added Kalyan Bhaumik.
The 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act: Created in 2005 and enacted a year later, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act is exactly what the title proclaims. The PWDVA is the first such law in India that specifically acknowledges every woman’s right to be in a home without violence. This act is considered to be a major step forward in securing women’s rights and protection. Unlike the Section 498-A of the IPC 1983, this Act clearly defines domestic violence which safeguards threats of physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or verbal abuse, as well as harassment regarding dowry or property. Women are given the right to seek protection against such acts, and their relatives can file a complaint for them against husbands who break the law. A woman’s right to reside in their “matrimonial household” is clearly recognised. She cannot be evicted from it as she rightfully shares it with her husband and if she is evicted, she has the right to seek monetary compensation and safe shelter, as well as free legal and medical aid. Violators of this law will either be mandated to compensate the woman financially, or will be served a restraining order to keep them away from the complainant.
The Supreme Court of India advocate further stated that recently courts along with the Supreme Court seek help of the Alternative Dispute resolution (ADR). ADR enables a case to resolve as fast as possible. If the case has been registered under the law, the case with the due process of law will take a certain number of years. But in ADR, things can be settled within a few days. The woman has to approach the ADR and the case can be resolved in two-three hearings. The Supreme Court is trying its best to make things amicable for the litigants. Both the parties have to be present if an ADR takes place, as at the end the conduct of the offenders are taken into consideration.
“The PWDV Act has made into one statute amalgamating previous acts like the 498-A Criminal act 1973, Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, Hindu Marriage Act Indian Penal Code.The section 18 of the PWDVA prohibits domestic violence, Section 19 states the residence order of a shared household, section 20 gives monetary relief, section 21 gives a custody order of a child, section 22 gives compensation orders. In different ways, the PWDVA saves time, money and energy. This act has encompassed other acts and no new petitions have to be done as was the case for earlier acts”, further added advocate Bhowmik.
The 2013 Criminal Law Amendment: The Justice Verma Committee, a small commission headed by one of India’s most highly regarded jurists, has successfully formed the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Indian Evidence Act were introduced in this 2013 under the Indian Penal Code. The aim of the amendment was to provide harsh and swift punishment for criminals who committed abuse against women. Particulars regarding sexual assault and rape were clarified and added. Penalties for offences such as rape, assault, and sexual harassment were increased. Heavier sentences were declared for rapists, even including the death sentence for particularly disturbing cases. The drawback of this act is that it is not limited to acid attacks, stalking, voyeurism, and publicly and forcefully disrobing a woman. The amendment also failed to address marital rape.
Crime against Women Cells: The women cells are an initiative of the Indian government to aid female victims of domestic abuse. In every district’s police station, a Crime Against Women (CAW) cell was put in place. These cells will provide direct assistance to women suffering from domestic abuse.
While domestic abuse is more prevalent with women as victims, there are many men who too suffer painful domestic cruelty. None of the provisions contain any clear provisions for violence against men. Even the recent PWDV Act 2005 does not provide any legal protection to men. Only women have the right to complain and seek legal action against their male partner. Even if the male partner is a victim of domestic violence, he has no right to complain. If the woman complains of domestic violence, prima facie, the complaint will be treated as true and genuine, and the male partner has to prove his innocence. If the male partner is cruelly nagged and decides to defend himself, the conduct of the male partner will be treated as a form of domestic violence which will be a punishable crime. If a male partner refuses to pay exorbitant monetary demands of the woman, she can accuse him of domestic violence. Not meeting her extravagant monetary demands is a punishable crime. Such discrepancies need to be addressed swiftly by our legal system.
On the awareness front, Kalyan Bhaumik opined that more camps should be held. ADR is holding camps in different places and districts. Local clubs should also be asked to participate and advertise. Public places must have helplines. Women commission are also trying to fight for such cases against womenfolk. Short movies should be made against domestic abuse to raise more awareness.