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Fight India’s dark secret of intimate partner violence

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Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a social evil with long-term socioeconomic and health consequences. While domestic violence occurs in the realm of a household, among family members and the corresponding hierarchy, IPV occurs between two partners and the dynamics of their relationship, and usually the wife is the abused. It compromises the safety, freedom and solidarity for women in the domestic space.

The National Family Health Survey-5 data (2019-21) reveals the prevalence of high incidence of IPV among married couples in India: 27% of women experienced physical abuse to a “lower degree” (pushed, slapped, punched, or hair pulled); 7.9% experienced it to “higher” degree (dragged, strangled or threatened with a knife/gun); and 5.54% reported that they faced sexual abuse (forced into unwanted sex or performing sexual acts). In addition, approximately 13% of women faced emotional abuse (humiliated, insulted or threatened with harm by their husbands).

The strict adherence to the cultural construct of male domination and the traditionally appreciated notion of a “good woman” obeying her husband contributes to the high acceptance of IPV by both men and women. Among married couples, men who legitimise IPV inflict more violence on their spouses.

Unfortunately, due to cultural beliefs, norms and a lack of agency, many women also justify IPV. The NFHS data reveals that women approving IPV face it more often than other women. Among them, 36% face a less severe form of physical abuse, 12% are subjected to severe physical violence, 8% face sexual violence, and 18% are abused emotionally. Given this broad context, acceptance and incidence of IPV also vary across education levels.

With an increase in the education of women and their husbands, both acceptance and incidence of IPV reduce. While 44% of women and 37% of men among those without any education approve of IPV, the share is much lower at 29% (women) and 22% (men) with education higher than secondary level. The largest decline is seen in physical abuse of a less severe form: 36.28% of married women with no education face it; it falls to 13.44% for those with higher than secondary education level.

Among working women, “female guilt” — unable to fulfil their traditional roles to the fullest — leads to a higher incidence of IPV. Approximately 47% of women in paid employment justified IPV, with the share being much lower at 38%. Women engaged in paid work also face 6% more violence than those who are not.

Education has a key role to play in lowering the risk of normalising IPV in working and non-working women. But educated working women are more prone to challenge and prevent IPV more than non-educated working women.

The NFHS-5 provides evidence of the irrefutable existence of intergenerational transmission of violence. Men and women who witnessed interparental violence during childhood or adolescence are more prone to approve of IPV than others; 57% of women and 51% of men who saw their fathers physically abuse their mothers justified IPV. The share comes down to 36% and 24% respectively among other women and men. For those women who witnessed their mothers being victims of IPV, a higher percentage is subject to every form of violence than other women.

We highlight these three sets of findings — on justifying IPV, the role of education and intergenerational transmission of violence — because they have potentially important implications for the initiatives aimed at reducing IPV. Increasing education for all can lower risks significantly.

Alongside, interventions with a particular focus on the subgroup of couples, where particularly the husband witnessed domestic violence while growing up, will be an effective measure. Also, mass media edutainment strategies, for example the programmes using multimedia such as television or radio, will need to be geared to influence and shape social norms so that men, and more importantly women, are able to break out of regressive gender norms and stop normalising IPV.

Bidisha Mondal and Aparna G are research fellow and research associate respectively with IWWAGE. The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge Sona Mitra, principal economist, IWWAGE, for her suggestions

The views expressed are personal

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