By Asma Humayun
April 4th, 2016
AMIDST robust campaigning by liberal sections to activate the feminist lobby and strong criticism by clerics defending Islam’s endowment of women’s rights, there is a risk of overlooking the essence of what is a major human rights and public health issue — domestic violence.
Today, domestic violence is recognised as a ‘global’ public health issue that is prevalent in high-, middle- and low-income countries. While the presentation of domestic violence may be culture-specific, it exists in all countries, cultures and religions. The reported rates vary; generally a third of all women suffer some form of domestic violence in their lives.
The aetiology of violence is best described by the model which proposes that violence is a result of factors operating at four levels: individual, relationship, community and societal. These feature low levels of education, poverty, witnessing or experiencing violence as a child, substance abuse, personality disorders, low socio-economic status of women; weak legal sanctions against domestic violence; and broad social acceptance of violence.
Research strongly suggests that domestic violence and mental illness go hand in hand. Domestic violence and depression are intertwined and part of a vicious cycle. In addition to depression, domestic violence is strongly linked with physical injuries, chronic poor health, homicide and suicide. Serious adverse effects have also been observed in children.
Domestic violence and mental illness go hand in hand.
According to the 2016 bill proposed by the Punjab government, violence is, “any offence committed against a woman including abetment of an offence, domestic violence, emotional, psychological and verbal abuse, economic abuse, stalking or cybercrime”. Although the bill proposes to address a broad array of violent crimes against women, both within and outside the house, the text fundamentally focuses on domestic violence.
Quite clearly, this is a complex issue where it might be difficult to implement the law.
The definition of violence in the bill is blurred as the term ‘domestic violence’ already includes physical, emotional (psychological, verbal abuse included) and sexual forms of abuse and controlling behaviour, such as economic abuse. More importantly, the prevalent aspect of ‘sexual abuse’ is missing here.
The bill offers protection from relationships through ‘consanguinity and marriage’. Therefore, it goes beyond partner violence and includes abuse from other members of the family. The protection order directs the defendant to ‘stay away’ or ‘leave the house’. This is already difficult to apply in cases where the defendant is the husband; but what if the defendant is, for example, the mother-in-law?
Criminalising the behaviour of the ‘defendant’ might be a deterrent in the short term, but certainly a more comprehensive conflict-resolution approach will be needed to address the underlying causes.
Many cases of domestic violence lack tangible evidence and are hard to verify. It is easier to have a court of inquiry when violence results in physical injury. Similarly, it might be easier to evaluate a single incident of violence in isolation, but domestic violence is usually an ongoing process where it becomes incrementally more difficult, even clinically, to assess the role of each partner in perpetuating violence over a longer period.
Many abused women choose not to report or leave their partners. The reasons may include fear of retaliation; lack of economic support; concern for their children or fear of losing them; lack of support from family and friends; stigma of divorce; or hope that the partner will change. These conflicts make it difficult for outside agencies including the legal system to intervene.
Providing a toll-free number must be followed by effective response. Does our law-enforcement system have the capacity to respond to the huge number of calls that will inevitably come?
Then there is the big question of rehabilitating victims which is, rightly so, a part of the bill. Does the state have the capacity to support, train and employ them so that they can look after themselves and their children in the long run?
The bill proposes the appointment of women protection officers. If this materialises, it might turn out to be a large unwieldy taskforce considering how common the problem is. It might be more feasible if existing ‘public servants’ are trained in psychosocial interventions in order to handle the sensitive nature of these conflicts.
While the bill should be lauded for drawing attention to an important issue, it is equally essential to approach its implementation in a manner in which vulnerable groups find it easy to use it as an avenue of recourse. The initial phase of implementing this bill should focus on identifying families at risk and to provide early-intervention services, including legal advice; social and counselling services for marital discord and referrals for specialised interventions for serious mental disorders.
At the societal level, it is important to build coalitions of government, religious and civil society institutions focusing on behavioural principles and avoiding a confrontational approach that will polarise communities.
Asma Humayun is a consultant psychiatrist.