Placating the battered
The Protection from Domestic Violence Bill, 2001, in its current form, will neither protect women nor end domestic violence. This is one subject that has to be debated in public.
No safety within the home.
INDIAN women might end up indirectly thanking the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for one thing. In the last fortnight, when the VHP held the entire country to ransom over the puja it wanted to conduct in Ayodhya, the Lok Sabha went into a state of suspended animation. As assorted sadhus and sants hogged the front pages of newspapers and prime time television, our elected Members of Parliament could not do any of their routine work.
As a result, thankfully, the half-baked Protection from Domestic Violence Bill, 2001 did not come up for vote. Given the lack of attention that parliamentarians usually pay to such bills, it would probably have slipped through with the minimum quorum present and with practically no debate.
Women have reason to be relieved that Parliament's attention was distracted. This will give them a little more time to lobby with MPs and to educate them about this particular law, which they hope will not be passed. For the law, as it has been drafted and presented, will neither protect women nor end domestic violence.
In fact, it is a mystery how it metamorphosed into its present form given that the Government had before it a comprehensive draft, prepared after detailed discussions with lawyers and women's activists. Perhaps in its anxiety to present itself as pro-women, and to do this in a year, which it has declared is for women's empowerment, the Government thought it best to push through an inoffensive law. The trouble with that is that neither this law will neither offend anyone, nor will it defend women in whose name it is being passed.
People who have not followed the debate on a law on domestic violence might well ask why we need one more law dealing with violence against women. Do we not have enough of these? And in any case, can laws really tackle issues that have to do with attitudes and patriarchy? How can a law deal with what goes on inside a home, between a husband and a wife?
All these questions are valid. The law does have severe limitations. But we have to consider what life would be like for women if there were no laws dealing with various forms of violence that are gender specific. For instance, if there was no law against dowry, or against dowry-related harassment, would the incidence of dowry deaths have increased, or have these laws acted as some form of deterrence?
Domestic violence outside the specific harassment for dowry is even trickier. Women are beaten because they are accused of infidelity, because they have not cooked a meal that the husband likes, because they are not deemed to have looked after the children, because they are accused of not being respectful enough to their in-laws, because they have chosen to step out of the house without informing the husband, because they are independent and have minds of their own, etc. The list is endless and incredible. Basically, if a woman tries to be her own person, she is suspect and can justifiably be thrashed. Worse still, studies have established that the majority of women are socialised into believing that they deserve to be thrashed for any one or all of these reasons.
If a woman, who is a victim of violence, chooses to turn to the law, she is usually thrown out of the house. This leaves her defenceless and homeless. It forces her to compromise, which usually means returning to the torture chamber after withdrawing her legal complaint. Without independent means, no woman can walk out of her marital home.
Women's groups who drafted a law, which they sent to the Government, had behind them decades of experience of dealing with victims of violence. They had realised that women needed shelter for themselves and their children pending action under a law. Therefore, they have asked for "protection orders", which guarantee the right to remain in the marital home with legal provisions, such as restraining orders that would protect the victim from her tormentor.
They have also asked for emergency monetary assistance for the victim and her children. These provisions were explicitly included in their draft of the law.
The Government's version of the law includes some suggestions from the women's draft but the wording is vague, leaving too much to the discretion of the magistrate. The Government's draft also includes some sections that virtually nullify any good that the law might contain. For instance, the law before Parliament has a specific sub-section, which justifies violence if the husband resorts to it "for his own protection or for the protection of his or another's property". In other words, a man can beat his wife and then turn around and say he had to do this to protect his property.
The law also fails to define domestic violence satisfactorily. There are today internationally accepted definitions of what constitutes domestic violence. Why could the government not have simply used one of these definitions? It would have covered many different aspects of domestic violence and not left it to the whims of a magistrate to decide whether a case before him constituted domestic violence or not.
Violence in the home is one of those uncomfortable subjects that have to be debated in the public domain. This is not a private matter. This is a societal issue about which every thinking person ought to be concerned. It affects not just the women who are subjected to the violence, but also the children who witness it. If a society allows such violence to continue within a family unit, one which is supposed to symbolise love, then how much more will it be willing to tolerate outside the four walls of the home? Could this be one reason we have become so accepting of the barbarity and violence on our streets?
One recent incident graphically links the violence inside and outside the home. It happened a couple of weeks ago in Gujarat, at the height of the communal carnage that convulsed the State. According to a newspaper report, a Hindu woman tried to persuade her husband not to go out and join the mob, which was burning and looting. She was not just brushed aside, but the husband came back to the house with some of his male relatives, beat up the woman, doused her with kerosene and set her on fire. Unfortunately for him, the woman lived to tell the ghastly tale.
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