Shrinking safe spaces

Ruth Nengneilhing *

 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in November 2013
16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in November 2013 :: Pix - WAD (Women Action for Development)

Recently I had a conversation with a director in one of the departments of Manipur government. When he enquired about my area of work, I replied: ‘Gender-based violence in Manipur’. To my surprise he said, ‘But there is no such thing in Manipur’. It reflected not only his ignorance but also insensitivity of the hard realities around him, especially of women.

The National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16) showed that Manipur has the highest percentage of domestic violence in the country. The information in NFHS-4 was obtained from 15-49 years old never-married women on their experience of violence committed by anyone and from ever-married women on their experience of violence committed by their current and former husbands and by others.

Violence against women, which is often swept under the carpet, comes into public purview only when it reaches a critical stage. Two recent gruesome cases of N. Babysana and Chungamliu Riamei, who were found death in a school hostel and at home respectively, reveal the grim situation of unsafe spaces for women both in the public and domestic spheres.

NFHS-3 and NFHS-4 provide a dismal figure of how many women put up with violence within their four walls. The NFHS-3 showed spousal physical or sexual violence of ever-married women between 15-49 years in Manipur to as high as 44 per cent, which along with Tripura, came in third place, with the national average of 37 per cent.

Interestingly, in NFHS-4, Bihar and Manipur exchanged their spots with Manipur ranking first with 55 per cent and Bihar in the third place with 45 per cent (along with Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). In NFHS-4, the national average was 33 percent.

Domestic and sexual violence are among the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence against women and girls. The consequences are devastating and long lasting effects on health, ranging from physical injuries, diseases, chronic ailments, trampling of reproductive and sexual rights, psychological effects and even, in some cases, death.

In domestic violence, though men are largely the perpetrators, culprits may also include women members of the family. Contrary to the general belief, domestic violence is also not limited to the marital relationship, but includes violence against daughters, sisters, mothers, single women, et al.

Thus, it includes both natal and marital family members. In Manipur, according to the NFHS-4, among those who experienced physical violence since age 15, the most common perpetrator for ever-married women was the husband (93 per cent) and for never-married women, it was a mother/step-mother (46 per cent), followed by father/stepfather (42 per cent), and sister/brother (31 per cent).

Looking at Manipur with the highest percentage of domestic violence and Sikkim as the lowest as per NFHS-4, one may draw a comparison at the way women and men justify the violence. In the case of Manipur, 84 percent of women believe it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife under some circumstances.

Women are most likely to believe that wife beating is justified if a woman shows disrespect for her in-laws (71 per cent), followed by if she neglects the house or children (59 per cent) and if she goes out without telling her husband (45 per cent). In the case of men, 67 percent say that wife beating is justified in some circumstances, especially if the wife shows disrespect for her in-laws (51 per cent) or if she neglects the house or children (37 per cent).

On the other hand, the responses in Sikkim show an altogether different picture. Except for the first figure, the remaining percentage comes in low one-digit numbers. Eight percent of women believe it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife under some circumstances.

Women are most likely to believe that wife beating is justified if a woman shows disrespect for her in-laws (five per cent), followed by if she neglects the house or children (three per cent) and if he suspects her of being unfaithful (two per cent), if she goes out without telling him (two per cent), or if she argues with him (two per cent).

Men are about equally likely to agree - six percent say that wife beating is justified in some circumstances, especially if she shows disrespect for in-laws (four per cent) or if she neglects the house or children, if she goes out without telling him, or if the husband suspects his wife is unfaithful (three per cent each).

The history of larger societal conflict over the years in the two states shows vast differential experiences. One can clearly observe the larger experience of societal violence and conflict in Manipur in one form or the other, right through the years since its formation to now. The state has been under the throes of socio-political unrest in its long years of struggle for social, political and economic stability.

While on the other hand, Sikkim is largely a peaceful state which in recent years has become a major tourist hub. In a conflict-ridden state like Manipur, often women are the ones most vulnerable and affected. The state has witnessed enormously high numbers of rape and molestation of women over the long years of conflict.

There is a need to recognise that violence against women is not an individual issue but a systemic one, which needs to be addressed right from the family to the state level institutions. In the global discourse, there is an increasing recognition of violence as a major and growing public health problem.

Sama, a resource group for women and health based in Delhi, in their booklet on gender-based violence explains that a public health approach is needed through multi-sectoral, coordinated efforts to prevent as well as address the consequences of violence.

This approach considers that violence is the outcome of multiple risk factors and causes, interacting at four levels of nested hierarchies and power relationships - individual, close relationship/family, community and wider society. The public health approach emphasizes the primary prevention of violence, which is stopping it from occurring in the first place. Often, violence against women is treated or seen as normal until it escalates to the point of death; only then a hue and cry is raised.

To address this, one needs to move beyond existing gender-based stereotypes and attitudes, which treat violence as a “normal” and “inevitable” reality of women and girls in our society is necessary, both, at the individual and institutional levels. Essentially, as the Sama booklet says, the heart of the matter is the unequal power relations, and gender based inequalities.

This patriarchal ideology, which condones the use of violence and aggression by men on women, serves to perpetuate male power, control and dominance.

Women themselves internalise their status in the patriarchal set-up and thereby, justify the beatings and violence as a “normal” routine.

Mitigating the larger socio-political violence needs to be seriously looked upon as it is otherwise liable to heighten the incidence of violence against women. State mechanisms alone are inadequate to address this issue and proactive participation from every responsible individual is required.

* Ruth Nengneilhing wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a post-doctoral scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
She can be reach at nnlruthneo(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on Septemner 12, 2019 .

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