Delhi: It was two months into their marriage that the abuse began. Mohan, 30, slapped his wife Ragini Sharma, 27, for giving a lower dowry than expected by her parents-in-law. (Names have been changed to maintain anonymity.) “First he used to be sarcastic about our class difference – I was from west Delhi and he from a posh south Delhi society – but then one day, he attacked at me”, said Ragini, an energetic woman, who now teaches at a school in New Delhi. “I tried to attack him back at times but all that I could do was scratch him.” When Ragini told her mother-in-law about the abuse she was told “all this is normal”. It was when Ragini’s husband dragged her, and beat her up so severely that it left her with wounds on her head, she left the house and registered a complaint with the Delhi police under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), passed in 2005.
“I was in a dilemma then, because filing a case meant that my marriage is going to break and we are going to have a divorce,” but her family’s support firmed her resolve for justice. The court has provided partial compensation to Ragini, while divorce proceedings are still ongoing in the case.
In the ten years since the PWDVA, a civil act, was passed, over 1,000,000 cases have been filed across the country under sections pertaining to “cruelty by husband” and dowry, data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show. Cases registered under the abetment of suicide of women, collected by the NCRB since 2014, increased by 34%, from 3034 in 2014 to 4060 in 2015, data show.
Missing, incomplete data under the prevention of domestic violence act
Though the protection under domestic violence act law was enacted in 2005, the NCRB only started collecting data under the law in 2014, according to this 2017 Lok Sabha answer.
Today, data under PWDVA, as collected by the NCRB, includes only criminal violations of court orders under PWDVA, such as the violation of a protection order passed by the court while the case is ongoing. Cases registered under the violation of the PWDVA increased by 8%, from 426 in 2014 to 461 in 2015, according to NCRB data.
This does not include actual incidents of domestic violence which are recorded under three sections of the Indian Penal Code – section 498 A for cruelty by husband and his relatives, section 304 B for Dowry deaths and section 306 for abetment of suicide.
Further, cases dealing with protection from husband and relatives, and maintenance in cases of domestic violence, are registered directly with the court, under the PWDVA, a civil law, and are not recorded by the NCRB. This data on court cases has remained inaccessible after repeated attempts by women’s rights groups.
More than a decade since the act has been implemented, data on the success or failure of the act remains skewed, said Swati Maliwal JaiHind, the chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW). “What I have observed all these years is that the fight to justice is a tedious one with often justice delayed is justice denied,” she said, explaining that courts don’t collect numbers on outcome of these cases.
Even in cases recorded by the NCRB, there is high pendency.
As many as 35,260 (83%) out of 42,410 cases filed under dowry deaths in 2015 and left over from 2014 were pending at the end of 2015, as were 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 data from the NCRB.
Crime numbers might not reflect actual status of domestic violence
In 2015, over 113,000 cases were filed under the section called “cruelty by husband and relatives” by the NCRB, up 80% from 2006 when about 63,000 cases were filed, data show. The increase in number of cases could be because of an actual increase in crime or because of a rise in reporting off such cases, as awareness of the law grows, and more women are empowered to report abuse to the police, rather than an increase in the number of crimes.
Trends differ from state to state. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, cases under “cruelty by husbands and relatives” decreased from 9,164 to 6,121, a 33% fall between 2006 and 2015, while dowry deaths decreased 66% from 519 in 2006 to 174 in 2015. Cases under “cruelty by husbands and relatives” increased by over 171% in West Bengal from 7414 in 2006 to 20,163 in 2015. There was little change in the number of dowry deaths recorded in Bihar from 1,188 in 2006 to 1,154 in 2015.
It is unclear whether data from the National Crimes Records Bureau shows actual trends in domestic violence. Almost 30% of married Indian women between the ages of 15 and 49 years reported experiencing sexual violence at least once, according to National Family Health Survey-4, conducted over 2015-16.
Though cases recorded with the NCRB reduced in Andhra Pradesh, 43.2% women reported facing spousal violence in 2015-16 over 2006 (33%), according to NFHS data.
As high as 60% of men admitted to violence against their wife or partner at some point in their lives, according to a study by Washington-based International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as IndiaSpend reported in November 2014.
Other signs of the continuing domestic abuse against women is reflected through other indicators. For instance, More Indian women are prone to fire-related deaths than any other country – 18 times more than Pakistani women and 38 times more than Chinese women – according to an analysis of global disease data by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research body based at the University of Washington, USA, as IndiaSpend reported in January 2017.
As many as 17,700 Indians died due to fire accidents in 2015, of which 10,925 (62%) were women, NCRB data reveal.
Further, though Indian men are twice as likely as women to kill themselves, of all the methods of suicide, self-immolation is the only one that claims more women than men, according to national crime data, with 5,832 women committing suicide by fire, compared to 3,723 men in 2015.
Ritual self-immolation is an Indian tradition, noted this 2003 study, which identified dowry as the modern motivating factor. “When dowry expectations are not met, the young bride may be killed or compelled to commit suicide, most frequently by burning,” wrote the author, Virendra Kumar, a forensic professor.
Why domestic violence remains common, and justice slow
After a case has been filed, many different kinds of organisations play a role in ensuring justice and rehabilitation to the victim.
“It is important to understand that there are multiple stakeholders involved in the implementation of the law ranging from protection officers (PO) – who issue protection orders as a relief to the victim, an order of monetary relief, a custody order, residence order and compensation order, service providers – who aid in conducting medical examination, record the incident of violence, and forward it to the magistrate while also providing the aggrieved with a shelter home, and a lawyer”, said Anuradha Kapoor, Director of SWAYAM, a Kolkata-based non-governmental women’s rights organisation.
There are problems at each level of implementation.
Protection officers are often overloaded with work and are not provided with guidelines in implementing certain provisions in the law,” said Suneeta Thakur, counselor with Jagori, a New Delhi-based women’s resource centre.
Further, “unfortunately, there is hardly any change over time in the notion that domestic violence is a family affair,” with at least 57% of the POs surveyed regarding it as a family affair, according to a 2012 report studying the implementation of protection under the domestic violence act in Delhi, Rajasthan and Maharashtra by the Lawyers collective, a New Delhi-based public interest law firm.
“The system is not very clean when it comes to filing a domestic violence complaint. Many times the police urged us to sort out the matter amongst ourselves as this was not simply a matter of violence but dowry demand as well”, said Ragini on her experience with the police system.
“Patriarchal attitudes remains very much a part of our family structures, which (the) state is reluctant to reform,” Thakur of Jagori said.
Another flaw in the implementation of the law is that there is no uniform protocol for service providers. Service providers in this case are mostly NGOs, and often have no link with the police or with protection officers, according to the Lawyers Collective report. Service home authorities are not trained under the Protection of Domestic Violence Act or taught to handle cases of domestic violence, the report said.
Further, these organisations lack adequate funding, the report said.
“When an aggrieved woman reaches us, after counselling her, we direct her to a shelter home” but “shelter homes remain flooded with women,” said Thakur. Often, a woman can stay at a shelter home for a maximum of two months, after which she has to either find another shelter home or remain homeless, explained Maliwal of DCW. “I strongly believe that there should be some vocational training courses for women in these homes so that they can earn a livelihood for themselves”, adds Maliwal.
The judiciary also plays an important role in implementing the law. “Over time, in our trainings, we have often come across unaware lawyers and judges. Most of the times they don’t know how (the) law works and how to utilize the law as an effective instrument”, to reduce abuse said Kapoor of Swayam, whose organization runs awareness trainings on the act for lawyers.
Most lawyers are not aware of the concept of service providers (SP) and therefore do not coordinate with them in providing adequate legal services, according to the Lawyers Collective report. Furthermore, the judiciary is hardly aware of the role of the SPs, for either filling in the Domestic incident report (DIR), or for counselling, the report said.
Further, speedy trials – the PWDVA mandates that the magistrate shall endeavour to dispose of every application filed, within a period of sixty from first day of its hearing–are not a reality.
Ragini Sharma, who filed her case against her husband and his parents for domestic violence about a year ago, had only received partial compensation after nine months, while the rest will be given once the divorce proceedings are finalised, she told IndiaSpend.
“None of the Courts have been able to achieve the PWDVA provision of a timeline of 60 days for passing of orders and this creates delays in justice”, according to Lawyers Collective report.
“We are making definite efforts to decrease this file over file load. There is already a pendency of cases from previous governments, if it continues to linger, they will be an indeterminate delay in the whole process”, said Maliwal of DCW.
Domestic violence still seen as an internal family affair
Domestic violence is often treated as a family affair requiring counselling both by the police and the courts, according to the 2014 Quest for justice report by the Tata school of Social sciences (TISS). This has become the approach of both agencies that discourage women from proceeding with legal remedies and instead recommend they “settle” matters”, the report explained.
In Tamil Nadu, ‘All Women Police Stations’ did not register crimes in cases of domestic violence immediately. Instead they registered the cases in the Community Service Register and attempted to resolve the dispute through informal mechanisms, the report said.
Manisha Chachra is pursuing Mphil in political studies from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has previously worked with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
This article originally appeared on IndiaSpend.