Tiruchirappalli: Barely a child herself, 20-year-old L Sindhika carries a toddler in her arms while peeking shyly from behind a pillar. Her haunted eyes speak volumes about life in the Thiru Vi Ka Nagar slum in the heart of Trichy in Tamil Nadu.
Five years ago Sindhika fell in love with and married an autorickshaw driver, Selvakumar. For the last three years, Sindhika is filled with dread as dusk falls; Selvakumar comes home drunk and beats her brutally every single day.
“I have given a police complaint and he has even gone to jail,” Sindhika told The Wire, speaking softly. “After a month or so he comes out of jail and begins beating me again.”
Why doesn’t she leave, maybe go back to her parents’ house? “I ran away and married him, so they don’t accept me anymore,” said Sindhika, adding, “I went home once unable to bear the beatings. My own parents asked me to go away. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
Her neighbour and friend S Sermathangam spews abuse at Selvakumar. “All the teenage boys in this slum are learning from him,” she said. “It is a cycle – they watch older men behave like this and they grow up to become like them, beating their wives,” she added.
Sindhika is another hidden number in Tamil Nadu’s growing crime rates. In 2012, the state topped the charts with a record 3983 cases of domestic violence out of the total 9431 cases reported in the country, as tabled in parliament by the then Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath. According to 2014 data from the National Crime Records Bureau, Tamil Nadu’s statistics are not particularly alarming, with only 1.9% to India’s crimes against women and cases under Section 498-A pertaining to cruelty by husband or his relatives numbering merely 2103.
The statistics may seem rosy but the reality is in truth grim, say experts working to help women facing violence. “Most people go in for a compromise and cases are not filed,” explained PA Lucia, an advocate and co-ordinator of the Federation Against Atrocities on Women in Tamil Nadu. “It is very tough to bring perpetrators of violence to book in such cases. First the police negotiate and settle things. If the woman crosses that barrier, the lawyers negotiate. Families put pressure on the woman not to file complaints,” she said.
The last National Family Health Survey conducted in 2005-06 and released in 2008 throws up some stark data – among women aged 15-49 in Tamil Nadu, 39% had experienced violence.
Violence against women in the state has taken increasingly morbid forms, with honour killings on the rise in recent years, say experts. Madurai-based Evidence, an NGO dealing with atrocities against Dalits, has compiled a list of 81 honour killings in the past three years, with most victims being women. “Women are seen as carrying forward the honour of the caste,” said Kathir, Managing Director of Evidence. “So-called “upper caste” women who marry Dalits are sacrificed by their own parents,” he said. On March 13, a young couple was hacked in broad daylight in Udumalaipet, Tirupur district by a group of assailants on bikes. Dalit engineer Sankar and his 19-year-old wife Kausalya, from the Thevar community (an other backward caste), were attacked with sickles, killing Sankar and grievously injuring the young woman.
A tale of three acts of violence
Hailing from a small village in Ariyalur, 30-year-old A Jayakumari fell in love and eloped with Alphonse, a native of a Dombivili slum in Mumbai in 2010. Six years later, having been subjected to daily beatings from her husband and his family –mother, father, two sisters and an elder brother – Jayakumari called it quits and ran back home, leaving behind her two children.
“It became unbearable,” she told The Wire in a shaky voice. “One day after I had a C-section I was forced by my husband’s family to work. I did everything they asked. When I got up from sitting on the floor, there was a pool of blood there. I was the only earning member of the family, my husband never earned a penny. They would beat me and take my money from me,” she said. Jayakumari is desperately trying to get her children back from Mumbai. But with no money and her parents unwilling to support her, she says she has nowhere to turn.
Another young woman from Koliyanur village in Villupuram, 28-year-old B Kalaichelvi, decided to walk out of her marriage after she was forced to stay indoors for a few years, disallowed from calling home or even answering phone calls from her mother. Her husband, when questioned about having a mistress, tried to strangle her, she said. But she did not leave him then. She decided to leave with her infant and walk out only when he told her that she would have to sleep with the men he brought home.
“My father died when I was eight-years-old, leaving my mother with me and three other siblings,” said Kalaichelvi. “We only have each other. I have still not told my mother the whole truth of what happened,” she said. Kalaichelvi is now the sole breadwinner in the family, working for a paltry sum of 3000 rupees a month as a sanitary worker, struggling to feed six mouths in all. On top of this, she is paying off huge loans, taken to fight an unending court battle for a divorce from her husband.
Although Tamil Nadu boasts of a relatively better record than other states in terms of rape, survivors say there is no support system in place for them, either in society or by the government, as 39-year-old P Sathya from Tiruvannamalai found out when she was raped ten years ago. Despite successive state governments boasting of fast-track Mahila courts, Sathya’s legal battle continues without an end in sight. “I got married after that to a man who then beat me regularly,” she told The Wire. “In March 2015 my husband died, saddling me with a loan of 2 lakh rupees that he had taken without my knowledge. I don’t know how I am going to support my three children all on my own and repay this debt,” she said, shaking her head in resignation.
Advocate Lucia says it is high time women became a part of the political rhetoric of the state. “Just as there is a demand for closing liquor shops, it is time to demand an end to violence against women,” she said. “Women must only vote for the party that promises concrete action to put an end to violence against women. There is an urgent need for that now,” she added.
Hemmed in by aggression from an increasingly male-dominated society, the women of Tamil Nadu are stuck in a cycle of debilitating violence. They are demanding support from the state and society. Women in Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s land are demanding respect.
Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based journalist. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan