Decoding the Extent to Which Domestic Violence Is Under-Reported in India

The largest underreporting seems to be occurring in Bihar, Karnataka and Manipur, where the prevalence of domestic violence is around 40%, while reporting is less than 8%.

Domestic violence is deeply entrenched and widely prevalent in India. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019 reports that a majority (30.9%) of all the 4.05 lakh cases under crimes against women are registered under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The section deals with ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’.

Section 498A of the IPC is a criminal law that protects married women from their spouses and the relatives of the spouse from inflicting cruelty on women. However, despite having the largest share of crimes against women, domestic violence is known to be a systematically under-reported crime. The reasons range from embarrassment, financial dependency, fear of retaliation, victim-blaming to following a convoluted bureaucratic procedure. Determining the extent of this underreporting is useful to understand the true state of the prevalence of domestic violence in India.

The NCRB report collates the crime statistics from all the states across the country. It considers the crime rate under Section 498A of the IPC, as the number of cases reported by women’s population in lakhs. On the other hand, the recently launched National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) (2019-2020) is an independent, reliable and nationally representative data source that also collects self-reported responses for spousal violence.

Instead of going by civil or criminal lawsuits against the spouse and their relatives (as is captured by NCRB data), the NFHS only captures if the women respondent was subject to domestic violence by her husband, irrespective of reporting that incidence.

Hence, comparing the state-level percentages of NCRB data with the NFHS-5’s percentages of married women aged 18-49 years who have experienced spousal violence will help us determine the extent of under-reporting of incidents of domestic violence.

Also read: While Battling COVID-19, We Can’t Let the Pandemic of Domestic Violence Continue

It is important to note that the NFHS responses might also be subject to biases if the survey is conducted in the presence of other household members or if the respondent is unsure of the consequences of her response. Despite this, due to the absence of inhibiting factors associated with the actual filing of the complaint, under-reporting is likely to be lower in NFHS than statistics from the NCRB.

The NFHS-5 also echoes the stark reality of domestic violence in India (see figure 1): 44% of women respondents in Karnataka have experienced spousal violence, followed by Bihar (40%), Manipur (39.6), Telangana (36.9), Assam (32%), and Andhra Pradesh (30%). Lakshadweep (1.3%), Nagaland (6.4%), Goa (8.3%) and Himachal Pradesh (8.3%) have the lowest violence among all the states surveyed.

Comparing these estimates with the proportion of women who have filed complaints under Section 498A of the IPC, we note that there is systematic under-reporting of incidents of domestic violence in 14 of the 20 or 70% of the states. Reporting under Section 498A is as low as 0 in Lakshadweep and Nagaland, whereas NFHS-5 statistics suggest otherwise. The largest under-reporting seems to be occurring in Bihar, Karnataka and Manipur, where the prevalence of domestic violence is around 40% or higher, while reporting is less than 8%. Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana Tripura, and West Bengal have higher percentages of case filings than the self-reported incidences of domestic violence.

Figure 1: The blue indicator depicts the number of cases filed under section 498A of the IPC or ‘Cruelty by Husband or His Relatives’ divided by the women’s population in lakhs. The blue indicator reports the percentage of ever-married women aged 18-49 years who had experienced spousal violence

It is important to keep in mind that unlike NFHS-5, NCRB covers the cases (1) filed by the women outside the 18-49 age limit, and (2) those filed against the spouse’s relative (not just spouse, as covered under NFHS-5) who inflicts cruelty. Given the wider reach of NCRB 2019 than NFHS-5, the issue of underreporting merits urgent attention.

It is interesting to note that while both men and women are aware that domestic violence is morally and legally offensive, they choose to ignore this common knowledge. This could be because our societal norms have normalised the tolerance of domestic violence.

Using some tenets of ‘nudge theory’, one can potentially combat this challenge. While ‘nudge theory’ has successfully promoted sanitation, lowered alcohol consumption, encouraged organ donation, and even promoted the wearing of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, its application in tackling the issue of domestic violence is surprisingly under-utilised.

Also read: Domestic Violence in the Lockdown Has Been Aided by Govt Apathy

Just as the state and national governments in India have emphasised the importance of using sanitation facilities through a series of media campaigns and involving celebrities, the same can be done to nudge people to abandon the practice of domestic violence. Further, husbands can be asked to take an open pledge in the community, with their families in the audience, to never raise a hand on their partners. This shifts the responsibility of appropriate behaviour on them.

Subsequently, the community can elect ideal husbands, who will not only serve as role models for other husbands but will also advice other men in the community to handle issues in a non-violent and respectful manner. Bringing issues of domestic violence into mainstream conversation and shifting the social norms that value civil behaviour can help build an enabling environment that sustains behavioural changes. Finally, better quality data that tracks the pervasiveness of incidents of domestic violence in India should become a priority.

Payal Seth is a consultant at Tata-Cornell Institute, Cornell University, USA, and a PhD Scholar at Bennett University.