Monday, November 20, 2017

Article on Suppression of Women in West Bengal, India, just published!

News just in from West Bengal, UNITWIN Affiliate Jharna Panda has published an article in a leading Bengali newspaper examining the social ramifications of domestic violence through an ethnographic approach. See her article below. The English synopsis by Founding Member of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network, Chandana Dey also former Editor for Social Science Press, New Delhi, follows.

Jharna Panda- On Domestic Violence in rural Bengal: No change visible in two decades

Jharna talks about the continuing state of the violence inflicted on women and gives some case studies (the names are changed) of the lives of women who are faced with both physical and mental torture every single day. She cites the results of a survey that covered 180 villages- from 2008 to 2018 that show that the level of violence is the same even after the passing of legislation that protects women’s rights. This is a ‘distant’ justice that women cannot avail of due to ignorance of the law, and mostly because they lack the economic means to report cases of violence to either the police or the courts. Frequently, cases where there is some level of negotiation- women have to return to abusive husbands, since they fear being burdens on either their own parents or their siblings. Here they return to a situation where there is no guarantee of their safety nor any sense of self-respect. 

She starts by narrating a case of a man who killed his wife and his five - year old daughter (cracked open their skulls) while they were sleeping; their ‘crime’ was that his meal had not been served to him on time.

While Jharna worked on cases of domestic violence and attended sessions of counselling of married couples, the list of grievances was long and varied. Married women might indulge in one or other of the following activities that would incite the husband to violence:

- Renege on dowry provisions and promises (cycle/TV)
- While sweeping, they would raise dust in the courtyard
- Not clean the grinding stone sufficiently well after grinding turmeric    - Etc. 

Dowry is not the sole reason for domestic violence. Khalida, a mother of five children tried to hide her contraceptive pills in the spice box. Her husband found them and threw her and the children out of the house. Khalida did not have the wherewithal to go to the police; her chief worry was how to find shelter for herself and the children.

Then there is the case of Salma. Her husband tried to kill her and left her for dead in the fields. Neighbours found her and a case of domestic violence was lodged against the husband. Her crime- she was childless even after some years of being married. When Jharna met her last, she had returned to her husband. ‘Don’t be angry, Didi,’ said Salma. ‘My husband told me he would take me back if I withdrew the case. What else could I do? I can’t be a burden on my parents or my brothers’ families. Finally, this is the only home I have’.

The Survey showed that the main reason for husbands to get angry was that their food might not be ready on time. Around 2000 husbands interviewed replied in almost the same way. They were asked: ‘If you come back from the fields and your food is not ready, do you lose your temper?’ All the husbands replied in the affirmative- ‘Yes, I do get angry. Surely that’s natural?’ Some also said that they tended to throw whatever they could find that was close at hand. Then, after they have eaten, their mood improves and they make up the quarrel.

When women were asked whether they would seek legal redress to domestic violence, many said they did not know about the laws. Perhaps the most that women might do is to go to the panchayat with their complaint. ‘Will my husband pay my bus fare to go to the police station to report his crime’ asked one victim, ‘and who will come with me’?

Many women simply consider taking their own lives. Marital rape is common in many homes. One woman stated that even though her children were educated and had gone to college, she had to submit to her husband whenever he desired her. The house is small and the young children see and hear everything. Yet the State has decided that it cannot be involved in the question of marital rape.

The Survey clearly shows that the status of rural women in Bengal is unchanged over the last two decades.
~ Synopsis in English by Chandana Dey

Jharna also elaborated with the following reflections:

"The question of domestic violence suffered by women, especially by rural women, is a much talked about 'topic' in mass media as well as in academia. While this reflects a certain recognition of the endemic nature of this violence, the perfunctory manner in which the issue is generally dealt with betrays a callous understanding of the social and humane context of this domination.

Almost any such discussion invariably ends up with a hoarse call for "exemplary punishment". One needs only to walk down winding mud tracks and sit for a while on the verandah of any thatched hut listening to stories of the 'victims' to understand the vacuousness and insensitivity of such 'discourse'. Those women live in a world far beyond the reach of long arm of law. Local police agencies are almost inaccessible for any of those women. They consider quite understandably – the khaki clad police an alien entity more threatening than their drunken husbands.The cost of judicial redress is simply not affordable. 

But more crucially, violence on women is an issue which does not fit in its entirety within the pages of a statute book. Most of those rural women live a life organically linked with their husbands, the insufferable torture notwithstanding. Who is going to look after her if her husband lands up in jail? Neither is she as insensitive as a hardened media commentator not to see the human behind her bullying husband. That very man is breaking his bones from dawn to dusk and is taking many a blow silently to take care of his family. Is throwing him behind the bar the only 'solution' we can think about?"

Jharna poses some provocative questions that help readers think critically about the issue of the suppression of women in Bengal through a nuanced lens drawing from her own field research in remote areas. The publication is incredibly timely, as the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women approaches on November 25. 

About the author (left): Jharna Panda is working as a Research Associate in the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Jharna is affiliated with the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network on Gender, Culture & People-Centered Development

English Synopsis by Chandana Dey (right), Founding Member of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network and former Editor for Social Science Press, New Delhi

~ Compiled by Nicole Rizzo