Halting the blow of domestic violence in India

Few of India’s abused women seek help. Social workers in Mumbai are trying to change that – one hospital at a time.

Aljazeera          August 4, 2016
By Shruti Ravindran

Mumbai, India – It is mid-morning at the women and children’s block of the KB Bhabha Hospital, one of Mumbai’s busiest public hospitals. The hubbub is punctuated by the cries of a baby, and the contented whirring of pigeons settling to roost. A short distance from the row of open consultation cubicles with thickets of women waiting before them is a closed door marked “101”.

Inside, a group of women read from files, exchanging tales of unremitting male cruelty: men who bang women’s heads against walls. Men who force women to sleep with them, slowly empty out their bank accounts, and then force them to sleep with them again. Men who force women to have unprotected sex with them at night, and force emergency contraceptives down their throats in the morning. Men who rain repeated blows on their wives’ swollen abdomens and end their pregnancies. Men who force their wives to watch graphic videos, and then submit them to the painful acts they depict.

Bleak as these stories are, it’s unusual that they are being heard at all.

The National Family Health Survey-III (NFHS-III), published in 2005, found that while 37.2 percent of women who had ever been married had faced spousal abuse, only 2 percent sought help from the police. According to the same survey, about half of these women ended up in hospital at some point owing to the violence they experienced.

Over the past few years, social workers and healthcare workers in Mumbai’s public hospitals have used this as an opportunity to identify and help women in distress. Some train nurses and doctors to spot signs of abuse; others deploy neighbourhood field workers, usually housewives themselves, to encourage women to seek help at crisis centres like that at KB Bhabha Hospital. Unlike the default option – going to the police and setting off an irreversible, uncontrollable process – this approach ensures that women get the support they need, without the official scrutiny. Giving women agency and privacy, social workers say, could help to arrest the cycle of violence early on, and prevent tragedy.

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Shruti Ravindran is a journalist based in Mumbai. She writes about science, health, development and social justice.

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