Becoming an abuse statistic in patriarchal India

Nita Bhalla
Image caption,
Journalist Nita Bhalla covers women's issues in South Asia

Journalist Nita Bhalla recounts the lingering scars - physical and mental - from an assault on her and draws a wider lesson about violence against women in patriarchal India.

I stand in front of the mirror, surveying my face and body - still in shock at how it could have happened to me.

Six days on, the swelling on the right side of my face which he banged into the wall has subsided, the bruise under my right eye where he punched me has turned deep purple and those on my arms and legs where he grabbed and kicked me are fading.

The marks around my neck from when he tried to choke me, I conclude, are healing the fastest. Yet I still decide to wrap a scarf around my neck before leaving for work.

Globally, six out of 10 women experience physical and/or sexual violence - mostly committed by a husband or an intimate partner, says UN Women.

And India, the country I am based in, is not much better.

Around 37% of Indian women have experienced some form of abuse by their husbands - pushing, slapping and hair pulling, punching, kicking, choking or burning - according to the Indian government's last National Family Health Survey.

Activists say the actual figures are likely to be more than double this, but despite greater awareness and more gender-sensitive laws, few women are willing to come out and talk openly about the violence they face by those who purport to love them.

The statistics are not surprising for me. But being a statistic is.

Raped and set alight

Reporting on women's rights issues in South Asia over the last three years, I have covered the plethora of threats which haunt the millions of women who live in this deeply patriarchal region.

The violations are vast and varied - from the illegal abortions of female foetuses to the immolation of young brides by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands, to brothers who murder their sisters for falling in love with "unsuitable" men.

I have visited villages in northern India where women hide behind veils and weep as they recount their stories of being sold and trafficked as brides, kept as slaves and beaten and raped by their husbands and "shared" among brothers.

I have spent hours in women's shelters buried in New Delhi's slums, interviewing battered women with blackened and burnt arms, after their drunken husbands' poured kerosene over them and set them alight.

Image caption,
Not entirely silent: Indian women protest violence against their sex

I have spoken to health workers, gender experts, women's activists, and government officials on numerous issues - from the psychological reasons of "power and control" that lie behind gender abuse to the adverse impacts of the low status of women on India's development efforts.

While physical and sexual violence against women is unfortunately something that afflicts every society, the high levels to which it is acceptable in India are sometimes unfathomable.

The National Family Health Survey found that 51% of Indian men and 54% of Indian women found it justifiable for a man to beat his wife.

And the silence that surrounds such abuse helps perpetuate that acceptability.


Not the understandable silence of victims who are afraid or not empowered enough to speak out, but the incomprehensible silence of others - family, friends, neighbours and even passers-by - who choose to turn a blind eye.

Interviewing victims and hearing of how their families and friends knew, but did nothing, was something that I never really understood.

But now I have experienced that silence.

When he pulled my hair and kicked me as I lay on the pavement, there was a deafening silence from my neighbours who heard my screams but were reluctant to intervene.

I heard it from the group of young men walking past, who stopped a few feet away to watch as he beat me. And I heard it from the auto-rickshaw drivers who were parked at the stand across the road in the early hours of that morning.

The reasons for violence against women are many, gender experts say.

Image caption,
Objects to be exploited, according to many in India

What I went through may have been about power - born out of an abuser's insecurity or frustration of not being able to control the female which he believes he owns - an issue relevant across the world.

The high levels of gender violence which persist in India, activists say, are mainly down to deeply-rooted, age-old discriminatory beliefs.

Despite the country's impressive economic growth and exposure to "Western liberalism" over the last two decades, women are still largely seen as objects to be exploited.

Poverty, illiteracy, a lack of enforcement of gender-sensitive laws, and few opportunities for women to empower themselves have allowed crimes, like the trafficking of rural girls to cities like Delhi and Mumbai for sex and domestic work or the high levels of rape and sexual harassment, to persist.

But other violations, such as female foeticide or so-called "honour killings" and "stove burnings" which occur here are often rooted in a culture where a female's sexual behaviour is linked to her family's reputation and a tradition where hefty dowries are expected to marry off daughters - a "burden" many can do without.

Becoming a statistic

I still keep thinking: "This did not happen. This does not happen to women like me."

Most of the victims we read about in India are largely uneducated women from poorer backgrounds - reinforcing a general perception that domestic violence or intimate partner violence is more pervasive in groups of a lower socio-economic status.

Yet professional women in India also face such abuse, but rarely speak of it.

Some married women are afraid of being accused of "breaking up the family" and are expected to put up and maintain their silence, while single women I know are worried of being seen as "weak" as they strive to break through the glass ceiling in their male-dominated professions.

And so now it is I - a professional, educated, independent woman - who is standing behind a curtain inside the trauma centre in Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, as a nurse makes me undress and examines my injuries.

She, like the doctor, my work colleagues, neighbours and friends, seems as shocked as I am.

They stare at my black eye, asking the same question.

"How could this happen to YOU?"

Horrifyingly, I realise, it can happen to anyone.