When can wives beat up their husbands? Isn't it time to ask ?

The bizarre question elicited a bizarre answer: women approved of beating of wives by husbands. The replies came not from wives but others because they justified it for misbehaviour with in-laws

Representative image
Representative image

Amitabh Srivastava

Is a husband justified in hitting or beating his wife? The bizarre question was part of a National Family Health Survey, conducted jointly by International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai; Calverton, Maryland (US); and the East-West Centre, Hawaii. The report was released by the Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan and Dr VK Paul, member, NITI Ayog.

The bizarre question elicited an equally bizarre reply from ‘women’ in the affirmative. While 30 percent of the women in 14 states and UT justified the beating, the percentage of approval was astonishingly high in southern states like Telangana (84), Andhra Pradesh (84) and Karnataka (77).

Maharashtra (44), Kerala (52), Manipur (66), J & K (49) and West Bengal (42) were not too far behind in justifying physical violence.

The catch was in the circumstances under which the women justified beating by husbands. Neglecting the house, children and disrespect to the in-laws, according to the survey, were the grounds cited most as justification.

In which case, the answers were unlikely to have been given by the wives. They seem more likely to have emanated from the men or the in-laws, in probability the mothers-inlaw. It was therefore misleading to suggest that the ‘women’ approved beating wives.

The amateurish survey also raises other disturbing questions. Was this question a part of earlier surveys? If so, what is the pattern over time that emerges? And if the question figured for the first time, why was it asked in the first place? What is more, the question or the answer throw no light on the mental health of either the women or the men.

The other probable circumstances put forward by the survey under which a husband beats his wife were: if he suspects her of being unfaithful; if she argues with him; if she refuses to have sex with him; if she goes out without informing him; if she neglects the house or the children; if she fails to cook good food.

The website of NFHS says the survey was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with supplementary support from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Women respondents in Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Manipur, Gujarat, Nagaland, Goa, Bihar, Karnataka, Assam, Maharashtra, Telangana, Nagaland and West Bengal highlighted that ‘disrespect to in-laws’ as the primary justification for men beating their wives.

The saving grace is Himachal Pradesh where only 14.8% women justified husbands beating their wives. The survey finding has caused both shock and outrage. Says Indu Rani, Director Projects at Prayas, “If violence by husbands and men was an acceptable part of life and society, why would every culture put women on a pedestal and give the mother a special place…”.

“The Indian bias is reflected in our traditional dress for women, which don’t have pockets! Are women meant to be dependent all their lives on men,” she fumes. Although trouser and shirts are so much more convenient, she points out, several schools and colleges have banned women wearing jeans.”

Ashish Awasthi, an IT expert with TCS says he is shocked that such regressive questions could even be framed by an agency of the Government of India.”It is like you are giving seven excuses for beating up married women. How can any violence be justified for any reason whatsoever,” he exclaimed.

“Given a chance, I would draft a set of questions and ask under what circumstances can married men be beaten up,” he adds as a parting shot.

Doubts have been raised about the methodology of the survey. When did the survey teams visit homes? “The men folk would generally be away during daytime and their wives would be busy cooking or taking care of children. So, chances are the questions were put to elderly men, women and mothers-in-law,” suggested a social activist.

Shashank Shekhar, a prominent lawyer and former member of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights says, “The question and the response are a reflection of our society where we teach our girls to tolerate everything that happens to them. We objectify women and claim to have given them away in marriage; which is why I don’t even attend weddings.”

Asked whether publicising these findings was a move to further dilute the Domestic Violence Act, he said,”The Domestic Violence Act is long dead. When you start talking about creating a ‘Home’ for victims of violence, as some NGOs are demanding in the Supreme Court, you are doing what the in-laws want. Section 398-A of the Act however clearly lays down the right of residence to the wife who has lodged a complaint.”

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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