March 01, 2013

Cycles of Abuse: Kamala breaks through – 1

Across the white laminated table, Kamala* smiles. There is a mix of impatience, anxiety and eagerness in her face and body language. Kamala is here to tell me the story of how she found herself in a violent marriage, the trajectory of that violence, the spiral of it, and—importantly—her emergence from it when she was four months pregnant. She is here to tell a difficult story but she seems determined to do it as factually as possible, politely, with a certain degree of grace. We are in a counselling centre for domestic violence run by SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action) in Chhota Sion Hospital, Mumbai. The hospital is on 60 Feet Road, Dharavi, one of the arterial roads of this legendary area. The centre caters to women from all over the city, providing them with legal advice and couples counselling as the case requires. The place is cheerful, despite the tough, painful stories that must ricochet off its walls. There is talk, tea, vivid posters of health messages, even laughter.


Chhota Sion Hospital where SNEHA runs a Prevention of Violence against Women and Children centre. The centre aims to provide services through crisis intervention and counselling to women and children facing violence in their immediate environment.

Kamala starts at the beginning and talks quickly, recounting how she married a man whom she did not love but expected to care for in time; how she expected care in return; and how that dream turned rancid. Around us, the ordinary sounds of the centre continue. We sip chai in small china cups. Despite her efforts to remain calm, sometimes Kamala cries. Mostly, she seems bewildered, a woman trying to make sense of her life unravelling. But despite her willingness to talk, her need(?) to do so, she keeps skipping back to something more urgent. “I need a job,” she says. “That’s my main worry now. I have to bring up my daughter, give her an education. But it’s hard for me to get a job now because I took a break.”

If it seems like I’m jumping ahead, it’s because she often does. And who is to decide in what order such stories must be told?  But for the sake of the narrative, let’s go back: Kamala grew up in Bombay, was brought up by parents who loved her, even “pampered her” because she was the youngest. They were not rich but they educated their daughters and after graduating, Kamala got a job as an assistant in an export company. She was earning Rs 25,000 a month. “I was happy,” she says. “I was happy to be single. But my parents kept saying dekh lo, see him, he seems nice.”

Despite the empowerment they provided Kamala, her parents could not forego the traditional dictate that a woman must marry. Because a daughter is not ‘settled’ until she marries. Earning enough to support herself was not all Kamala needed to claim adulthood. She had to be yoked to a husband.

This is true of women across classes and the reasons for this concern with a daughter’s marriage are complex. Safety is one of those reasons. Many parents believe that girls need to be protected and who better to do that than a man, her husband. A single woman may attract unwelcome attention and the poor are afraid that they have neither the means nor the political support to fight such attention. A married woman, on the other hand, gains the respectability of marriage and the supposed protection of her husband.

In many cases, this desire to protect their child becomes a sort of dreadful irony.  According to this 2011 report, in-house terror, related to dowry, claims more human life in India than activities of militant organizations, including Naxals. A United Nations survey said that there were 8,383 deaths because of domestic violence in 2009 as compared to 2,231 deaths resulting from terror activities. The incidence of violence against women in the home has climbed by nearly 11%, despite the legislation and implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA).

For an alarming number of women, danger skulks inside the home, brooding, manic and greedy. Quickly and with growing horror, Kamala realised that her husband was dangerous.

* not her real name

(This is the first in a series of posts on domestic violence and maternal health. Read part 2 here.)

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