“…violence happens in every house, what’s the big deal?”

I recently had the opportunity to make my first SAATHII “field visit” to Salem, and then later on to Erode; both are districts located in the middle of Tamil Nadu. Upon arrival, my colleague and I took a rickshaw and pulled up to one PMS Lodge. I won’t lie; I was amused and not so slyly took pictures.

The point of my visit was to observe two POLL project training sessions conducted with HIV outreach workers about fundamental rights, property inheritance and domestic violence (please see this previous post for an explanation of POLL).

At one of the sessions, of the 16 women in attendance, only two women said they had never experienced physical violence from their husband. Granted this is not a finding from a scientific study, but nonetheless, that is 87.5% of women in attendance at this training who have experienced physical violence. Perhaps in response to my shock -which I suspect my facial expressions gave away- one woman explained that things will change, and she doesn’t think their daughters will experience violence. Other women disagreed, and it was explained that still, girl children in their community are treated differently than boy children. Women shared that girl children are fed less out of fear of them growing too tall, and girl children are pulled out of school for fear of them becoming too educated. Both of these are precautionary measures taken so that a girl won’t be too challenging to marry, and the dowry her family will have to pay will be less. I understood the implication here to be that if girls our still being treated differently, why should there be any expectation of change as they enter adulthood -but everything was being said in Tamil and interpreted for me, so it is possible things were lost in translation.

At the other training session, a woman’s comment regarding domestic violence was one of the first things translated:

There is a happy time with husbands when there is no violence, and then there is the time after that.

I asked the women if they speak about violence with their friends or neighbors. When this was translated, one woman immediately said:

There is no need to speak about it. Violence happens openly, even in the streets, people know.

Women shared that in their community, a sense of  “one man for one woman” exists and the cultural norms include working through and enduring any challenging situations that arise, including domestic violence. A woman said:

In this area, there is a sentiment that violence happens in every house, what’s the big deal?

The training sessions covered the primary components of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (DV Act), and I asked the trainees what they think about the DV Act. One woman said that she thinks it is good, but that there is a fear of utilizing the DV Act because their parents would be very angry with them. Another woman explained that if a woman takes a domestic violence case to court, this would cause a large and permanent rift between husband and wife, but if the situation is handled in the home, the rift might be there for a short while, but things will be fine after a few days time. Other women indicated they would not file a case because:

  • There is a belief that the court will only resolve in favor of those with money, which most women don’t have.
  • If a woman leaves home, where should she go?
  • A woman’s aunt filed a case against her husband who was physically abusing her. A court intervention occurred and the aunt lived elsewhere for some time. When she returned to her home, there was more violence from her husband and the aunt committed suicide.

Upon returning to Chennai, I told a colleague about my field visit. She was not so surprised about what I had to say and she translated a Tamil proverb for me.

A single thread in a saree can indicate the overall quality of the saree. Similarly, a daughter resembles her mother.

My co-worker explained that if a mother reports domestic violence, this is likely to reflect what her daughter will do in the future, thus adding another item to that list of precautions to take for ease of marrying a daughter.

In addition to being shocked and saddened by the normalcy and community attitudes toward domestic violence, I was simultaneously inspired by these women. As an introduction, the trainer asked participants to share their greatest achievements with the group. The following are some of the women’s greatest achievements.

  • A woman has been HIV positive since 2000. Her husband died one year after her diagnosis. She alone worked off the family debt of Rs 20,000 ($440) and her son is now in 5th standard.
  • One woman works as an outreach worker and has personally made sure that seven HIV+ pregnant women were able to prevent HIV transmission to their child.
  • A woman said that for a very long time she did not disclose her HIV status to anyone. Now she speaks as a positive speaker to hundreds of people at a time.
  • One woman is the president of a local Self Help Group and she is also openly HIV positive.

As the training drifted back to fulltime Tamil, I pondered how I would answer the question of my greatest achievement.

Overall, the field visit left me with many more questions than answers. Related to our project, my key questions include:

  • When the normalcy and acceptability of domestic violence is so entrenched in culture, how does this ever change?
  • What is the use of legal literacy education with women about the DV Act if they won’t use it?
  • How can we go beyond sensitizing women about the DV Act, and actually convince them to use it?
  • What support systems exist for the women beyond the police intervention?
  • How will women cope with the additional family/social stigma of being the ones who took action against the perpetrators of violence?
  • How do we motivate the perpetrators of domestic violence to change their behavior?

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One thought on ““…violence happens in every house, what’s the big deal?”

  1. Katie, you highlight a real problem. The acceptance of DV by women. When my daughter Nina did some work with a DV focused NGO in Mumbai she was surprised about the societal and family pressures on abused women to grin and bear it. Sad but true. But this is a game of inches. Hope prevails. The Tamil proverb is beautiful. Sridar

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