Domestic violence: A silent issue in Bangladesh
Nurjahan Begum, a homemaker and mother of two got married at the age of 21. She did not get to choose her partner but her marriage was a fine one for about two years until one day she discovered her husband's fascination with drugs, a very important fact kept secret by the in laws. The husband became sober right after the marriage and stayed that way till the birth of their first child. But soon after he revived his old habit.
With an earning of four digits, the husband could not afford the high expenses of his addiction and started selling household belongings to raise money. When all the valuables were gone, he started pressing Nurjahan to ask her parents for money. That was the beginning of her agony and pain. Whenever she failed to provide her husband's demand she got the beating. Sometimes the beating would start without any apparent reason. Nurjahan's marriage is going on for 6 years. She thinks her two children as compensation and continues to endure the pain hoping that one day her husband would be able to recover from his addiction.
A home is supposed to be the safest place; it should be a place of support and love. Studies however show some very disturbing and dreadful details. Intimate partner violence or domestic violence is the most prevalent form of gender-based violence worldwide. In Bangladesh, violence against women is closely linked to the institution of marriage. The story depicted above is a classic example of domestic violence. It is an example of the most common form of domestic abuse.
Domestic violence however, does not always mean only physical abuse. Abuse takes many forms. According to the experts at Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) and Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) domestic violence can be “Any hurtful or unwanted behaviour perpetrated upon an individual by an intimate relation within the boundary of a home. The forms include physical, economic, sexual and psychological or emotional abuse”. Primarily a learned behaviour, effects of these abuse without intervention, can become very destructive over time.
In Bangladesh, the most prevalent among all of these forms is physical abuse. “Wife beating for dowry or permission for second marriage is the most common case of physical abuse we get”, says Salma Ali, Executive Director of BNWLA. Demand for dowry is a very normal social practice in Bangladesh. “When demands are not met by the brides' parents, the husband or his family members use violence especially during the early stage of marriage. Some times it can be very fatal. We see cases of killing everyday”, Ali adds.
“There are also habitual beatings. For example, the wife may be late in serving dinner on time and this may easily trigger beating by the husband. Even the pregnant women are not spared by their husbands”, says Nina Goswami, Legal Cell, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK). Domestic violence during pregnancy has been associated with increased risks of miscarriage, pre-term labour, low birth weight, birth of physically deformed babies and so many other complications.
Goswami mentions that, physical abuse is very common among the low-income class. “However, we also get complaints from the middle-class these days. The upper class is very discrete about these matters. It may appear that the women in the upper class are living a better life but it is not always the case”, she states.
Other forms of abuse are hardly recognised as an offence in our country. The concept of domestic violence is in fact a vague issue. Cuts and bruises of physical abuse heal within a few days but emotional pain lasts far longer. “Calling wives names in front of children, using ill language about parents or not allowing them to visit parents, always treating them with disrespect, telling them that they are worthless, controlling their every movement- these are common example of emotional abuse”, points out Goswami.
“These are very accepted behaviour in the country and less publicized”, she also mentions. Emotional and psychological abuse can be more damaging to a person than physical pain. This form leads to secondary effects such as low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. Psychological pain may continue for a lifetime.
“Sexual abuse in marriage is the form that is never spoken of in Bangladesh. It is in fact not at all recognised in the country as violence against women”, Goswami also points out. “Being forced to perform sex, even during illness or late stage pregnancy is abuse. Marriage justifies these behaviours and society approves of it too. Women usually cannot dictate any terms regarding their sexual relationship”, she relates. In the developed world sexual abuse inside marital relations is being considered as a serious criminal offence.
“Prohibiting wives from income generating work is another form of violence. Taking away any money the wife may have saved is too a way to control”, says Tahmina Khatun, Legal Cell, BNWLA. “It obstructs a person's right to economic independence and personal advancement. This is why it is called economic abuse”, Khutun describes.
Salma Ali recognises this habit of spousal abuse as a 'form of dominance by men'. “Social attitude in Bangladesh is that women are always subordinate to men. They have no decision making power, they have no say about marriage. They are brought up believing the thought that marriage is their sanctuary”. Ali also believes that this particularly makes women vulnerable. Marriage-related norms and practices in Bangladesh and women's profound dependence on marriage for economic survival reinforces their powerlessness.
In most cases women in our country continue to endure abuse. Ali explains “Even after years of abuse, wives in our country stay with the abusive husband. No one supports a divorced woman, not even her own family. Divorce creates a whole new dilemma. No matter what, it is always the wife's fault. No one wants to live with this life time of curse”.
“Women's economic dependence is a very important factor. Even educated women are most of the times dependent on their husbands. Dependence curbs their ability to decide. Some times wives stay with abusive husbands to raise children. Children entirely changes the fate of the women in our society”, says Nina Goswami.
All the experts have pointed out that, economic empowerment can reduce a woman's risk of domestic violence by making her life more visible and by increasing her perceived value in the family; on the other hand, if the woman's economic empowerment results in her acting more assertively, husbands may respond with more violence, which is sometimes the case. Economic independence is sometimes considered an assertive act and not always endorsed by the society.
Experts from both BNWLA and ASK say that the current legal framework do not provide proper support to the victims of domestic abuse. Only dowry cases can be framed under the 'Women and Children Repression Prevention Act (Amendment) 2003'. And in the case of physical abuse the Penal Code helps. Women abused with other forms cannot seek legal help. “For any forms of abuse often lawyers form dowry or physical torture cases. There is no other way of legal help”, Ali reveals. “And even if the wife goes to court she is never safe. In this case the husband can become more violent than ever. In neighbouring India, they have special arrangements for witness protection for battered wives. It is important that we have similar arrangement here”, Ali demands.
Domestic violence is increasingly being recognized as an issue of human rights all around the world. In Bangladesh NGOs, human rights activists, and lawyers are campaigning for the enactment of a separate law that will address the issues related to domestic violence.
“The first and foremost policy should be to create a definite idea about domestic violence. The society must recognise the forms of violence, then sensitising the society about the issue starting from the family. Finally, society needs a complete attitude makeover regarding behaviour towards women”, Ali states.
By Shahnaz Parveen