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December 12, 2004

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The other silent killer

Saira Rahman

We all know about the various aspects of domestic violence, thanks to media reporting and human rights organisations. But how many cases are actually reported? Why do we have to wait for the victim to be murdered, commit suicide or be doused with kerosene or acid and burnt in order for the news to hit the headlines in an attempt at a series of cheap sensationalism or for the police to be embarrassed into doing their duty?

We all know as well that despite the well-intended laws prevalent in the country purporting to protect women from violence, the lack of implementation of such laws, police indifference and the slower-than-a-snail pace at which the legal system tiredly moves, makes seeking remedy a futile effort. Furthermore, the two reigns of 'shame' and 'honour' (meaning father and/or husband's honour, of course) hold back attempts to report domestic violence. Like carbon monoxide, domestic violence is, in many cases, the silent killer.

Why is domestic violence such a 'speak no evil see no evil hear no evil' kind of thing? Is it macho or manly to beat the heck out of one's wife? Is it a mark of dominance? Or is it economic frustration? Maybe it is sheer impatience and a mean disposition. Unfortunately, in some cases it is a mix of all, with a good helping of family attitude and misguided upbringing. Women are subjugated to silence and tolerance by fear and mental and physical pain or by the fear that they may not be accepted in their father's home even if they find the strength to leave their husband's. However, some, especially in rural Bangladesh, accept it as their lot and expect to be beaten at will.

On a more serious note, economic frustration and the illegal demand for dowry seem to be two of the main causes of domestic violence. Every year there are hundreds of reported cases of such violence. One can only wonder about the number of others not reported. In 2003, 261 women were reportedly killed by their husbands in domestic disputes over dowry. In the first eleven months of 2004, there were already 149 such deaths reported, which leads one to think whether such incidents are on the increase or whether more are being reported. It is easy to guess that the former may be the truth of things. What adds to the cruelty is that a large number of wives who suffer domestic abuse are below the age of 18 child brides. Thus, these women suffer a double abuse. Such young women often end up as victims of acid violence, grievously injured by their husband's and/or in laws.

Since the Legislature is so good at drafting new laws at the drop of a hat, how come no bright sparks thought about drafting a Domestic Violence law? We have laws for almost everything else on paper. At least, if there was such a law, seeking remedy for such criminal violence might not be such a tedious event. May be the reason for not drafting a law on domestic violence and the reason for not ratifying the whole of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women are the same they will bruise the male ego. It is no excuse to state that the Penal Code and the law protecting against repression of women and children are enough to safeguard women. Domestic violence has a lot of dimensions to it and the sheer fact that it is so close to the proximity of women, proves that it needs to be dealt with separately and swiftly.

Again, in order to pass such a Bill, there needs to be actual participation of women not only in the legislature, but also in the NGO arena, the grass roots level and from all professions. There needs to be a collective female will strong enough to create a tidal wave to wash away male biases and hesitancies. For those interested in drafting such a Bill and making sure it is enacted, Domestic Violence laws can be found in India, the UK and in the United States for reference. One word of advice please do not leave mental torture and aggravation out of the equation. They leave scars as well.

The author is a member of Odhikar.

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