In May 2016, Priya*, a 20-year-old woman walked into our office, looking for a safe place to stay. She had just escaped her family and her newly wedded husband. Against her consent, she was forced to marry her cousin, and she walked out at the first opportunity she could find – 4 days after the wedding. Priya had been telling her parents that she was against the match for many years, but the decision about this marriage had been made as soon she was born by her father and his sister, Priya’s aunt - his daughter would marry her son and family ties would be strengthened. As Priya’s aunt once told her, both women and property need to be kept within the family, a practice that sees many young women “promised” at birth to marry their cousins or maternal uncles.
As she grew older, Priya’s fear increased as she realized how serious her family was about this proposed marriage. When she finished school, she was told that she would be sent to college only if she toed the line and got married to her cousin. She gave in since she did not want to miss a chance to go to college. As her final semester was drawing to an end, her family began making arrangements for an engagement. When Priya resisted, she was beat up by her family and told that she would not be sent to write her exams. She got engaged and bided her time. As soon as her last exam was over, Priya went to a police station and filed a complaint to stop the wedding. The police, referring to it as a ‘family matter’ called her parents, spoke to everyone involved and organized a ‘reconciliation.’ Basically, she was sent back home, and as soon as she was taken home, her phone was taken away and the wedding was arranged for in a hurry.
Domestic violence is often framed and discussed entirely in the context of a marital relationship. However, the homes of our birth have been the first sites of violence against women (VAW). Everyday, many young women are faced with a denial of several choices - regarding education, career, sexual & romantic partners, what they choose to do for leisure, marriage and many other things. In order to maintain power & control, violence is enacted by families on young people, especially young women to ensure that they do not step outside the strict boundaries of caste, religion, language and ethnicity. This violence comes with a demand for one’s love, personal sacrifice & loyalty for the greater good of the family – so “names” are not spoiled and families are not destroyed.
In recent times, the profile of women who access our shelter in Chennai (at International Centre for Crime Prevention & Victim Care) has slowly shifted from predominantly women in their late 20s & early 30s with children, to younger women who have faced domestic violence within the families of their birth and are choosing to walk out. In our experience as an organization providing services for women affected by domestic & intimate partner violence, on an average, we receive 15 new crisis calls every month. We had 12 women & 6 children in our emergency shelter between January & December of 2016. Eight of the women were between the ages of 18 and 21.
Leaving one’s home is not an easy decision
Aisha*, a resident at the shelter was told that she had to marry her maternal uncle soon after Class XII, or they would not send her to college. She gave in and married him because at that age, she did not have the resources to seek any help outside of home. She could not accept her life with him even after 4 years of marriage. Even as she was preparing for her final semester exams, she and her friends researched organizations that would help her. They visited us to check the space out, devised a safety plan, packed her certificates & IDs and as soon as her last exam was over, came straight to the shelter.
These young women don’t come to the decision to leave lightly. For many, when parents find out that they are in a relationship of their choice or are unwilling to accept the one that is being arranged for them, their lives are controlled and monitored constantly. Their phones are confiscated, they are isolated from friends, and they are often confined to their rooms or sent away to the homes of relatives far away.
Often, friends & educational institutions are the first places that young women reach out for support. However, these institutions are ill equipped to deal with instances of violence and harassment both at home and within campus. Sometimes they also actively collude with parents to harass young women.
In the last one year that Priya has been staying at the shelter, she has been trying to get her final semester mark sheet and provisional certificate from college. In the interim, her parents met with the college authorities and convinced them not to hand over the certificates to her. When she went to address this with the college correspondent, she was told that “good girls don’t leave their homes and stay in NGOs” and that “since her parents were the ones who paid the fees, the certificates belong to them”. Although she has now found 3 different well-paying jobs in MNCs, she is unable to take any of them up because her degree is being held ransom by her parents through the college. Additionally, the college has placed the blame squarely on her and she has been labeled morally corrupt. They have now made an example of her to other students about what they should not be like.
Struggles after leaving home
The struggle does not end once the women have left homes. Much like domestic violence in marital homes is deemed a private matter, the violence young girls face in natal homes, is also considered a private issue. Individuals & institutions often infantilize adult women and suggest that parents who have sacrificed so much to raise them are undeserving of their betrayal. Police try to convince adult women to meet their parents despite filing a complaint against the said parents. Extended family members, family friends, people of influence that the parents have access to (such as local area councilors, political party functionaries and/or religious leaders) are given free reign by these institutions to try their hand at convincing women to return.
Effectively, these vulnerable young women are made to repeatedly reject their parents in front of multiple audiences. Their parents’ harassment leaves them with a lot of guilt and an enormous emotional burden. For instance, Aisha’s mother regularly calls her and threatens to kill herself if she does not return home. This exhausts woman of their emotional reserves, impacts their self-worth, challenges notions of what it means to be loved and eventually, pushes them to question their own choices.
Civil society organizations that support these women are also not exempt from threats and intimidation by families. We deal with issues in the form of surveillance of the office, taking photos of employee’s vehicles, direct threats to counselors & social workers involved in the case, abusive social media posts and incessant calls to our crisis line. Police often brush away these complaints since they see this behaviour as the natural outpouring from a family in difficult circumstances. This perception of being under siege impacts the mobility of survivors and forces the organization to operate on emergency mode for weeks, if not months. This collusion between the family, police and educational institutions place multiple barriers that make it difficult for women to imagine life outside of these demands and wears them out. It also leaves them in a prolonged state of insecurity as they fear that the few support systems available to them will be taken away.
Bringing attention back to violence within homes
Over the last few years, the violence that women face on the streets has received a lot of attention. However, the violence within households has taken a backseat in the conversation surrounding VAW. The abuse & violence starts from the natal family and extends to the marital family. Can you really fix a surveillance camera to solve this problem?
Law enforcement and educational institutions have a big responsibility to ensure the safety & freedom of women approaching them for support. Educational institutions should begin instituting support mechanisms that offer awareness, counseling and referral services for domestic violence, violence in dating relationships, sexual harassment within and outside the institution itself. There is also a need for law enforcement to enforce the law rather than engage in mediation and forcible reconciliation of families. Staff training for handling such situations is essential.
A clear understanding of their roles as first line support agencies would help women of all ages as they try to leave violent situations behind. In a nutshell, there is an urgent need for our institutions to uphold individual rights rather than try to save the integrity of the family unit.