On October 2, a man in Pulluvila, Kerala, allegedly attacked his estranged wife, S Jessy, in retaliation for filing for divorce. Ordinarily, this would have been brushed off as a ‘family issue’ — the victim was not killed in the incident and is from a marginalised community, making it a case that police, government and media often ignore. But on Sunday evening, the sleepy village in the coastal region of Thiruvananthapuram broke out in protest, with thundering slogans reverberating across the state. Scores of women from the fishing community in Pulluvila marched and demanded justice for the woman in the domestic abuse case.
The residents of Pulluvila have stated that they couldn’t sit back and remain silent in the face of growing attacks and atrocities against women.
35-year-old Jessy was attacked on the evening of October 2. At the time, the active discussion in the media was the murder of a college student in Kottayam the previous day by her classmate. The refusal of a man to accept ‘no’ as an answer has become an increasingly common reason to commit crimes against women in Kerala. For filing a petition to end her 13-year marriage, Jessy was allegedly threatened by her husband, Varghese. The attack occurred on the day after Varghese’s counsel appeared for the first meeting in the divorce filing, and the case was posted for a counselling session.
“Fearing for her life, Jessy took refuge in her relative’s house. She used to visit home to have food after ensuring that Varghese was not there. On Saturday evening, Jessy was brutally attacked when she was having food. Varghese dragged her to the bedroom, tied her, shoved cloth in her mouth and beat her black and blue. He strangled her so hard that she can’t talk or eat food properly even now. He left the room telling her that she would die in a few minutes,” alleged Mercy Alexander, a volunteer of Sakhi Women’s Resources Centre, who was also part of the protest.
With serious injuries to her ribs, spine and head, Jessy is currently under treatment at Medical College Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram.
Kanjiramkulam police said that Varghese was arrested on Sunday afternoon based on an attempt to murder charge registered at the station. “He will be produced at Neyyattinkara sub court on Monday and will be remanded in custody,'' said Kanjiramkulam police.
The coastal village of Pulluvila comes under Karakulam panchayat, and is densely populated. Cases of domestic abuse are rampant in the area, and locals point to alcoholism and lack of systemic support as some of the reasons behind it. “Police often show laxity in registering domestic abuse cases. Even in Jessy’s case, police were trying to persuade her to give him Rs 7 lakh, which Varghese claimed to have invested in their house. They said he would go if she handed over the amount. This is even after filing a divorce case demanding compensation and to get back dowry money from him. She was constantly facing physical and mental abuse,” said Advocate J Sandhya, who is representing Jessy in the divorce case.
Mercy noted that the women who attended the protest meeting had also shared instances of domestic abuses they face on a daily basis. “Women from marginalised communities don’t have the support systems to file or pursue a divorce case. Most of them silently endure the abuses in the name of kids or due to lack of socio-economic support,” Mercy said.
Speaking about the protest, Mercy said that a social awakening must occur to alienate the abusers and to provide a support system to victims. “Law must take its due course. In the meantime, society should be made aware of the evils of domestic abuse. It is the responsibility of society to bring an end to this,” she said.
Public protest against domestic violence is not a new phenomenon in Pulluvila. In 1987, a similar protest had taken place in connection with the death of Baby, a mother of a six-month-old child. “Initially, people believed that ghosts attacked and killed her. Blood clots and injury marks on her body had raised suspicion. It was based on the protest by Theeradesha Vanitha Vedi (Coastal Women Forum) that police exhumed the body and conducted a post-mortem 16-days after the death. Her husband was eventually arrested for murder,” said Mercy.
Last year, another Pulluvila native — Shyni, a pregnant woman — was brutally murdered by her husband in front of their son. This also triggered a major protest by women, which led to the arrest of her husband Nitheesh.
Theeradesha Vanitha Vedi and later Sakhi, a women’s resource organisation, started actively working among marginalised women, with special focus on preventing domestic violence. Even in Jessy’s case, Sakhi helped Jessy file a divorce petition. Braving threats, Sakhi is actively working in rural and coastal areas to prevent violence towards women.
Social activists believe that women protection officers — currently each district has one — should be made available at each taluk. “There should be mechanisms to provide free legal aid to women from marginalised communities. There should be adequate shelter homes, which could even accommodate children of the victims. Proper counseling should be provided for the mental wellbeing of the abuse victims,” Mercy said.
Advocate Sandhya said that the pandemic has aggravated domestic abuse issues in coastal regions. “Proper and gender sensitive intervention of the government system should come into place to address the rising issue of domestic abuses,” she said.