How cops who 'counsel' domestic violence survivors dissuade them from filing complaints

Social workers tell TNM that very often domestic violence survivors are discouraged from filing a complaint with police officials focusing on compromise and counselling.
Domestic violence
Domestic violence
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A year after Vismaya, a 22-year-old from Kollam, was found dead in her husband Kiran Kumar’s home, the Kollam Additional Sessions Court Judge Sujith KN convicted Kiran for pushing Vismaya to suicide. The crime shocked the country after it was brought to light that Vismaya was driven to take her life due to the dowry-related abuse and violence she faced in her marital home. The case revealed the multiple ways in which social pressures as well as systemic failures let down women who face domestic violence. This story, which was first published on SEPTEMBER 19, 2020, delves further into the issue.

Recently, Brinda Adige, a Bengaluru-based feminist activist and a volunteer-mentor at Global Concerns India, spent seven days running pillar to post to help a domestic violence survivor in Bengaluru register a complaint. She and the survivor had gone to a women’s police station, but Brinda alleges that the police officials there kept dillydallying and did not register the complaint.

“One woman even told me, ‘you social activists always break up families’,” Brinda says. “This is not uncommon at all where police officials turn ‘counsellors’. They think it is their responsibility to keep the family together, and in doing so, they dole out advice which borders thinly on threats for the woman to compromise, adjust and so on,” Brinda alleges.

Recently, a horrifying case of domestic violence came to light from Andhra Pradesh, where a man assaulted his wife on the head with a dumbbell. He was arrested only after the couple’s children recorded a video of the incident and showed it to the police – the previous attempts at filing a complaint with the police were in vain, according to the two daughters. In the Disha (not her real name) gangrape and murder case that happened late last year as well, the 26-year-old veterinarian’s sister went to the police when she didn’t turn up at home to lodge a complaint, but the police allegedly brushed it off, saying she may have “gone with someone”. Disha’s charred remains were found the next day. In several cases of stalking as well, it has been reported that the police do not always register the complaint in the first instance, and instead, sometimes simply warn the man.

Social workers say that this a routine thing – wherein police officials are focused more on compromise or other ‘possibilities’ – instead of registering a complaint. “We have had women who have been told by police officials that if they file a complaint, the matter will go to court, and could take 10-12 years to conclude… that lawyers will be expensive… that where will they or their husbands go if they file a domestic violence complaint. If a middle-class woman is told such things, she will not feel encouraged to report then,” Brinda says.

Cops also a product of patriarchal society

Kanaka Durga, is a counsellor who formerly worked with Bharosa centres in Hyderabad, which are meant to support women affected by violence. While acknowledging the issue of police officials often telling women survivors who show up to report domestic violence to go for counselling or adjust, she explains that this is also a manifestation of a patriarchal society wherein family is seen as a core support system. “It is the idea that even if you have a fight, sort it out. Police also carry this value system,” she says.

She adds though that in her experience of working with the Hyderabad police, she says that they take domestic violence seriously. “We have never forced anyone into counselling. If a woman is sure about what she wants, then counselling does not work. Similarly if only the woman wants counselling but the husband doesn’t feel the needs for it, it will not work.”

Further, it is not that every woman who approaches the police wants to necessarily separate from her husband. Many want the police to warn or pull up the husband, and scare him with the possibility of action, says a senior police officer from Hyderabad, who served as a former Superintendent of Police in the Women Protection Cell of the undivided Andhra Pradesh.

“There is domestic pressure on the women to remain in the marriage. Many times, survivors come to the police station with a family member asking for us to talk to the aggressor. Sometimes, survivors file a complaint in the day, and then take it back in the evening. Even otherwise, our system is geared towards reconciliation – the provisions for counselling, allowing three months’ time for reconciliation after matter goes to court and so on. Of domestic violence cases that get registered under section 498A (cruelty by husband) of the Indian Penal Code, hardly 20-30% go to trial,” he says.

The official adds though that if the woman is specific about filing a complaint, they take it seriously. Contrary to the experience of social workers, he maintains, “The cases where police officials try to counsel or dissuade a woman are far and few in number.”

However, Prasanna, co-founder of Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), points out that in the case of a burglary or even an assault on the road, the police will register a case simply because the crime has happened. “The victim is not asked for permission then. However, with domestic violence this is not the case world over. Even if the police want to consider other possibilities – and it is important to – this can be done while taking the complaint, and shouldn’t be used to deter the woman to not file one.”

Discouraging women who speak up

Brinda points out that in the aforementioned domestic violence case she had helped the survivor file the complaint recently, the 28-year-old woman was educated and privileged. “She refused to leave the police station till the officials took her complaint. But not every survivor has a Brinda to help, guide her, or follow up. When police are unwilling, the women also get discouraged.”

To explain, she gives an example of what happens when a woman dials 100 if she has been a victim of domestic violence. “If this has happened in the evening, she will be told that a Hoysala (beat police vehicle) will come to her house. The woman feels secure, and when the Hoysala comes, the man is asked to come out. The police speak with him, and when he goes back home, he appears changed, and is not abusive. The woman is made to second guess herself, wondering if there was even a need for a complaint. But this change hardly ever lasts. A few days later when the abuse occurs again and if the woman goes to the police again, the officials she had spoken to the first time are not on their shift anymore. She has to repeat her ordeal all over again. Which woman will be able to do this over and over again?”

Brinda points out that the Domestic Violence Act is a civil remedy and hence criminal proceedings cannot be initiated. “However, even in cases of physical violence, the police fail to register an FIR for threat to life,” she alleges.  

These issues intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, and lockdown as well. “Survivors were also unsure whether they could go out and report, and some perpetrators took advantage of that. But after some data and reports came out about domestic violence increasing during the lockdown, it somewhat became easier to report,” says Prasanna. “So, while we did not see an increase in complaints and calls for domestic violence cases compared to pre-lockdown, there was an increase compared to the initial two-three months of the lockdown.”

Even now though, social workers say that the pandemic situation has made it somewhat harder for survivors to file complaints because the police are short-staffed and so, may discourage women from filing.

Infrastructural issues

Apart from a patriarchal mindset and manpower issues, Brinda says that most police stations are not aware of the protection officers in their jurisdictions who need to be involved in domestic violence cases. “Many times, these protection officers also double up as child protection officers. By the time they are involved, one day has already passed. For a survivor, this one day can be quite crucial.”

Kanaka says that police stations are not geared up to deal with domestic violence cases in a long term manner. “When they take up counselling, they end up giving the wrong advice to the man and the woman. In the West, the woman is taken to a shelter home, especially when there is threat to life or physical abuse. She is placed in a safe house, the address of which is not given to the perpetrator. Here, such protocols are not followed, unfortunately.”

“There is nothing stopping the perpetrator from going back to the house where the survivor is, for one. And if this has to be done, then a police official needs to be on duty where the survivor is to ensure he doesn’t come back. Shelter homes where women can go are also not in the best shape, especially during the pandemic, when they do not want to create crowding,” she adds.

Kanaka says that inter-departmental coordination also needs to be made better for domestic violence survivors to get speedy remedies.

Brinda argues that the major problem is that there isn’t a rights-based perspective when it comes to dealing with crimes against women, including domestic violence. “We need to move beyond preserving patriarchy, culture, and social structures in order to ensure that survivors’ remain the top priority.”    

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