NFHS-5 shows spousal violence has reduced in 3 south states: What the numbers don’t say

Social workers and activists say that while the NFHS-5 numbers could actually mean a reduction in spousal violence, the statistics lack nuance.
A woman standing near a window
A woman standing near a window
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In what might appear as an uplifting trend, the National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS-5) shows that spousal violence experienced by women between 18 and 49 years who have ever been married in three southern states has reduced, when compared to NFHS-4 (2015-16). Phase-1 of the survey reveals a decrease in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala. While Karnataka has shown an increase, data for Tamil Nadu has not yet been made available.

If we look at the numbers alone, 9.9% women between 18 and 49 who were ever married said they experienced spousal violence in Kerala in 2019-20, compared to 14.3% who admitted to the same in 2015-16. In Telangana, the statistics are 36.9% in NFHS-5, compared to 42.9% in NFHS-4. And in Andhra Pradesh the numbers went down from 43.4% to 30% in NFHS-5. Only in Karnataka has an increase been recorded – from 20.6% women saying they faced spousal violence in NFHS-4 to 44.4% in NFHS-5.

However, social workers and activists say that while the NFHS-5 numbers could actually mean a reduction in spousal violence, the statistics lack the nuance that is essential in understanding spousal violence.

Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) tell a different story in some cases. When we compare the latest numbers from 2019 to the numbers in 2016, the number of cases registered under section 498A (cruelty by husband or his relatives) of the Indian Penal Code – one of the IPC sections under which a complaint for spousal violence can be registered – have increased in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But according to NFHS-5, the incidence has reduced in these states. 

Under the Domestic Violence Act, though, the numbers remain surprisingly low, even zero in many states across India. This, social workers say, is because a couple must undergo counselling with the Protection Officers, after which very, very few cases actually get registered.

So, what explains the seeming reduction in spousal violence per NFHS-5? According to Jameela Nishat, the founder of Shaheen, a Hyderabad-based NGO for rehabilitation and empowerment of women, many times the women may not report the violence they face.

Prasanna Gettu, co-founder of Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), an organisation that helps domestic violence survivors, adds, “Women often don’t want to complain, talk about or admit to the abuse, because the kind of response or help they expect is not there. The normalisation also means they are also compelled to tolerate and endure it.”

“In our experience, the numbers usually increase when there has been more awareness in an area, people come out and talk more about it,” Prasanna says. Going by this, percentage of women admitting to facing spousal violence increasing in Karnataka in NFHS-5 may actually be a step forward, Jameela points out however, that though awareness is increasing, taboo persists, which is why women may not have wanted to admit to it in the Survey in the first place.

Aleyamma Vijayan, activist and Secretary at Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre in Thiruvananthapuram Kerala notes that interpretation of survey results should be contextualised based on the sampling and how the questions are asked. “When we did a study on domestic violence, we learnt that in order to get authentic responses, asking directly doesn’t always work, especially if the woman is in around the husband or his family which may compromise her freedom to admit to the abuse.”

Aleyamma adds that in Kerala, domestic violence including spousal violence does persist, however, decentralization has helped raise awareness and tackle the problem better. “There are self-help groups, Kudumbashrees, and intervention mechanisms at local levels have increased,” she says.

Prasanna says that while one cannot say that the NFHS-5 figures are inauthentic, it should be remembered that they lack nuance. “This is the kind of crime that is hard to gauge by surveys alone.”

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