The spread of domestic violence: A story from Maligaon Slum

Article by Dayeeta Buragohain

Domestic violence is a weight that nobody wants to carry. It has huge effects on many phases of society and even though it is not evident, it has negative impacts on the development of the country. This problem is a universal issue and is present in all countries of the world and affects the socio-economic, cultural and racial factors. This problem is widespread and has been normalised to such a level that people have been accepting it without even a blink. Domestic violence is extremely deep-rooted and can affect the mental and physical health of a person severely. Even though gender violence can be attributed to both genders, yet the issues concerning women have surfaced widely from time to time. This has continued through generations and has made women vulnerable across the world. It has tremendous negative impacts on healthcare and society as a whole.

North East India is not a place where people would hear about gender violence regularly. It is generally believed that women in the NE region enjoy a status which is often termed as ‘better off’ than their counterparts in other places of the country. But domestic violence is prevalent in all nooks and corners if looked carefully. According to a 2018 report, married women in Assam are found to be more unsafe in their own houses than on the roads. There is an average of 32 cases of domestic violence daily in the state which has resulted in approximately 12,000 cases in a year. A data from the National Crimes Records Bureau, 2018 shows that at 166, Assam ranks the highest in the number of cognizable crimes against women. In a more shocking revelation, Assam registers the highest forms of VAWG (violence against women and girls), second highest in acid attacks, fifth highest in human trafficking, eighth in rape, and is one of the top 10 states for sexual harassment. With the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, all the dormant issues have been pushed to the frontline. Cases of domestic violence have spiked up in great numbers with people being forced to stay inside their houses. The All Women Police Station (AWPS) in Guwahati has recorded the maximum increase in crimes against married women (physical and mental abuse) since March.

The story of Maligaon Slum

The location of the headquarters of North East Frontier Railway, Maligaon, houses around 30 households near and about the railway tracks. This non-notified slum area is one among a total of 217 in Guwahati and has a population of around 250 people. Lack of proper housing facilities has forced these 30 odd households to reside by the tracks which is a sharp contrast to the nearby concrete railway colony made for the officials. People residing in this community are a mix of cultures from Assamese, Bodo, Bihari and Bengalis. In this community, women are the primary breadwinners of the families working as maids in the houses of the officials. While some men go in search of work as daily labourers, most of them are more inclined towards the shady business of alcohol and drug trading.

Maligaon Railway besides being one of the biggest slums in Guwahati also registers one of the highest rates of domestic violence against women. With several cases of rapes against tribal women, even the police have been unable to control the level of violence in this area. The most common form of physical violence in the area is beating women (approximately 83.7%). Forced sexual intercourse or rape among married women in the area has been reported to have the highest percentage among VAWG crimes in Guwahati. The cases that make it to police records are meagre. Many times, registering a case is difficult due to lack of evidence. This is especially in the case of mental abuse.

It is mostly towards the late evening that one can hear cries and shouts from the children when their mothers would be severely beaten up. The older children are accustomed to the regular harassment but the younger ones are yet to be habituated. One of the women nursing her previous night’s wounds had furiously asked me to go away from the place as it does not belong to people like ‘me’. Narrating the problems that women in that area had faced since generations, she gives a sad smile indicating her acceptance of the brutality that she is subjected to. She is a Bihari from a different part of Guwahati who fell in love with this boy and got married. He changed after having two kids and now the beatings are a regular story in her house. There have been times when she had thought about running away but the dire financial conditions force her to reconsider. It is the same story for every woman in the area.

One of the girls who got married around the age of sixteen was sexually harassed by her husband. She had to leave her 3-year-old daughter with her elder sister and had run off to her friend’s maid quarters in Bhangagarh when she could not bear the violence any longer. Another woman lifted her saree to show the bidi burns on her legs which was a consequence of her returning late from her workplace.

Living in a place without any walls, constant smell of sewage, no proper drinking water and nobody to fight for them, the plight of these women is pitiful. The worst part is that they have accepted their fate. They even encourage their girls to tolerate the harassment inflicted upon them because that is how they will remain married. Those who could not bear the constant brunt of physical and mental harassment had committed suicide.

What are the reasons behind this condition?

Although there can be numerous reasons for gender violence, the most specific ones that I could understand from this area are :

  • Inequality between men and women (gender bias) being the primary reason behind the violence imparted in these areas. The concept of women being the weaker sex and hence are to be subjected to violence is the prevailing mindset of men in these areas.
  • Alcohol and drugs play a major role in the aggressive attitude of men. Their delusional behaviour is a result of continued substance abuse.
  • Frustration from their lifelong struggle for recognition and an improved economic condition has led men to direct their pent up anger on the women.
  • Lack of awareness and adequate education has always been one of the key reasons for all crimes. Although several organisations try to help them by spreading awareness, the process is never complete because of the lack of a follow-up process.

Violence among women is not a new concept and many articles have been written on it. Northeast Network (NEN) has been working for a long time with the issue of domestic violence and has drawn considerable attention, amongst the public, because it has revealed different forms of violence faced by women which goes unnoticed and unreported. Quite recently, TISS-Mumbai has collaborated with Assam Police to work on these issues especially in the areas of Guwahati. But the real problem that is behind the spread of this crime is the lack of a practical examination on it. Several hundred surveys and questionnaires will not solve the real problems faced by these women. One has to step into the process and understand the mindset of the people to work on a solution. And as far as psychosocial interventions go, women here have to be empowered in their sense to fight their own battles. Establishing adequate training process and proper follow up can help in the accurate understanding of these people. This can be the beginning of a well-planned out process to eliminate the root causes of domestic violence.

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