Why didn’t Shraddha Walkar just walk away? It’s complicated
On International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women, The Federal looks at what makes women to stay on with abusive partners when they’re under no legal or moral compulsion to do so
November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Shraddha Walkar, and many women like her, did not live to see the day, for which the theme this year is — UNITE: Activism to End Violence Against Women and Girls.
Shraddha, who was allegedly killed and dismembered by her live-in partner Aftab Amin Poonawala on May 18, was reportedly for long a victim of intimate partner violence. Her friends claimed Aftab used to assault her when they lived together in their Delhi flat. And yet, she never sought help.
Shraddha and Aftab were not married; so, she could have walked out of this abusive relationship anytime. She would not need to go through the legal rigours of a divorce. Shraddha seemed to be a strong and independent woman. Earlier, she is said to have lived and worked alone in Mumbai, away from her family. She stood by her decision to live with Aftab despite her family being against the union. And yet, she preferred to suffer torture in silence — a decision that cost her dear.
Sanction of society
So, what makes women like Shraddha Walkar — educated, apparently strong-willed, potentially financially independent — suffer domestic violence without seeking help or walking away from their abusive intimate partner? And what is the kind of legal help they can get in India?
“Society and the judiciary, or the law of the land, were initially uneasy about live-in relationships because these have no sanction of society, unlike marriage. And the law always respects social institutions,” Sharanyo Chatterjee, an advocate in Calcutta High Court, told The Federal. “But there has been a gradual change in the outlook of the judiciary,” he added.
Since around 2010, courts have recognised that a live-in relationship may be unusual and not have the moral sanction of society, but is within a person’s right under Article 21 of the Constitution (Right to Life and Personal Liberty), said Chatterjee.
“The courts held that a couple that was cohabiting for a considerable period (not specified) like a husband and wife can be treated as individuals in a legal relationship. This legal sanction does not apply to a walk-in and walk-out relationship,” he explained.
A case in point is the 2013 Indra Sarma vs VKV Sarma trial in the Supreme Court. “The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act does not use the terms ‘husband’ or ‘wife,’ but rather, ‘aggrieved person in a shared household’ and a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’, said the court. So, a live-in relationship can also be given the colour of nature of marriage, which the SC has done time and again, including in this case,” said Chatterjee.
However, the court set certain parameters for a live-in relationship to be considered legal. Those included a continuous relationship for a certain duration, a shared household, pooling of resources, sexual relations, and the intention to live in a relationship, among others, which may be sometimes difficult to prove in court, said Chatterjee.
Police can be unkind
So, women like Shraddha can seek help under The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. But how easy or difficult is it for them to lodge a police complaint?
“Not at all easy, because the police are likely to grill them in a very bad way, to put it very mildly,” said Chatterjee. “But the law is clear about it. So, it is better for such women to directly approach the court. There is a provision under the Domestic Violence Act to appoint a protection officer by the court. They can also approach the Women’s Commission,” pointed out Chatterjee.
One of the reasons women in Shraddha’s situation do not seek help is simply because they are unaware of the laws and their options, said Chatterjee.
Missed identities and options
Another reason is that they are not aware of their independent identity despite a formal education and employment, said Bula Bhadra, Professor Emeritus and Director, Center for the Study of Interdisciplinary Studies & Research in Social Sciences, Sister Nivedita University, Kolkata.
“Formal education and formal employment in India do not really touch our consciousness. To be really independent and really educated, you must be conscious about what you have and what you can do in your life,” said Bhadra.
Even after getting an education and a job, women in India do not develop an independent identity as an adult who can take decisions considering the pros and cons, she added. “They are considered a ‘woman’ and not an adult, independent individual capable of taking decisions. They are told that whatever they do, they must get it ratified by somebody else.”
While women are told they “must get married” (or have a male partner), men do not learn they cannot behave in a toxic manner, said Bhadra. Nonaggressive men are bullied and branded as “henpecked,” she pointed out. “So, men only learn how to keep a woman under control and not love. There has to be consent in love. No relationship can be successful if it is based on control instead of love and mutual understanding. Shraddha’s case is a classic example of that,” she added.
According to Bhadra, women like Shraddha do not walk out of an abusive relationship because they “never learn” that they have that option.
Three key reasons they stay
Psychologist Dr Suvarna Sen cited three possible reasons for a woman to tolerate abuse in silence despite having no apparent problem walking out. “One, they may have seen one of their parents tolerating all kinds of unfairness from the other and making compromises. This leads to a willingness to tolerate everything.
“Two, they may have a major problem with a father figure in their lives. As a result, they crave a strong male figure and tolerating everything so that they don’t risk a separation. Three, they may have grown up seeing domestic violence and think it’s a done thing.”
India has some grim figures when it comes to domestic violence. According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) data, 29.3 per cent of married Indian women aged 18-49 years faced domestic violence or sexual violence. But, 77 per cent of them never sought any help.
Speaking at IIT-Bombay last month, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres termed violence against women a “big cancer.” Recently, he called on governments to implement national action plans to tackle this scourge, saying this kind of violence is the “most pervasive human rights violation” in the world.
As the UN chief urged everyone to take a stand and raise their “voices in support of women’s rights” and proudly declare that “we are all feminists,” it seems women must actively seek out their rights. They must learn that violence and abuse are not okay and that help is at hand — legal and otherwise. And that walking away can save lives.