While international attention to recent incidents of rape in India has generated urgent attention to the issue of sexual violence there, another type of gender violence has received less attention in these media representations: domestic violence. Domestic violence is a global epidemic–less spectacular but equally deadly, in India and around the world. According to BBC reports, every five minutes, 1 incident of domestic violence is reported in India—a fraction of how much actually occurs. How do we counter domestic violence? Who can and should help victims of domestic violence, who often suffer quietly for years before they are so battered that they muster the courage to leave (as the Hindi film star Rati Agnihotri recently did) or they die (as my cousin and namesake Kavita did)? What NGO or state institutional resources exist, in urban and rural areas? How effective are they? How do we change so many men’s and women’s attitudes and behavior, so that they stop the abuse, and so that they speak up when they see another man or woman being abusive?
The Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell) campaign began in India in 2008, broadcasting 30 second ads on TV depicting men stopping domestic violence in their neighborhood or apartment building: they went to the home where they could hear a woman being beaten and abused, rang the doorbell and asked for some milk, or water, or to borrow a phone. The idea was to let the abuser know they were heard, and to interrupt the violence. The ads have stopped running, but the violence goes on.
Nobody rang the bell for my cousin Kavita. Six years ago, Kavita was living with emotional and verbal abuse throughout her four-year marriage in Mumbai. She was cursed and starved by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband; he even hit on several occasions. They were not poor-they hid bars of gold in bank lockers-just abusive. She kept hoping that things would change, if her sister-in-law got married, or at least when her beautiful daughter was born. It just got worse. In March 2009, emaciated at 34 years, a frail 5’4” Kavita died under suspicious circumstances, of “kidney and respiratory failure” (with no history of the same). She weighed barely 90 lbs. The doctors did not ask her husband any questions. Everyone knows that many married Indian women die of poisoning by a tasteless colorless chemical often used as a farmer’s pesticide, which causes kidney failure; detection is almost impossible.
I write this today, six years after, so that we don’t forget Kavita and millions of women like her. It is everybody’s responsibility—the parents, the siblings, the neighbors, the friends, the community, each one of us—to speak up, to intervene, to help, and stop the violence when we see it, for women’s human right to live with dignity in a violence-free world. Because when I reached out for help to an NGO serving as a resource in Mumbai for domestic violence victims, I was told “We can’t do anything if the victim is dead. If she was alive, we could have helped her, we could give her a lawyer, we could place her in a shelter. Since victim has died, we cannot do anything.” And the two year-old daughter she left behind will always miss the beautiful, loving mother she never got to know.
(Photo Credit: Youth Ki Awaaz)