Breaking the Cycle: Targeting Sources of Violence against Women

By Neogy, Suniti | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Cycle: Targeting Sources of Violence against Women


Neogy, Suniti, Harvard International Review


It happens all the time, hut it still surprises me when I hear the women I work with in India's rural villages discuss violence and forced sex with disconcerting nonchalance. They say things like, "if I don't cook well, can't take care of the children well or refuse sex, I will have to face a beating. In these villages, living in a violent home is so commonplace that to live without violence is described as a supernatural occurrence. Of the women who don't face violence, others will say, "Yes, a few have very good kismet, or destiny."

In India, girls are taught from their childhood that they must bear pain. When a girl sees her mother suffering violence or abuse from her father or others, she sees her mother keeping quiet about it and therefore learns to do the same. If a girl complains about a relative abusing her or otherwise misbehaving, she is asked to keep quiet. At her wedding she is taught to bear any circumstances that may arise for the sake of keeping her family together. Therefore, in her marriage, if she suffers violence from her husband, she does not complain. After all, she has learnt that it is a part of her life.

The pandemic of violence of women and girls in India does not stop at abuse. According to the New York Times, researchers in India estimate between 25,000 and 100,000 women in India are killed each year over dowry disputes. Many are burned alive. Overall violence and discrimination is believed to kill nearly 2 million women and girls and India each year.

The December gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi has stirred consciences in India in a way I have never before experienced. Something about that horrible crime seems to have forced Indians to finally confront the terrible truth that our girls and women face unbelievable violence and discrimination as part of their everyday lives.

When people describe what's happening in India as a cycle of violence and propose ideas to end it, they need to understand that part of what keeps the cycle going is the acceptance of violence not only by the perpetrators and, often the victims, but also the people around them. To break this cycle requires comprehensive solutions that address all of those people. It requires working with women and girls to help them understand and exercise their rights. It requires engaging their families, especially men and boys. It requires educating and training service providers, be they health workers, teachers, or police officers. And it requires changes at the highest levels of government and administration. Unless there is a change in the mindset, behavior cannot change.

Statistics and Silence

Data on the prevalence of domestic violence in India reveal the depth of the challenge and underscore why a comprehensive approach is in order. 35 percent of women 15 to 49 years of age in India have experienced physical or sexual violence. Women's experience of physical or sexual violence ranges from a low six percent in Himachal Pradesh to 40 percent or more in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Tripura, and to a high of 56 percent in Bihar, according to the National Family Health Survey. Notably, a large majority of women who have experienced sexual violence, but not physical violence, have never told anyone about the violence, which stannds at 85 percent, and only eight percent have ever sought help.

The statistics are daunting, but we are not facing a hopeless situation. For more than a decade I've worked for the poverty-fighting group CARE as a community educator on health and gender issues. I've seen the deadly and dispiriting cycle of violence and poverty close-up. But along the way, I've also met countless men who, given an opportunity, were willing to examine and improve their behavior towards the girls and women in their lives. The fact is most people want what is best for their loved ones. Most people don't want to treat others badly. Aggressive behavior toward women isn't innate. …

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