by Pushpa Iyer
- USA -
Two weeks ago, late in the evening, Soma Bakshi, an educated, middle class young woman in Kolkata was set on fire by her husband and in-laws. This “incident” was preceded by a severe beating given to her by her husband and her mother-in-law. The only witness in this case was her two and half year old son, who recounted the beatings his mother received that night from his father and grandmother to the police. The boy still recalls his mother’s tortured cries. Soma, severely burnt, was kept gasping for life in the house without any attempt to seek medical assistance. Her parents, who arrived at the home some hours later after receiving news of an “accident,” rushed her to the hospital, where she died after a week of agony.
Soma’s pain and suffering began just a day after her marriage four years ago; it ended only when she left this world. Her parents must really be suffering unbearable pain, anger, hurt and guilt. Guilt – for not acting quickly to help save her from the harassment and torture she had complained for the last four years. Maybe societal and cultural pressures prevented them from taking effective action to resolve her problem, but were these pressures really so daunting that their daughter had to be sacrificed?
Reading about Soma, I am reminded all too vividly of another horror story of another young woman, Kamala, whom I knew over a decade ago when I worked with a local NGO in one of the slums in Ahmedabad. The organization had been working in that slum for over two decades to advocate for and promote, among other things, the rights of women and girls. Kamala, like Soma, met a fiery end at the hands of her abusive husband.
“He Burnt Me…”
Kamala was a cheerful woman, actively involved in various slum development activities. We knew her well, well enough for her to tell us that she was physically and mentally abused by her practically-every-evening drunk husband, Ramesh. Coming home inebriated night after night, Ramesh invariably picked a fight with Kamala over minor matters; often his verbal abuse turned into physical violence. Kamala usually sought refuge with her parents, who lived in the same slum, until Ramesh calmed down. Usually she stayed just for the evening and then always went back to him.
Kamala was not the only woman in the slum with a story of abuse at home. Many others also suffered physical and verbal torture from their husbands and in-laws. Alcohol usually played a role. The irony was that Ahmedabad is in the state of Gujarat, home of Mahatma Gandhi and the only state in India where a prohibition against alcohol is in force. Domestic abuse in Ahmedabad’s slums goes through “trends.” At that time there was a trend for the men to do what other men were doing – abusing their wives. Even more exciting, they could get away with it with little or no sanction. Around the time things got worse in Kamala’s home, there were growing reports of violence in other homes in the slum. Our NGO felt the need to counter it with a trend to report these men to the police. And, we realized we could get the women themselves to take action – women’s empowerment!
Law, as we all know, is worth nothing unless it is implemented. Using our good relations with the local police we got them to agree not only to receive complaints but to act! We wanted to ensure that if women went courageously to the police station, they would not be let down. Women needed courage because society, culture and family all frowned upon their going “outside” and speaking ill about their husbands.Obviously the men needed to be sensitized at the same time. However though we tried our best, our success rate with men was low. It was partly cultural: most of our staffers were women and it was hard for them to speak to the men in the slum. Another part of the problem was logistical: men were not available during the day when most of our staff was present. And although our male staff did work at night, they found it hard to get things going with a group of men whose evenings were spent drinking.
“Our” women in the slum always made us proud. A few courageous ones did go to the police, who did intervene. The results were mixed; some were only further threatened by their husbands and families, while others finally received quiet respect at home and enjoyed a respite from the abuse.
Kamala felt emboldened both by our encouragement and by knowing that she now had a resource to stop the violence. On one hot evening in June, Ramesh came home drunk and picked a fight with her for not having his food ready. When the fight turned violent, Kamala walked out, but not to her parents. This time she walked straight to the police station and filed a report. The police came to the slum and arrested him immediately. Ramesh was kept in jail for a couple of days and was then released. He came home furious and drunk. He was so furious at Kamala for having reported him that the abuse reached a new level. He literally burnt her alive. He had to punish her for her actions.
At that moment Kamala became a statistic. She chose however to become part of another important statistic: she became part of the tiny percentage of women who actually told the truth about how she was burnt instead of reporting it as an accident. In her dying declaration to the judicial magistrate, to the police and to our staff the next morning, she said “He burnt me…” Kamala died a few days later despite receiving the best possible treatment the hospital had to offer through our intervention.
We were stunned, angry, upset, sad and tears flowed freely. Guilt came with the realization that in the end, this abused woman had been all alone. She had had no parents to protect her, no friends to shield her, no law to guard her and no NGO to safeguard her. Kamala died in the midst of all of us, in a densely populated slum in a tiny ramshackle home that adjoined a dozen others.
We vowed that Kamala’s courage would not go in vain; she would get justice. Although she was charred to death, her actions and her dying declaration kept her and us smoldering.
Testing Our Commitment and Courage
Fighting for justice for Kamala tested our commitment to our organization’s goals and values. It also became a test of our courage. Ramesh was arrested again, and again, he was released. Since Ramesh’s family brewed illicit liquor in the slum, it automatically made them not just richer, but powerful. They were among the “connected” folks of the slum. The police were regular visitors to their liquor den, both as customers and as bribe collectors. Later his family used threats and innuendos to terrorize us while we campaigned against domestic abuse and promoted the rights of women - gathering men and women to the cause. The pressure created great tension within the organization, splitting us apart, often driving us to great despair.
Only in 1983, a decade earlier, had the Indian government included domestic abuse as a criminal offense under the Indian Penal Code. Although within our organization we had our own divisions, nonetheless we continued to work to create awareness and seek justice. We collaborated with the public prosecutor to ensure that Kamala’s case was strong and well-documented. A little over a year after her death, justice was finally done. The trial court held Ramesh guilty and sentenced him to a life in prison where, I think, he still lives.
Afterwards, domestic violence in the slum declined for a while. This horrific series of events had led to what my organization could report as “success.” It was a tiny “victory” – albeit an isolated one – that should have had some long-term impact on the way men treated women.
Women’s Empowerment and Law
However, more than 10 years later, Soma Bakshi, living at the other end of the country and also an abused woman, was burned to death like Kamala. In both cases their families were aware of what was happening in their daughters’ homes.
The stories are painfully similar, yet there were differences between Kamala and Soma. Kamala had very little education; Soma had a degree in Rabindrasangeet (music). One came from the poorest echelons of society, while the other was middle class. One died of domestic abuse and the other was classified as a dowry death.
What is clear is that the differences do not matter. These two women were killed in the most horrendous manner regardless of what differences there may have been in their respective environments. And that is what is so frightening: that violence against women in India knows no boundaries. Rich, poor, educated or uneducated, whether they bring sufficient dowry or not, life and death for these women and too many others like them is the same – a trial by fire. Most importantly, not even the passage of another decade has improved a woman’s situation when it comes to domestic abuse.According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, a case of cruelty against a woman by her husband and relatives occurs every nine minutes. This of course reflects only the cases that are reported. One shudders to think what the statistics would look like if the unreported cases were taken into account. The same bureau also states that only 21.9 % of those charged are actually convicted of the crime of cruelty to their wives.
In 2005 the Protection of Women from Domestic Abuse became an act; a year later it became a law. But laws alone do not provide the protection and security or the guarantee that women need. Women need their families, society and culture to walk with them and often to hold their hands in their fight against this kind of violence. NGOs have long been their only harbinger of justice and hope, but the outreach services and resources of NGOs need to be strengthened. And these services need to be extended to the families of these women to help break off the many taboos against bringing their daughters back home alive. Families and friends should feel and live with some guilt for not having acted in time to save these women, but an even greater guilt falls upon a society whose economic, social and cultural norms tolerate this kind of brutality against its women.
Education is the key to bringing about a change in societal and cultural norms. A more daunting task remains of involving men in this struggle to end domestic abuse. Otherwise, it is the women who will have one more oppressive burden to carry – that of creating positive change in their own lives. This would mean, among other things, reconstructing masculinity and having men and women work together to change age-old cultural constructs.
Recounting Kamala’s story is an emotional journey for me. We did it all – spent time educating women and men, tried to sensitize men to the rights of women, and worked hard to empower women with many different strategies and resources. We initiated and advocated programs for education, better health and greater economic independence for women. After Kamala’s death, we even got men actively involved in our fight to end domestic violence in the slum. Together, we questioned our cultural values and norms, the position of women in society and the need for more stringent measures.
And, to bring social change, we had to be radical. We got women to step out of their cultural boundaries and report men to the police. Did that cost Kamala her life? Would she have been alive if she had not challenged her status quo so blatantly? I have never stopped asking that question. Did we push her too far? Or was it she who took charge of her own life? Soma did not actually challenge her husband or maybe she did in the silent confines of her home. I have only questions, not answers. How many more Kamalas and Somas need to burn? And when will their ashes settle so that a new society can spring from them?
About the Author
Pushpa Iyer is Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Conflict Resolution at the Graduate School for International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Before coming to the United States for her Ph.D. studies, she worked among the poor and marginalised through a local NGO in her home state of Gujarat, India. With that, she began her passionate and deep involvement in issues related to the empowerment of women and human rights. She also worked to bring peace between the divided Hindu and Muslim communities of Gujarat.
In the US, she has continued her work through her involvement with women prisoners and the victims of domestic abuse. She remains a strong advocate for the rights of the girl child, the women and other minorities in India. She has consulted for different NGOs and institutions including the World Bank, which took her back to India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.