In December of 2012 the brutal gang rape and murder of a young college student by six young men in Delhi, India made international headlines. In January of 2012 I had traveled to Delhi to document cases of dowry abuse. As I followed the news and read more about the extent of the physical abuse of women in India, I learned that it was so pervasive, that it was as common as eating a meal. With large demonstrations of men and women protesting to stop the rapes that occur all too often in India (in Delhi, it is estimated that four rapes occur every day), I was motivated to go back and report on other women who have been abused. Although this one case in Delhi received worldwide attention, I knew there were millions of women whose have suffered in silence for many years without their story being told. I hoped by doing this documentary work momentum would be added to the efforts being made to curb physical violence against women.
Sometime in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I am haunted by the images and stories of the physically abused women that I have photographed in India. Although my impressions and comments here are about the subjects I photographed there, the problem of physical and sexual abuse of women is pervasive throughout the world. In Mexico, when I attempted to do similar documentary work, I had no success. Women were too ashamed, perhaps because of stigma, to tell their stories even though physical abuse was extremely common.
It takes tremendous courage for these women to risk speaking out, to tell their stories and to be photographed.
It was difficult to hear the narratives of these women, imagining the beatings, physical abuse, the desperation and the suffering they survived, often in silence. With little societal help, the NGO’s offered life-lines to support these women through free legal counsel, support groups and counselors to give them the psychological strength to reaffirm their basic human rights and self-worth. It is life-saving work, yet the psychological and physical damage from trauma can never be entirely undone.
There were certain basic themes that came out of these stories, the foremost being lack of law enforcement. A woman who has the courage to report her case to the police, risks ridicule or even further harassment. There was a story of a young woman, who I did not have the opportunity to photograph, who after having been raped, went to the police, where a police officer sexually abused her. And, some of the stories, which were the most difficult for the NGO’s to resolve, involve women who have been abused by their husbands who were members of the police force. And if cases do get filed in the judicial system, they languish in limbo for years and years as if time or justice were of no importance.
Unfortunately, sometimes women are also complicit in perpetrating violence towards other women. Many of these stories have mother in-laws either condoning or actively participating in the violence. Another sad theme that pervades these testimonials is that so many women, who have been brutally victimized time and time again by their husbands, still hope for a reconciliation and live with fantasies that everything would be fine if they could only move back one more time. Without the peer support of the womens groups in these NGO’s, I fear many of these women would no longer be alive to tell their stories.
When I think of women, not only in India, but throughout the world, who
are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse daily, I cannot help but think their condition is a contemporary form of slavery. They live in fear, shame and isolation and have no legal recourse to defend their basic human rights. I find it intolerable and applaud all the efforts of the NGO¹s in India, in particular Action India and HUMSAFAR and the Global Fund for Women, that
provide grants that enable their work. These organizations provide vital psychological and legal support. They are doing difficult, commendable work, often going against accepted cultural norms, and I am grateful that they allowed me to document the stories of some of the women they have helped. Just as there was a moral imperative to end slavery, it is now critical to create an enforceable legal framework where physical abuse of women is totally unacceptable.
Sangeeta, wandering the streets in a state of shock, had been badly beaten up by her husband. To make matters worse, her husband was a constable at the police headquarters which gave Sangeeta little recourse to deal with her husband’s abuse.
She complained that he frequently beat her black and blue and threw her out of the house and dared her to do any harm to him. I have heard many stories that when women go to the police to report cases of abuse and rape, they are ignored or even open themselves to further abuse; as Sangeeta’s husband was a police officer she had no hope of ending her torment. She had no way to support herself and had to survive on the meager amounts of food sent by her parents from their family farm.
Sangeeta with some of her children. Some live with their father.
Sangeeta with her youngest walking home. She lives in one of the slums in Lucknow.
Sangeeta’s case was brought to the attention of HUMSAFAR, an NGO working in Lucknow India, that deals exclusively with cases of domestic physical abuse. Their caseworkers had intensive counseling sessions with both Sangeeta and her husband. It did not work; after a brief respite, the physical and mental torture continued, and her husband’s use of abusive language and violence became worse.
Sangeeta’s husband finally requested a divorce; he threatened their children with violence if they dared to appear as witnesses in support of their mother. Legal cases take years and years to appear before a justice, and women have to wait interminably in limbo for any justice. In Sangeeta’s case, things were further complicated by the fact that the police wanted to protect one of their own rather than his wife who was the real victim.
Nevertheless, HUMSAFAR’s intervention enabled Sangeeta’s husband to be transferred out of the city. Free legal aid and counseling was given to Sangeeta. She now has her own bank account and is able to live in her home with her children; she receives a monthly stipend of 300 rupees each for her 5 children ( a total of $30 per month), hardly a sustainable living wage. Sangeeta had to send one son to her husband, and attempting to improve her economic condition; at least, she can live without the fear of being beaten and tormented but her psychological scars are very much with her.
Sangeeta, doing some of her daily chores, can now live without fear from the abusive behavior of her husband.
On the very next day after Nahida was married, she found out that her husband was having an affair with his aunt. When she inquired about the affair, the beating started. Her first pregnancy ended in a still birth which she believes was caused by the abusive behavior of her husband.
Nahida was forced to undergo four abortions by her husband as he was having an extra-marital affair and did not want to have children with Nahida. Eventually, she did have several children but his violent behavior continued.
Nahida with her youngest son.
Although she filed two separate cases for financial support from her husband, the first one in 2005, she is still waiting for any semblance of justice. Under section 125 of the code of Criminal Procedure, Nahida received a maintenance order of 1000 rupees per month by the family court. Even today, in 2013, she has never received a single rupee from her husband, as he refuses to appear in court reducing the maintenance order to a useless piece of paper. She filed another in 2007 under another law, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence, with the same lack of results. In this case, she never even got an order from the court as her husband refused to appear.
HUMSAFAR is still trying to help Nahida receive justice through the court system, a daunting task. Meanwhile, Humsafar has facilitated her training as a professional cab driver where she can earn some minimal amount to pay for necessities and keep two of her children in school.
Sudha married out of her caste. She fell in love and was married to Mahesh in 2001, to the great disapproval of his parents. Her father-in law, a head constable of a police department in Lucknow, came to their home when Sudha was five months pregnant and beat both of them, threatening he would go so far as to kill them both unless the marriage was annulled.
After registering a formal complaint against her father-in-law, he became more incensed, increasing the harassment and attempted to rape her.
Another women’s organization helped protect Sudha by arranging for her to move into a women’s shelter in another district. After her son was born, Sudha hoped for a reconciliation and moved back with her husband, but her father in-law was not placated and continued his violent behavior. Sudha’s husband also started harassing her and finally abandoned her. Again she had to move back to a shelter.
Humsafar had to fight a long and difficult battle to get a case registered against Sudha’s husband and father in-law. Unfortunately, the courts in India work on geologic time and the case against her father in-law is lost in a vast ineffective maze of beauracracy. Her son is now 9 years old and she receives 400 rupees a month ($8 per month). Sudha works with HUMSAFAR now to help empower women and make them aware of their basic human rights so as not to be victims of daily abuse and violence.
Manjari was a child bride; at the age of 14, she was married to Ramesh, a man 11 years her senior. Her harassment started after 3 years of marriage when she could not have a child.
Manjari was sent to her family home by her in-laws, but after some family mediation, she returned a year later to attempt once more to live with her husband. Manjari had 3 still birth deliveries and all the midwives that attended to her births felt is was due to her husband having forceful, violent sex with her during her last trimester. She was told not to allow her husband to do this. The next time Manjari became pregnant, she returned early to her family home where she successfully delivered a male baby. Whenever she became pregnant, she returned to her parent’s home, and had 2 additional babies. Having children did not change her husband’s violent behavior towards her. During sex, her husband beat her and bit here in many parts of her body including her breast, genitals, and thighs. Whenever she complained about this to her mother and mother-in-law they used to say that he is your husband and he can do anything with you that he wishes.
She approached HUMSAFAR and showed them her wounds. She did not want to register her case with the police but HUMSAFAR intervened and counseled her husband that his behavior was criminal. At present Manjari is living peacefully, her husband no longer sexually assaults her, but she suffers from pain in her thighs and legs.
Rachna, after being beaten by her husband and father in-law, was forced to abandon her baby.
Neha, Rachna’s younger sister, was married and unable to have any children. Neha convinced Rachna to marry Vikram, the brother of her husband. Rachna became pregnant but had a difficult pregnancy and even though her in-laws refused to provider her with any pre-natal care, she did manage to have her baby in a government hospital. She became critically ill after the birth and was unconscious for the next 48 hours. When Rachna finally returned home and tried to be with her baby, Neha claimed the baby as her own; Rachna’s husband even told her that it wasn’t her baby- it was Neha’s child. Her father in-law attempted to throw her from the balcony and after fighting him off, she was locked in a room and beaten for five days. She was forced to leave her baby and go live with her parents. HUMSAFAR is helping her file a case for custody of her child. HUMSAFAR has also facilitated her training as a professional to polish furniture and Rachna is currently working in a furniture factory in Lucknow.