One would think nothing can distract a politically-charged state like Kerala from election fever, but recently, the State took a break from politics and mourned the death of a seven-year-old boy from Thodupuzha. The child had been fatally kicked by his mother’s violent partner, whom she began living with immediately after her husband’s death a year ago. It was revealed that the child and his toddler brother had been subject to much more violence in the months before his death. Just as the State was recovering from this news, another came out — about a Kollam native who had been starved and beaten to death by her husband and in-laws, despite neighbours knowing about the torture.
In the Thodupuzha case, as the gruesome details unveiled, the collective rage of the public was directed at the abusive partners; at the mother in particular, for ‘allowing’ the torture. “She let her children be killed to satisfy her lust… what kind of a mother is she?” is what most people are saying.
Surprisingly, the woman’s mother-in-law declared that she has always been a loving mother and human being, and her old friends testified the same. The woman herself was found to have marks of extreme violence all over her body.
While the wife or a child dying from the torture is not common, women letting husbands and partners abuse them and their children for years on end is much more common than we think, social workers and doctors reveal.
Which leaves us with a question: why do well-educated and even financially independent women continue to stay with the abusers, and worse, why do they cover up the abuser’s crimes?
The need for this answer is testified by the fact that the Thodupuzha woman is under the observation of a team of mental health practitioners still, and not the police.
When an emotionally insecure person gets trapped in an abusive situation, they tend to adjust and sacrifice everything else in order to fill the emotional vacuum in their lives, says Dr CJ John, senior psychiatrist. “This woman might be as bad as people make her out to be, but there can be other reasons as well wherein she was manipulated or threatened with rejection by her abusive partner. Such women might be well-educated, but their personality has greater bearing than their education. It’s about whether she is truly empowered or not.” Men too are subject to abuse, but there are more instances of women being victims of physical violence; this is why the focus is on women, he adds.
Dr Sheena G Soman, consultant psychiatrist, Trivandrum Mental Health Centre, further says that everything about the Thodupuzha woman suggests borderline personality traits. “The traits are mostly a result of a lack of love during childhood and adolescence. They equate attention from the opposite gender with love, and are most vulnerable to shallow promises of love.”
“A characteristic of such women is that they allow themselves to be completely moulded by their partners. If the partner is mature and understanding, they will be happy and relaxed, but if the partner is a narcissist or antisocial, abuse will be the result, as in the Thodupuzha case,” says Dr Sheena who often deals with domestic violence victims.
A narcissist has a particular way of identifying and trapping such women, who in turn will turn a blind eye towards all their faults, provided they get the feeling of being needed by a significant other. “He will win her over with everything she wants to hear in the initial months and once he realizes she’s trapped, he unveils his real face, and the abuse begins. But then, the abuse will always be described as punishment for something she did or didn’t do, and before long the woman believes it all, and will start to act according to his wishes entirely. Eventually they develop a slave and master bond, and function in sync.”
While it’s easy to brand the woman as someone who prioritized her sexual needs over her children, such women are actually after emotional needs, says Dr John. “In 80% of the cases, the needs are emotional, not sexual, even in extramarital affairs. It doesn’t occur to her that the man is taking her for a ride and she believes whatever the man tells her.”
The nature of the narcissist is such that he spins his web in such a way that he would turn overtly loving and caring every time he senses she is trying to escape. “They are master manipulators, and will do everything to destroy her self-esteem and powers of thinking, and also shut down all paths of escape by distancing her from friends, family, even her job, by making her feel guilty about spending time with them. Narcissists love drama and the cat and mouse game, but are actually hollow people,” says Dr Sheena.
While the above mentioned phenomenon is universal, the gender norms prescribed by our culture are equally to blame for many women choosing to suffer all their lives from partner abuse, affirms Dr John.
Insecurities could be what lead to women putting up with abuse, but one shouldn’t minimize it to that; we need to inspect the role of society in making them insecure, he points out. “Personality is also defined by society and the larger question should be, why the insecurity. A lot of women have been conditioned from childhood to adjust, and they get accommodative to abuse as well after a point. They won’t resist or complain as many become numb.” And this applies to relationships outside of marriage too. “In our country, a man-woman relationship, whether bonded by marriage or not, eventually subscribes to gender roles ascribed by society. I have seen even homosexual relationships transform into marital hierarchical situations where, over a period of time, one person starts to assume the role of a culturally defined husband and the other a wife, in terms of abuse.”
Dr John has kept a copy of the Domestic Violence Act on his desk to educate couples who come in for counselling. “The woman in the Thodupuzha incident is not the first to deny abuse. Most abuse victims claim they fell or hit something, but from the injuries it would be obvious to us that the husband has abused her. But then, even wives who admit that they have been abused by their husbands change their statements the next day and say they don’t want a case, owing to guilt. ‘You took your own husband to court’ is how the husband as well as her own relatives guilt-trip her,” he says.
And it’s only when one starts listening to the wives that one realizes that the literate Kerala society is not as evolved as it’s made out to be, reveals Dr Sheena. “Most women who come to me actually believe that their husbands have the right to beat them when they are angry. Whether she is an engineer, doctor or even a judge, a woman who refuses to accept domestic violence is a ‘feminist’ for them. When I tell them they need a lawyer and not a psychiatrist, I too am branded a ‘feminist’ by the husband as well as the wife!” The husband would get angry with the doctor, asking her how dare she tell him to not hit his wife, while the wife would plead with her, ‘just tell him not to beat me, I don’t want to go to court.’ She will continue to find excuses for him: he is abusive only when he’s drunk, the children need a father, etc.
A woman escapes or goes to court only when a third person helps, like family or even grown-up children, in her experience. However, things are changing for the better, and more cases of domestic violence are being reported and families of the women are more supportive than before, she adds.
So what is the solution? “Women as well as their families and society at large should overcome the taboo around talking about domestic violence and filing complaints. Women should realize that even in a marital or live-in situation, they have the right to say no to abuse. Men too need to stop playing the aggrieved victims, because this is not about them, but about providing a safe environment for the woman and her children. A domestic violence case would be her last resort, after years of begging and pleading. And the focus is not on criminalizing the man but the safety of women and children. And above all, we should change systems of child rearing where women are taught to keep quiet and suffer, come what may,” says Dr John.
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