By: Sadiq Vali
Rushda Khan is a lawyer trained in constitutional law in India. She has worked with two judges of the Supreme Court of India and is now working at the office of the Attorney General for India, Mr. K. K. Venugopal. Homes Without Violence is an initiative that Rushda started to generate awareness about laws relating to domestic violence in India and to provide pro bono legal aid to people facing abuse at home. She spoke with COVID-WI on July 13th, 2020.
What led you to starting Homes Without Violence and to provide pro bono work for domestic abuse victims during the Pandemic?
As the pandemic continues to hit us hard and countries encourage people to stay home to stay safe, we also need to realize that for a large number of people their home is not their safe space. These are things most of us take for granted, but especially at times like these the concern for someone staying in an abusive home environment gets amplified.
A part of what the pandemic has brought to us is a revelation about what was not working in our society. A lot of our stressors are not problems that we can solve alone, and we all need support to get through things. So, through this initiative I wanted to connect, reach out and extend support to those of us living in an abusive environment who no longer have their outlet or support system because of the lockdown. My intention with Homes Without Violence was for it to be an awareness initiative. I wanted to open a dialogue about domestic abuse and to improve access to information by providing a directory of resources in a single location, so that people have all the information they need readily available.
What do you think are some of the unique challenges people in India or people from the Indian community face when it comes to domestic violence and abusive situations?
The most startling thing in my experience is that people don’t really think that they have a right to be free from domestic violence in India. Domestic violence is viewed as something that is perfectly acceptable and a normal occurrence of family/married life. Abuse at home is so ingrained as a part of life in India that it is not even recognized as abuse, and so people don’t consider living a life without abuse either.
Legally speaking, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act – which is a relatively new act passed in 2005 – categorizes five types of violence: physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, and economic abuse. People forget that continuous insults from your husband or your in-laws is not just hurtful and unacceptable, but it is an act of verbal and emotional abuse even if there is no instance of physical abuse. In India especially, I think verbal and emotional abuse can go easily unnoticed and so this is a progressive law that recognizes it.
One other thing that might be unique to India is that matters of abuse at home is considered a private matter. Neighbours, relatives, and friends mostly do not intervene, thinking of it as a private matter that the husband and wife will resolve amongst themselves. As a result, nobody intervenes or tells the abuser that what they’re doing is wrong.
In your experience have you gotten a lot of cases for emotional abuse and what would be the legal steps you can take for them?
Well, my experience has been that people who come to me for legal aid are those who have experienced physical abuse. People do not usually seek out legal aid for an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship. It’s probably because they don’t recognize it as abuse and do not think that they have a recourse in law to stop it. Some of the cases I see are extreme, for example, a woman’s child getting kidnapped by her husband as a way of asserting control, and that’s when they come to me for legal options. It is really hard in a society like India where people both in rural and urban communities think that it is not a crime when your spouse or family member is violent towards you.
As for legal steps, the Domestic Violence Act allows women to file for an injunction which is an order from court preventing their husbands or family members from continuing with their abusive behaviour, failing which they can be jailed for violating an order of the Court. This knowledge itself can be a great deterrent for abuse and can potentially save lives. The advice obviously varies from case to case depending on the kind of abuse and what path the victim wants to pursue. It could be legal action, or it could be putting them in contact with a safe Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) for shelter, financial support, or a psychologist for therapy.
I understand that I am only speaking about what steps women can take in law against their abusers. It is not to say that men do not face abuse at home or in their relationships, but I am talking about the steps that women can take under the Domestic Violence Act, which was created specifically for women to address the unique issues that they face in abusive relationships in India. Men too can take legal recourse just under different provisions of the Indian Penal Code.
How do you think the Pandemic has affected people living in abusive households in India?
Well, it was reported that the National Commission for Women in India received double the number of crisis calls for domestic abuse in the first week of the lockdown, as compared to the week before the lockdown was imposed. But it’s possible that this data is an underestimation because many abuse victims do not have access to their phones as their abusers have cut off their support systems.
For someone who is in an abusive situation what advice (legal or otherwise) would you like to give them and what steps are necessary for them to take when trying to leave their situation?
If anyone does find themselves in an abusive relationship and wants to leave, the first thing to do would be to develop a safety plan – this includes organizing your paperwork, identity documents, emergency money, and helpline numbers and keeping it in one location for quick access. The next thing would be to create a support system with people you can trust – let relatives, friends or neighbours know what is happening and allow them to come over if they witness or hear something when you are being abused. Like the Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell) Initiative – when residents overhear violence against a woman taking place, they are urged to ring the doorbell and ask a simple question, such as to borrow some tea, to use the phone, or to have a glass of water. If you get to know that domestic violence is happening just go ring the bell in that household, so the abuse gets interrupted, the situation gets diffused and hopefully the loss of a life is prevented.
Finally, seek professional help. It could be legal or psychological and try get yourself out of an abusive situation. Every individual deserves to live with dignity and self-respect. These are not mere words – but your legal entitlements that have been guaranteed to you by the law – so recognize them as such and pursue them for a happier life.