A few days ago, the world was stunned by images of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson apparently being choked by her husband, Charles Saatchi, in a restaurant. No one at the restaurant they were at, dared intervene, and Nigella, like most women who are victims of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has chosen to remain silent about it.
We are shocked, though we shouldn’t be. Women like her don’t get abused by their partners, we think. Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Violence happens in homes of a certain kind, homes plagued by poverty, alcoholism, a lack of education. This doesn’t happen with ‘people like us’ and definitely not with successful celebrities.
But it does. Rihanna, Tina Turner, Lana Turner and closer home, Zeenat Aman and now Jiah Khan have all spoken about being victims of IPV. Not all of them left their abusers.
A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) released recently, states that a third of women globally have been physically or sexually assaulted by a former or current partner. “WHO defined physical violence as being slapped, pushed, punched, choked or attacked with a weapon. Sexual violence was defined as being physically forced to have sex, having sex for fear of what the partner might do and being compelled to do something sexual that was humiliating or degrading… In a related paper published in the journal Lancet, researchers found that more than 38 percent of slain women are killed by a former or current partner, six times higher than the rate of men killed by their partners.”
Put simply, one in three women around us are victims of domestic violence or Intimate Partner Violence. The statistics might be shocking, but they’re true. According to the WHO study, “The rate of domestic violence against women was highest in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where 37 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lifetimes. The rate was 30 percent in Latin America and 23 percent in North America. In Europe and Asia, it was 25 percent.”
What is interesting is the reaction to Lawson’s assault, while the onlookers at the restaurant thought nothing of clicking pictures of the abuse happening in full public view, none of them attempted to intervene. Lawson hasn’t spoken out about the abuse, not yet at least. Saatchi has dismissed it as a playful argument, never mind the tears and the distraught Nigella in the photographs, which were far from depicting anything playful.
There is an Omerta that surrounds IPV which ensures that the woman dare not speak about being abused – she bears the shame, not the abuser. The fact that domestic violence is so widespread and accepted can be assessed from the results of a study by the UNICEF called ‘Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012’, which states that 57 percent of adolescent boys in India think a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife. More shocking is the finding that over half of the Indian adolescent girls, or around 53 percent think that a husband is justified in beating his wife. These are children who have grown up seeing domestic violence in their homes, it is part and parcel of their daily lives. They will continue the cycle of violence, because to them, it is not aberrant behavior, it is acceptable and normal.
When the Lawson-Saatchi episode pictures became public, among the many questions being asked was this, “Why would a woman like her stay in an abusive relationship?” There is no simple answer to this. A combination of factors make it difficult, if not impossible, for a victim to escape or get away from an abusive relationship. In an abusive relationship, the boundaries of the abuse keep shifting. What is acceptable keeps getting pushed further as the abuse escalates. The abuse might begin innocuously, a tantrum, a fight, which then degenerates into physical abuse. Even in relationships with terrible abuse, there could be moments of tenderness and love that make the victim hold on to the relationship, for those brief reaffirmations of love and affection. Often some abusive relationships form a pattern of terrible abuse, interspersed with wooing, demonstrations of love and pampering. In fact, according to one study, more than half of the women being abused rated their partners as dependable. “More than half (54 percent) saw their partners as highly dependable, while one in five (21 percent) felt the men in their lives possessed significant positive traits (i.e. being affectionate).”
For some other women in abusive relationships, fear might hold them back. For many others, they’re sucked into a vortex of emotional and physical abuse which leaves them with wrecked self esteem and a feeling that they’re in some way responsible for the abuse. The physical abuse is coupled with emotional abuse, belittling, deriding, taunts about everything from weight to appearance to cooking skills to professional abilities, breaking down a woman’s confidence in herself. A woman is embarrassed to acknowledge there is a problem with her relationship to friends and family who could intervene. Very often she covers up for the abuser. “It was my fault, I made him angry. I asked for it.” The reality is that the victim has so been brainwashed by the abuser’s assertion that he made her angry and caused him to get violent that she actually begins believing it. Family and neighbours often don’t intervene and the victim might not feel she has the support necessary to break out of the relationship, even if she wants to. In fact, often no one dares question or confront the abuser, emboldening the abuser to escalate the violence and making the victim feel even more isolated. Often the abuser never abuses the victim in the presence of others, so it becomes difficult for the victim to convince others of the abuse. Some are careful to never hit on a visible spot. “He never hit me on the face or on the arms,” as one victim told me. The victim is trapped in a vicious cycle of control. The abuser might have taken away her financial independence, made her dependent on money, might control her interactions with everyone around her, control her movements, monitor her timings, her clothes, use the children to keep her in the relationship, make her believe she deserves the abuse and deny or minimize the extent of the abuse.
The abuse becomes normal for the victim, an accepted part of her life, the emotional roller coaster becomes normal, the walking on eggshells, the not knowing what will trigger the next bout of rage becomes a part of her. If there are children involved and the victim is a homemaker, there is the fear of not being able to provide for the children financially if she moves out of the relationship. Some women might have grown up in a dysfunctional family with an abusive parent, so they perceive the abuse as normal. Also, when a woman decides to get out of an abusive relationship, there is always the fear that the partner will stalk her down and kill her. That is the ultimate threat that compels a woman to stay on in an abusive relationship. According to domesticabuseshelter.org, “On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good…Approximately 75% of women who are killed by their batterers are murdered when they attempt to leave or after they have left an abusive relationship.”
The statistics for India are scary. “Over half of all cases of homicide against women in India are carried out by their current or former partners, says a global survey published by the British medical journal Lancet.”
There is no immediate solution to tackling intimate partner violence. The only long term solution is to change mindsets which normalize the acceptance of abuse. As long as we turn a blind eye to abuse around us, we encourage it. And that is what lets the abuser go on – the knowledge that no one will intervene.