New Delhi: Women whose economic status equals or exceeds that of their husbands are more likely to face domestic violence, a recent study has found. The study also finds causal evidence that such women have a more assertive role in decision-making and men use violence to re-establish the patriarchal power balance.

Married women are 14% more likely to face domestic violence if they go against the convention of hypergamy--the idea that women seek to marry men of higher social stature--when compared to women in hypergamous marriages, says a working paper by researchers from the University of Nottingham, UK and the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad. The results hold for married couples across socioeconomic backgrounds--caste, class, age, area of residence, and so on--and geographical factors.

The percentage of women in non-hypergamous marriages is 22%, according to the authors' analysis of data from the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4).

Domestic violence has become the most common form of abuse inflicted on women--it affects one in three women globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The current study analysed the NFHS-4 data and responses of 65,806 women aged 15-49 to queries regarding violence. It found that 27% had dealt with physical violence in the 12 months preceding the survey, 5% with sexual violence, 11% with emotional violence and 25% with "any" violence.

This implies that various programmes that aim at empowering women economically are not necessarily ensuring their well-being, said experts. Policies on gender equality must be accompanied by enforceable legislation and interventions, the study said.

Across populations, geography

In the last four decades in India, the percentage of men with a better education than their wives has dipped from over 90% to around 60%; and the percentage of women with a better education than their husbands has risen from under 10% to over 30%.

"This [the data from the study] showed that while it might appear that women are more empowered in marriages because they are violating hypergamy and being more educated, they are [actually] still exposed heavily to domestic violence," said Punarjit Roychowdhury, assistant professor at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi, and the lead author of the study. (Earlier, he was an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham).

The authors analysed NFHS-4 data across parameters, comparing subpopulations, such as area of residence (rural vs urban), presence of children, household type (one/two-generation vs three-generation households), household wealth (poorest, poorer, middle, rich and richest), caste factors (spouses of same or different castes), average age of couples and the span of the marriage (over or under five years).

They found that the violation of hypergamy norms was consistently linked to domestic violence across subpopulations. This correlation is not restricted to India: Studies conducted in Tanzania, United Kingdom, and Australia reiterate the finding.

"This is an extremely important finding because it shows that the scale on which any domestic violence policy needs to be implemented is massive," said Roychowdhury.

Independent decision-making

Patriarchal norms dictate that all primary decisions in households should be taken by men, with women's actions largely dependent on male approval. The study examined what happens when traditional gender roles are reversed over taking family decisions--on the purchase of large household goods, visits to relatives, and how women's earnings are spent.

The study found that non-hypergamous marriages upend patriarchal gender beliefs and norms. For example, they increase the likelihood of women making decisions on the purchase of large household goods by at least 3%, on family visits by at least 9%, and on spending of women's earnings by at least 7%.

Husbands tend then to use domestic violence to "sabotage" their wives' employment and work prospects, said the study. It is also common for such husbands to be jealous about their wives interacting with other men, accusing them of infidelity or insisting on knowing their whereabouts.

Gendered violence is holding back India's economy, and achieving gender equality may increase the country's gross domestic product by $700 billion, a 2015 McKinsey report had noted.

Socio-economic uplift not enough

"You can look at this [domestic violence] as the male backlash that occurs when women try to break away from existing rules as not much effort has been made to address masculine notions of men," said Pranita Achyut, director, research and programmes, International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) Asia, a global research institute.

The current study comes after a 2021 study by Roychowdhury, which concluded that raising the age of marriage by even a year could empower women against domestic violence. But even that research pointed out that while late marriages allowed women to acquire a better education and bargaining power in the household, it led to "stronger backlash" from partners, as IndiaSpend reported in November 2018.

"Female guilt" is a critical factor in how this violence is treated, said Sowmya Dhanaraj of the Madras School of Economics, who has co-authored a forthcoming study in Feminist Economics with Vidya Mahambare that suggests that working women tend to face more domestic violence.

"Our research has shown that working women are more likely to justify violence than non-working women. They feel guilty about spending time at work, away from their prescribed duties towards the husband and family. So even if women are economically empowered, norms that are very hardwired in us take longer to change," Sowmya Dhanaraj said.

A slew of women empowerment programmes have been launched over the last decade on national and state levels--Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Aapki Beti, Humari Beti, Ladli scheme focussed on the girl child for instance, Pradhan Mantri Mahila Shakti Kendra for rural women, and Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojna for pregnant women.

But these campaigns have to be accompanied by those that target changes in the social value system that normalises domestic violence, said experts. This means implementing policies that aim at changing social norms, preventing gender violence and empowering communities to address it, and providing community and legal support against domestic violence.

How policy interventions can help

State interventions that protect women from violence are not effective, IndiaSpend had reported in August 2017. While the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) only started collecting data under the Act in 2014. An analysis of the NCRB data shows that domestic violence as defined by the Act, and in general, is severely underreported.

But policies aimed at reducing gender discrimination can have unintended negative impacts on those they seek to empower, especially in the light of cultural norms, IndiaSpend reported in March.

To reduce an act of violence this common and complex, we need to act on multiple levels, said Pranita Achyut of ICRW. "We need to work on primary prevention, secondary prevention, and tertiary care. In addition, we need to engage with different stakeholders to mitigate the possible points of backlash." Primary prevention seeks to change social conditions, such as gender inequality, that enable violence, and it requires a broader change in underlying attitudes and practices of communities and organisations. Secondary prevention works to stop repeated acts of violence through the provision of counselling and shelters. Tertiary prevention focuses on supporting victims and holding abusers accountable through support groups and legal interventions.

Organisations such as the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA) work towards the early prevention of domestic violence in communities. "We do campaigns in communities--we form groups for men and women, and educate men against the use of violence and try to make them allies," said Nayreen Daruwalla, programme director for prevention of violence against women and children at SNEHA. "We set up womens' collectives which provide a space for women to come together."

Pandemic-related surge

The Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdowns saw a surge in the instances of domestic violence. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for a domestic violence "ceasefire", governments, along with civil society in India, implemented secondary prevention support systems. The National Council for Women launched a WhatsApp number to report domestic violence during the lockdown; the Kerala government started a tele-counselling facility; and Akshara Centre, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), along with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the government of Maharashtra, launched a web app called 'Stand Up Against Violence'.

In addition, NGOs started providing emergency counselling, legal aid, mental health support and shelter. Public initiatives such as the Red Dot Initiative gained momentum, allowing women to report distress by sporting a dot on their palm.

However, these programmes need to be implemented at a much larger scale, said experts. "The common belief is that we still don't have a system which can provide the necessary support to women," said Daruwalla from SNEHA. "But it is not as there is lack of evidence of effective approaches that seek to reduce violence. What we really need right now is the political willingness and investment to act on this, and to work on both prevention and response."

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