Domestic violence is among the most common forms of crime. Very often, it is not even seen as a serious issue in various countries. Diverse cultures around the world have normalised intimate partner violence and some even encourage it in certain scenarios. The lack of proper action against perpetrators has left millions of victims around the globe hopeless, and the number of cases keeps rising every year. In the absence of effective preventive measures and relief facilities, the matter can only be expected to get worse as the years pass by.
The reason behind my decision to write this piece is the astonishing rise in the domestic violence cases ever since the pandemic lockdown began. The UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge recorded an over 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day after the lockdown was initiated. In addition, a separate helpline for the perpetrators of domestic violence looking for ways to change saw a 25% increase. Now, once you sit down and think about it, this is a crisis that could have been foreseen. Everyone has been asked to remain within the confines of their homes, as much as possible, meaning that the victims have nowhere to go. This is exactly the kind of a scenario that abusers thrive in.
In fact, such surges in the number of cases were noticed in previous instances of crises too. This includes the global financial crisis in 2008 and natural disasters like the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. A few countries, however, have seen a drop in the number of intimate partner violence complaints during the quarantine period. The Office of Domestic Violence for the Supreme Court of Argentina has seen a drop in such complaints from 50 a day to 5. A lawyer stated later that the drop was probably due to the fact that abusers can now actively control their victims, who have no way to escape. A reported 25% increase in the calls to the emergency hotline confirms his suspicions. A steep fall in calls to the domestic violence helplines in countries like France and Italy can also be attributed to the same reason; the victims are being controlled, have no way to escape and are finding it difficult to look for help.
The authorities have found it difficult to pin-point and to reach out to these victims. They have been actively trying to encourage victims to call them and let their conditions be known. Victoria Derbyshire, a BBC newsreader was seen hosting a BBC News programme with the domestic violence helpline number written on the back of her hand. She made it clear later that her aim was to get the number out to those who need it during the times of self-isolation. However, with the abuser always at home and the victim having nowhere else to go, something as simple as making a call for help can be an impossible task. It is estimated that on a regular basis, only 34% of those who are subjected to violence in the hands of an intimate partner receive medical help for their injuries. The numbers can only be expected to be worse in the present scenario.
Another recent incident in Canada solidified concerns about the situation. The country witnessed its worst mass shooting on April 18, 2020. A 12-hour rampage perpetrated by a gunman disguised as a police officer left 22 people dead. This started with an argument between the gunman and his girlfriend which eventually resulted in an assault. She, however, managed to escape and hid in the woods overnight in an attempt to save herself. This is believed to have been the trigger for the shooting. While in this case, the victim was able to escape death, not everyone is that lucky. According to the US-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of a homicide by 500%. In addition, 19% of all reported cases of domestic violence involve a weapon.
Amidst all these issues, the heavily sensationalised Amber Heard-Johnny Depp situation has brought a small detail to light. Domestic violence is, more often than not, seen as an exclusively non-male issue. While it is true that the numbers are higher on that end, an ignorance of the issues faced by men makes the situation only worse.
Three years ago, Amber Heard accused her ex-husband Johnny Depp of domestic violence. These claims were supported by pictures of Heard with bruises from the alleged assault and a video of angry Depp throwing a wine bottle and glass. People all across the globe extended support towards Heard, who, unlike many could gather the courage to file a case against her abuser. The public outrage against the actor resulted in him losing some of his most coveted movie roles including his leading role as Jack Sparrow in the very successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Amber Heard, on the other hand, landed the role of Mera in Aquaman.
Ever since she made her abuse story public, she has been given the opportunity to speak for women’s and children’s rights on numerous occasions. However, the real nature of Heard’s interactions with Johnny Depp while she was still married to him was brought to light earlier this year. The leaked recordings of conversations between the two showed a completely different story from the one that the actress had spent the last few years painting. Amber Heard was the abuser. Since then, several other sources helping prove Depp’s innocence in the matter have come to light and the actor has filed a defamation suit against his ex-wife. With the overwhelming amount of evidence against Heard, it is clear that the actress might face some jail time. However, in spite of massive support for her being removed from the DC cast, no such action has been taken.
Unlike Depp, on the career front, she has not been affected at all. This has increased concerns about an unequal treatment of genders when it comes to domestic abuse. According to statistics provided by the NCADV, while 1 in 4 women experience intimate partner physical violence, contact sexual violence and/or partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, PTSD, contraction of STDs and so on and so forth, 1 in 9 men experience the same. Very few instances in which males experience domestic violence in the hands of others are usually reported. Now, the reason behind this is twofold. Firstly, patriarchy teaches men to be ‘masculine’, a word that has attributes like not crying or asking for help and beliefs like non-males are physically weaker and are incapable of inflicting pain upon males, associated with it, resulting in most cases going unreported. The second reason is a bitter after-effect of the first: men’s cries for help are often rejected, their words are not believed and they are often ridiculed in such a scenario. They, therefore, fear opening up.
Many claim that feminism is at fault in the Heard-Depp case. However, the reality is slightly different. Feminism is an ideology which aims to tackle patriarchy and inequality. Therefore, at its core, it does involve standing up for male victims of domestic violence and against the unequal treatment meted out to them. In addition, it also involves standing up against those who use feminism to cover up their crimes and ensure a thriving gender based inequality in society. Besides, Johnny Depp’s victimisation is a failure of the patriarchal society which refuses to believe in the idea that a woman can beat up a man and treats the issue accordingly. We need to remember that domestic abuse is not always physical abuse. It can be sadistic control and/or economic, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse. Heard is simply a bad human being and a terrible example of a feminist. Her actions should not discredit feminism in general and the millions of others who have actually faced domestic violence and are unable to move out of the situation.
There are millions of people who live in poverty-stricken areas with no access to help in times of need. Many are unable to find a way out of their deplorable domestic situation and see their abusers face punishment for their actions. Besides, the fear of their partners is sometimes so intense that the victims even end up justifying the violence by claiming it as their own fault. There are also people of celebrity status who have faced such a situation. Case in point: Rihanna, who was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009. Anyone, anywhere can face abuse at any point of time. It is necessary to fight for these people and to ensure that the domestic violence pandemic sees an end.
The biggest issue concerning intimate partner violence is the societal perception surrounding it. The views on domestic violence are largely moulded by religious teachings. Before I go further into this, it is important that I mention here that most religions do not have an absolute consensus on any matter pertaining to their religious teachings across all denominations or sects. However, we can always talk about what the majority believes in. In Islam, many claim that Sharia law encourages domestic violence against women whose husbands suspect ‘nushuz’ (disobedience or disloyalty). Sharia Law forms the basis for the legal system in multiple Islamic nations in the world. Some abusers also cite Bible verses (often Ephesians 5:22) to justify violence.
However, in recent times, people have come out in large numbers to speak against this justification of violence on religious grounds. They claim that encouraging domestic violence is nothing more than a misinterpretation or an outdated understanding of the holy books. Contrary to the aforementioned religions, Hinduism primarily preaches non-violence on all fronts. Nevertheless, domestic violence is a common issue in modern Hindu families. The most recurrent reason is the inability of the wife’s family to pay the required dowry. The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was aimed at abolishing the dowry system in India. In spite of these efforts, the giving and taking of dowry continues to be a commonplace practice in marriages in the country and is a major contributor to the violence observed against Indian women.
The issue of domestic violence has been a concern of feminists for a while now and a variety of legislations in recent times have only made their job more difficult. In 2017, Russia came under fire for decriminalising intimate partner violence. The new law, signed by Putin and popularly referred to as the ‘slapping law’, reduced the punishment for counts of domestic violence. The reason behind such a decision was claimed to be a desire to reduce governmental interference in people’s private lives. Soon protests broke out across the country against this law. Some of the activists even noted that a crisis that is, more often than not, shoved under rugs has been thrust into limelight because of the actions of the legislature and an increasing number of people are understanding the gravity of the situation. However, as a consequence of the law, a surge in the number of cases of domestic battery was noticed. Besides Russia, there are many other countries which do not provide any legal protection to the victims of domestic abuse. In fact, several cultures fail to even view intimate partner violence as a crime and as an issue that needs to be discussed at length.
In India, the internalised acceptance of domestic violence is at a dangerous high. In addition to this, the act of slapping a woman has been romanticised to such an extent in the country that people view it as symbolic of love and care. In 2019, a Bollywood movie, titled Kabir Singh was heavily criticised for its glorification of toxic relationships and abusive partners. In spite of this, the film went on to earn a whopping ₹3.8 billion. This is a clear indication of the fact that the majority of the public did not find an issue with the story.
On February 28, 2020, another movie titled Thappad was released in India. The story follows a woman who is seeking divorce from her husband. Her reason, however, is not the conventional disloyalty. It is violence. Her husband slaps her at a party in front of a crowd and is unapologetic about it later. This act drives the woman to her decision. In her journey, she is faced with comments like “thoda bardasht karna sikhna chahiye auraton ko” (“women should learn to tolerate”) and “itni si baat?” (“such a tiny reason?”) over and over again. This movie was widely appreciated by feminists across the country. The IMDb rating of Thappad, however, shows a marked difference between how men have rated it compared to women. The low ratings from men is an indication of the fact that many of the men in society disagree with the concept; for them domestic violence is justifiable. On the other hand, a higher rating from most women is an encouraging indication that the realisation of domestic violence being an unjustifiable act has finally started sinking in.
It is abundantly clear that the crisis of domestic violence is not limited to the times of pandemics, financial crises or natural disasters. It is a never-ending issue. Many people across the globe continue to refuse to acknowledge it as a heinous crime in the first place. This severely hampers the capacity to tackle the situation. For now, we can only hope that the increasing awareness among the people can one day result in an escalation in the number of protests and understanding among people, with the outcome of a safer world.
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