Social Science Baha


Domestic Violence Against Women: Unequal Power Relations Fuelling It

Bibhu Thapaliya
25 February 2020
The Himalayan Times

Gender equality in the labour market and parliament does not necessarily equate to equality in the household. Sweden is a prime example where women face a lifetime of domestic violence despite the status women enjoy there

According to the Operation and Crime Investigation Department under Nepal Police, there were 14,774 reported cases of domestic violence against women in FY 2018/19. This number would have been even higher were it not for the fact that most women who experience domestic violence choose not to speak out and suffer in silence. In July 2019, a well-known Nepali actress faced a public backlash for reporting about her husband. She had filed for divorce on grounds of physical violence and emotional abuse. The common responses as observed in the social media, such as Facebook, were: “She was not beaten by her man without any mistake on her part… It’s wrong of her to drag familial issues to the court. They should talk it out and resolve the problem.”

Even though the federal government criminalises domestic violence, women are reluctant to report incidents due to public animosity. In male-dominated societies, unequal power relations between men and women contribute to the manifestation of such attitudes. Understanding unequal power dynamics as the underlying factor causing, influencing and perpetuating domestic violence is vital to overcome this problem.

“Power” is the ability to control or influence the behaviour of others and/or the course of events. “Power bargaining” refers to a balanced negotiation between two parties that would leave them both better off after the conflict.

In patriarchal societies, women migrate to reside in their husband’s paternal home after marriage. There, they are expected to influence the growth (through care) of family members but not challenge male domination. A woman’s new way of life is governed by the household norms of the husband. The freedom to make personal choices and participate in vital decision-making is restricted.

The violent behaviour of the husband is justified as a measure to control/and punish certain behaviours, such as refusing sex, socialising with other males or staying out late-night. Women can neither escape nor defend the cycle of violence despite being a trusted and affectionate member of the family.

Apart from having a negative impact on an individual’s physical, mental and emotional health, domestic violence causes the disintegration of families and emotional distress on children. Acts of domestic violence against the backdrop of unequal power relations within family cut across various castes and religions. According to a study conducted in 2017 in Nepal, staying in the natal home during pregnancy and for some time after childbirth (customary among Muslim communities in Kapilvastu), with the wife only returning to her husband’s house if he comes to fetch her, was found to be one of the reasons behind the conflict between husband and wife.

Here, the wife has little to no bargaining power to stop her husband from committing infidelity and causing her emotional harm.

It is imperative to refrain from identifying males as the sole perpetrators. It can be either a male or female who believes in playing by the unwritten rules of the unequal system. One just has to identify with the entitlement of men to subjugate women’s school of thought. Mothers-in-law have tormented and even killed their daughters-in-law for dowry in the Tarai.

This is an example of how violence becomes normalised and justifiable for those brought up in societies with greater gender-based discriminatory practices. The manner in which people are raised, socialised and made to witness greater power forces them to resist questioning the norms which ultimately exploit women.

Gender equality in the labour market and parliament does not necessarily equate to equality in the household. Sweden is a prime example where 28 per cent of women face a lifetime of physical or/sexual domestic violence despite the country ranking 4th in the Global Gender Inequality Index. The formation of balanced power relations within the household requires significant change in parenting and the educational system. An effective way to begin this process is through extensive public awareness raising and education.

Financial empowerment of women as an approach to breaking the cycle of domestic violence against women is a commonly suggested measure by the activists. Increased female employment in Sri Lanka (2010) and better access to resources challenged power relations between men and women, which resulted in an increase in household conflict. Studies show that educated and financially independent women have become the victims of domestic violence and refused to report family perpetrators. This suggests that the power relations (between men and women) within the household are a complex phenomenon, which does not have a one-dimensional solution.

Globally, there have been studies on the role of patriarchal ideology in the perpetuation of domestic violence. However, the intersection of patriarchy, marriage and domestic violence needs further exploration. Furthermore, a historical analysis of how legislation on family and marriage has institutionalised unequal power relations also needs to be conducted. It is equally important to study the state’s role in reducing/and perpetuating unequal power relations leading to conflict and violence against women for a more comprehensive overview of the issue. 

A version of this article appears in print on February 27, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.


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