Gender Violence in India 2014: Domestic Violence

The United Nations General Assembly addressed domestic violence in Resolution 58/147, ‘Elimination of domestic violence against women’. This resolution defines domestic violence as occurring ‘within the private sphere, generally between individuals who are related through blood or intimacy’, and notes that it is ‘one of the most common and least visible forms of violence against women’. Domestic violence can involve ‘physical, psychological and sexual violence’ as well as ‘economic deprivation and isolation’.[1] Thus, domestic violence occurs in the home or other private space; victims usually share a household with perpetrators. In many cases, victims of domestic violence experience more than one form of abuse. While domestic violence can occur across genders, the United Nations and other organizations have recognized that victims are predominantly women.

A crucial subset of domestic violence, intimate partner violence (IPV), refers to abuse by one’s spouse or partner. The World Health Organisation defines IPV as including ‘acts of physical aggression, psychological abuse, forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion, and various controlling behaviours such as isolating a person from family and friends or restricting access to information and assistance’. While IPV can occur in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and can affect both men and women, the overwhelming majority of victims are women abused by male partners[2].

In India, IPV is seldom recognised as a distinct gender violence category. Women in abusive marriages may be reluctant to report the abuse because of societal perceptions that married women must ‘adjust’ to their husbands’ behaviour, and that speaking publicly against their husbands will bring shame to their families; on the other hand, unmarried women facing IPV may be dismissed as ‘asking for it’ by being in premarital relationships.

Know the law

The 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) is a civil law that aims to provide relief and compensation to victims of domestic violence. It does not provide for punishment of perpetrators, aside from possible payment of monetary compensation. It applies to women living in a ‘domestic relationship’ with an abusive man; it can thus be used by wives, sisters, widows, mothers, etc.[3] Crucially, this law also extends to women who live with their partners ‘in a relationship in the nature of marriage’, referring to women in live-in relationships. Moreover, a complaint can also be filed against the male and/or female relatives of the victim’s husband or intimate partner. The PWDVA defines domestic violence as actual abuse, or the threat of abuse, of a physical, sexual, emotional, verbal or economic nature.[4] This act also addresses harassment of women over dowry payments, or any other ‘unlawful demand’.[5]

Under the PWDVA, a magistrate or court can provide protection to the woman by barring the offender from committing violence within and outside of the home, from taking away the woman’s assets, from intimidating her and her family and from communicating with the woman. Additionally, the woman cannot be evicted from a shared residence, and can claim damages for mental and physical injuries. The magistrate can order maintenance, and grant her temporary custody of children.[6]

Complaints can be registered with a Protection Officer, a service provider, the police, or a magistrate. A Protection Officer is appointed by the state government and facilitates access to the services provided by the PWDVA. Service providers are non-profits and hospitals that can also aid the woman in accessing legal aid and medical services.[7]

In 2012, the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Group reported that it received an ‘extraordinary and unprecedented’ 22,255 orders from magistrates under the PWDVA, showing that women ‘have been turning up in the tens of thousands to invoke … the PWDVA as a shield against abuse and violence in their homes’.[8] However, it must be noted that as a civil law, the PWDVA cannot be utilised to pursue criminal proceedings against perpetrators of domestic violence.

Crucially, Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which addresses rape, includes an exception stating that ‘sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife … is not rape’.[9] Thus, a married woman cannot legally accuse her husband of rape. While Section 375 can be utilised by unmarried women who have been sexually assaulted by their intimate partners, there is a pervasive belief that rapists are not personally known to their victims, which makes it more difficult to prosecute such cases.

Married women do have the option of filing a criminal case against their husbands or his relatives under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which addresses marital cruelty. Section 498A vaguely defines ‘cruelty’ as any conduct that ‘is likely drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or [mental or physical] health,’ as well as ‘harassment … with a view to coercing her … to meet any unlawful demand for any property’.[10]

Keeping Count

The last National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), conducted in 2005-06, surveyed married women on the incidence of spousal violence. More recent data from the survey are as yet unavailable, as the NFHS-4, 2014-15, is currently being conducted. According to the NFHS-3, 39% of currently married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their current husbands, of which more than two thirds reported experiencing violence within the last twelve months.[11] Roughly one in three women report having been slapped by their husbands, and 10% of women report that their husbands have physically forced them to have sex. Between 11% and 15% of women surveyed report having their arms twisted or being pushed, shaken, kicked, dragged or beaten.[12] Only one in four women who experience violence have sought help to end the violence, and very few women report seeking help from the police or social organisations.[13] Moreover, the survey found that 54% of women and 51% of men between the ages of 15 and 49 believed wife-beating to be acceptable for one or more reasons.[14]

The study also reports a greater likelihood of spousal violence among women whose fathers beat their mothers, and among women whose husbands get drunk often.[15] In addition, women who are employed and earn money are much more likely to experience spousal violence, particularly if they earn more than their husbands.[16] For women who make household decisions jointly with their husbands, including how to use their own earnings, the odds of experiencing violence are lower than for women who either make these decisions alone, or do not have a major say in such decisions.[17]

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) tracks reports of ‘Cruelty by Husband or his Relatives’. Table 1 and Figure 1 show the number of cases reported each year nationally from 2002 to 2013. Not all cases resulted in a trial or conviction; some cases are still pending.

Table 1: Reported Cases of Cruelty by Husband or his Relatives, NCRB[18]

Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
Number of cases reported of cruelty by husband or relatives 49237 50703 58121 58319 63128 75930
Year 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Number of cases reported of cruelty by husband or relatives 81344 89546 94041 99135 106527 118866[19]

 Figure 1


The 2013 figure of 118,866 cases reported is an 11.6% increase from the number reported in 2012, and a 316% increase from the 28,579 cases first mentioned in 1995 by the NCRB. Of the cases from 2013, the highest proportion came from West Bengal (15.2%), followed by 12.7% each from Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.[21] Moreover, crimes under Section 498A represent roughly 40% of all crimes against women recorded by the NCRB under the Indian Penal Code.[22] While the NCRB data includes complaints filed by married women against not only their husbands, but also their husbands’ relatives, it does not extend to unmarried women in intimate relationships.

A recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO), in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council, titled ‘Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-Partner Sexual Violence’, found that globally, 30% of women have experienced IPV.[23] Based on an analysis of data from 155 studies in 81 countries, the report does not provide country-specific information, but presents consolidated data from low- and middle-income countries in six different WHO-defined ‘regions’, in addition to a separate category with high-income countries from the different regions.[24] The South-East Asia Region, which includes India, has the highest rate of IPV among surveyed women, at nearly 38%.[25]

The report also reveals that 38% of all murders of women around the world are committed by their intimate partners,[26] and that women facing IPV are about 16% more likely to have babies with low birth-weight,[27] twice as likely to have an abortion,[28] almost twice as likely to experience depression and have alcohol-use problems,[29] and in some regions, 1.5 times more likely to contract HIV.[30]

[1] ‘Elimination of domestic violence against women’, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 58/147, 19th February 2004,, accessed 20th November 2014.

[2] ‘Intimate partner violence: facts’, World Health Organisation, p. 1,, accessed 29th October 2014.

[3] Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 2,, accessed 29th October 2014. Section 2(a) defines an ‘aggrieved person’ as ‘any woman who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the respondent’ and who alleges to have experienced domestic violence. Section 2(f) defines a ‘domestic relationship’ to include living together ‘in a shared household’ as well as relationships of consanguinity, marriage or adoption.

[4] PWDVA. See above note 3. Section 3(Explanation I)(i-iv) defines physical, sexual, verbal and emotional and economic abuse.

[5] PWDVA. See above note 3. Section 3(b) includes in its definition of domestic violence harassment intended to ‘coerce [a woman] … to meet any unlawful demand for any dowry or other property’.

[6] Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative, ‘Frequently Asked Questions on the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005’, p. 3,, accessed 2nd September 2014.

[7] PWDVA. See above note 1. Section 2(n) defines a ‘Protection Officer’, and Section 2(r) defines a ‘service provider’.

[8] Gopal, M. G., ‘The Big Picture’, from Staying Alive: Evaluating Court Orders, Sixth Monitoring and Evaluation Report 2013 on the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative, p. ix,, accessed 2nd September 2014.

[9] Indian Penal Code, Section 375(Exception),, accessed 29th October 2014.

[10] Indian Penal Code, Section 498A,, accessed 29th October 2014.

[11] Kishor, S. & Gupta, K., ‘Chapter 10: Spousal Violence’, ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment in India’, National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) India 2005-06, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, p. 96,, accessed 28th October 2014.

[12] See above note 11, p. 97.

[13] ‘Key Findings Report’, National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) India 2005-06, p. 21,, accessed 28th October 2014.

[14] See above note 11, p. 74.

[15] See above note 11., p. 102 (for correlation with parental domestic violence) and p. 104 (for correlation with husbands’ drinking often).

[16] See above note 11, p. 100.

[17] See above note 11, p. 100.

[18] ‘Cases registered and their disposal under Cruelty by Husband or his Relatives during 2001-2012’, Crime in India 2012, National Crime Records Bureau,, accessed 29th October 2014. Table 1 and Figure 1 data up to 2012 are from this report; for 2013 statistics, see above note 18.

[19] ‘Chapter 5: Crimes against Women’, Crime in India 2013, NCRB, p. 81,, accessed 26th September 2014.

[20] Figure 1 was generated using the data from Table 1.

[21] See above note 18, p. 84.

[22] See above note 18, p. 81.

[23] ‘Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence’, World Health Organisation, 2013, p. 2,, accessed 29th October 2014.

[24] See above note 23, p. 9-10.

[25] See above note 23, p. 17.

[26] See above note 23, p. 2.

[27] See above note 23, p. 23.

[28] See above note 23, p. 23.

[29] See above note 23, p. 24-25.

[30] See above note 23, p. 29.


This series of posts were researched, drafted and edited by Divya Bhat, Shakthi Manickavasagam, Titiksha Pandit and Mitha Nandagopalan.

December 2014

What’s the data from the new WHO study on VAW and its health impacts telling us?

Earlier this week, WHO published new data on global and regional estimates of violence against women. This is based on a study assessing the ‘prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence’ and was carried out by WHO in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council.

While acknowledging that women experience many forms of violence, the study focuses specifically on intimate partner violence which is defined as a ‘self-reported experience of one or more acts of physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former partner since the age of 15 years’. The report also acknowledges that the term ‘intimate partner’ is understood differently in different settings, both legally and culturally. So this includes married couples as well as those in live-in relationships, those dating and those engaged in sexual relationships (not necessarily married). There’s no explicit reference but my assumption is the study has focused only on heterosexual relationships.

Incidentally, there’s no specific legal category in Indian law for intimate partner violence. However the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 extends to those who are in live-in relationships and not just married couples.

What’s also interesting is the inclusion of ‘self-reported experiences’ of violence in arriving at the global prevalence rates. We always talk about how official data and statistics, i.e cases reported to the police, are merely the tip of the iceberg and we have to assume there are many many more that don’t get reported. By including self-reported experiences (often considered the gold standard in violence research), the research team has circumvented the tricky challenge of under-reporting to a certain extent.

A word on the research methodology: this report is not based on new data specifically collected by the research team but on rigorous analysis of existing data from 155 studies in 81 countries. See Section 1 of the report for a detailed discussion on the methodology, challenges and limitations of the study.

So what are the key findings?

Excerpts from the Executive Summary on page 2 of the report:

  • Overall, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence;

  • Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. In some regions, 38% of women have experienced intimate partner violence;

  • Globally, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners;

  • Women who have been physically or sexually abused by their partners report higher rates of a number of important health problems. For example, they are 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby. They are more than twice as likely to have an abortion, almost twice as likely to experience depression, and, in some regions, are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV, as compared to women who have not experienced partner violence;

  • Globally, 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner. There are fewer data available on the health effects of non-partner sexual violence. However, the evidence that does exist reveals that women who have experienced this form of violence are 2.3 times more likely to have alcohol use disorders and 2.6 times more likely to experience depression or anxiety.

So what does this new data tell us?

1. That globally, 1 in 3 women experience intimate partner or non-partner violence at some point in their lives.

2. Countries in South-East Asia (WHO-defined region that includes India and other South Asian countries) have the highest prevalence, at a staggering 37.7%. The Eastern Mediterranean and African regions aren’t far behind, with prevalence rates of 37% and 36.6% respectively.

3.There is a real and urgent case to view violence against women as a public health issue, and not merely a criminal or law and order problem. This has serious long-term implications for how we train our health care professionals on how to respond to violence.In the words of the study authors, this is ‘a global health problem of epidemic proportions’.

4. When a woman experiences violence, whether once or repeatedly, it has a definitive impact on her physical and mental health. Of course, we already know this but the report draws our attention to evidence that highlights the association between violence and a long (but select) list of health outcomes including HIV infection, incident sexually transmitted infections (STIs), induced abortion, low birth weight, premature birth, growth restriction in utero and/or small for gestational age, alcohol use, depression and suicide, injuries, and death from homicide.

The health sector in particular has been slow to engage with violence against women. Yet, this report presents clear evidence that exposure to violence is an important determinant of poor health for women.

…..The findings underpin the need for the health sector to take intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women more seriously. All health-care providers should be trained to understand the relationship between violence and women’s ill health and to be able to respond appropriately. Multiple entry points within the health sector exist where women may seek health  care – without necessarily disclosing violence – particularly in sexual and reproductive health services (e.g. antenatal care, post-abortion care, family planning), mental health and emergency services. The new WHO guidelines for the health sector response to intimate partner violence and sexual violence (110 ) emphasize the urgent need to integrate these issues into undergraduate curricula for all health-care providers, as well as in in-service training.

So? What now?

In many ways of course, this is nothing we didn’t already know. However for those of us who knock on doors in the health sector and meet apathy or disinterest, the findings of this study are a potentially valuable tool. At Prajnya, we’ve done some nascent work in training health care professionals, primarily nurses, to recognise and respond to violence. Across the board, we’ve found that existing curricula rarely contains anything about dealing with violence, barring cursory mentions in the context of either HIV/STI or reproductive health. Trainee nurses were often unsure of what constitutes violence, when to intervene, whether its any of their business at all, what they should say, what they shouldn’t say, how they could help…

After all, asking anyone about her/his experience of violence isn’t easy. How then can we expect a young 22-year-old nurse who has received no training whatsoever to offer someone she suspects has experienced physical or sexual violence, the right kind of support? The study report stresses on the importance of training health care workers at all levels – this includes doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, community workers, NGO staff – the list is long.

Bottom line: there’s lots of work to be done, we really should get going sooner than later.

PS – Incidentally, according to WHO, at the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly held recently in May 2013, seven governments – Belgium, India, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, United States of America, and Zambia – declared violence against women and girls “a major global public health, gender equality and human rights challenge, touching every country and every part of society” and proposed the issue should appear on the agenda of the Sixty-seventh World Health Assembly.

Some useful links:

A quick overview of the report is available here.

The full report: Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence (WHO 2013)

Responding to intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women: WHO clinical and policy guidelines (WHO 2013)

In India, CEHAT has done pioneering work on health sector responses to sexual violence and assault. Their publications are accessible here.