Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beware of the devil at home

KOLKATA: It's not just the road Romeos on bikes or a lecherous neighbour, the demon of sexual abuse lives closer home. Far too close for comfort. A shockingly high percentage of molestation, rape and sexual harassment cases take place within the family, very often with the parents pretending not to see it. Or worse, even condoning it.

It's a dark secret that is coming out of the closet as awareness and empowerment finally find their way past the locks and bars of patriarchal hegemony, but very few cases ever make it to a police file.

Fifteen-year-old Madhushree (name changed) has never been the same since her father virtually handed her to a cousin to be raped as a favour for a loan he had taken from him. The cousin had made lewd advances at her and her father came to know about it from her mother but did nothing to stop it. This encouraged the cousin, who raped her. She was 13. Even then the father - who she hero-worshipped - did nothing. The horror continued for two years before she decided to move into a hostel last year. It was then that she approached the state women's commission and the cousin was arrested. Her parents were recommended psychological help.

It is very difficult to put an exact figure to the number of sexual harassment cases at home and even harder to get a conviction, but according to a status report issued by the women's commission, 70% of all the complaints registered in the last two years were of domestic violence - which included rape and molestation, dowry torture and death, kidnapping, illicit relationships and murder.

What's more alarming is that there has been a three fold rise in complaints of domestic violence - from 83 in 2011 to 287 in 2012. "It is a 
striking figure. Crime against women starts at home. It is at home where her confidence is broken before she can even step out. A girl child is taught to behave like a 'good girl'. We talk about rape and molestation by strangers. But what about uncles, cousins, husbands and in-laws who are often the ones sexually molesting her? Who will change their mindset and who draws the line," asked state women's commission chairperson Sunanda Mukherjee.

In 2011, the commission registered 1,768 complaints, which rose to 2,260 in a year. "Most of them are tortured and troubled by the family, husbands and seniors at the workplace," said Mukherjee. The commission took suo motu cognizance in most cases but many are pending in court. In 2012, some 655 cases referred by the commission were still awaiting verdict. "About 1.50 lakh cases of crimes against women are still pending in Bengal's courts. We have recommended fast-track trial of these cases, but everything is only on paper," said Mukherjee.

Howrah resident Usha Sen (name changed) has lodged a domestic violence case against her husband and in-laws but wonders if it will end up 'pending', like the rest. The 29-year-old has been a regular at the commission for three years. A government employee, her troubles started soon after her marriage in 2007. Her husband and in-laws started demanding money. "They used to beat and abuse me and refused me food when I failed to get more money from my father," she told TOI. She left her in-laws' house many times but every time, her parents coaxed her to go back in spite of the fact that she had a miscarriage due to torture. "My parents did not want the marriage to break up," she said.

Women are at risk in the workplace as well. In 2010, 39-year-old railway employee Anu Bhattacharya (name changed) lodged a complaint with the women's commission against a senior for sexually harassing her. The alleged harassment had been going on for five years, but when it got physical, she approached the commission. "He made lewd comments, even forced me to watch pornography in his office, and molested me. He committed nearly every crime against a woman, but rape. It was no worse than rape," she says.

The railways initially refused to register her case, she says. It was only when the commission intervened, that the officer was hauled up. But he got away with a mere demotion of two years, she says. "That will not stop him from molesting others," remarked Anu, who had a miscarriage due to mental torture. "Unfortunately, women are unsafe where they should feel the safest - at home and work."

The commission fears that such crimes will double this year. "These are only the registered figures. Most of these victims are educated and come from a good background. Is it that tough for a woman to have the society's respect? You might be ready for an unknown miscreant when you step out, but what about the known devil at home," asked Mukherjee.


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