Miftahul Zannat, Iffat Zarif
It is often said, “Home is the safest place on earth.” We are taught from a young age that home is a place of shelter and comfort. The word home is meant to invoke a feeling of utter contentment. But, for about two-third of the women in Bangladesh, those statements are a far cry from the truth. Because, it is at home where these women are most vulnerable to insults, slapping, beating, deprivation of food, burning, and even rape.
How much money she’s going to spend, where she’s going to go, what she’s going to eat, how she’s going to behave—every aspect of the woman’s life is controlled. And the slightest act of disobedience leads not only to physical and sexual violence, but also to a more subtle form of violence: emotional violence. Controlling behaviour, name-calling, and threatening to leave or take away the children—are all types of emotional abuse that slowly chip away at the victim’s self-awareness and self-worth so that, in the end, both her physical and mental health are compromised.
According to CARE Bangladesh, the most common reason for domestic abuse is not being able to pay dowry in full. Sometimes, trouble with the in-laws may be the trigger. Other times the wife is physically and psychologically tortured for things beyond her control; like being unable to bear children, or not meeting the socially constructed standard of ‘beauty’. Here, speaking up for herself only makes the situation worse.
With their husbands being the perpetrators in most cases, the victims have no choice but to suffer in silence. Because, not only is it futile to file a legal complaint, but also a significant percentage of people in Bangladesh—65% of men according to Janet E. Jackson, UNFPA—think that it is the husbands’ right to beat up their wives. As a result, 72.7% of victims never disclose what they go through at home—as revealed by a joint research conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh and Jatiyo Nari Nirjaton Protirodh Forum (JNNPF).
It is this mindset—the patriarchal belief that men have higher authority than women—that is one of the biggest contributing factors to domestic violence. In Bangladesh, girls are almost always treated as inferior beings everywhere. They are made to feel as if all they were good for is staying at home, doing household chores, and taking care of children. They are made to feel like they should not study much or work.
Parents, especially those of the working class, are eager to marry their daughters off at a very young age before they’re even able to finish school. This leads to a high prevalence of child marriages—about 59% of marriages in Bangladesh include females under the age of 18. Consequently, the young age of wives coupled with their poor education and little to no income gives husbands sole control of the family. The sense of power that results makes husbands feel entitled to behave however they want with their wives, knowing that no one—not the wives themselves, neither their parents nor in-laws—will speak against them.
Especially if the parents of the woman are working class or poverty stricken, they will often think that their job is done, once they get their daughter married off. Any trouble after that will be considered the couple’s ‘personal matter’. And, even before the union, the girl has little to no say in the choice of the suitor. Often, she will be forced into a marriage against her will and her protests will either be ignored or be the cause of abuse. In fact, in a study published in 2018, it was found that one of the participants had to endure physical abuse at the hands of her own family for refusing to marry a man who was twenty years older than her.
It might be difficult for many of us who love our country and value its traditions to outright admit that our cultural traditions are inherently patriarchal and as such, prioritises the demands and opinions of men over that of women. However, it is undeniable that we have, indeed, normalised human rights violations of an enormous magnitude. The brunt of this violation falls back on the shoulders of countless women and girls. As a result, they are traumatised. Though research has been relatively low in the field, it was found that the trauma has contributed to a host of other mental health issues among these women.
In 2018, a qualitative study found that victims of domestic abuse display a range of mental disorders—depression, anxiety, bipolar mood disorder, schizophrenia, and conversion disorder. The fact that Bangladesh has no law in place to prevent marital rape only leads the abusers to take more advantage, worsening the situation.
The stigma around mental health is also a contributing factor when it comes to discussing what many of these women may be suffering. People still remain unaware about how violence of any kind etches a deep mark in the psyche. So, victims hesitate to even voice their torturous thoughts out loud for fear of being labelled a “পাগল” and abused further. The situation these women find themselves in, then, is that of utter helplessness. They have to remain silent in the face of cruelty and disrespect. They think that being abused over and over again by family members is the norm—that they truly are inferior, that they are mere objects made to be sexualised one instant and abused the next.
Victims of acid-throwing incidents are written off as “alluring” and “temptresses” while victims of domestic abuse are written off as “unsatisfying” and “disobedient”. This creates an environment in which the victims are blamed and held accountable over the abusers.
In the end, this vicious cycle of unceasing inhumanity gives rise to never-ending generational trauma. Because, the thing is, no matter how much they suffer, the victims cannot leave. Religious and social traditions keep them trapped in violent marriages due to the horrible stigma that encircles the idea of divorce. A divorcee is considered a ‘bad girl’ with a ‘bad character’ who has tarnished the reputation of her whole family. She is blamed for being unable to keep her marriage alive, and very few men would want to marry her after.
Even if the wife is ready to go through all that, several other barriers chain her down. The first and foremost of which is, the concern over the future of any children she might have. Since, not only the ‘broken family’ tag is too much for some children to bear, but the in-laws may also forcefully separate the mother from the children, leading to a life of pain for both.
Secondly, there is the thought of money. Here, low education and low incomes of women again come into play along with the unequal distribution of marital property and inheritance from parents. With neither the civil nor personal laws of Bangladesh setting out rules for division of marital property following separation, wives are sometimes only left with a few personal items like jewellery. So, instead of divorce being an escape from an abusive household, it turns out to be a one-way ticket to living on the streets, begging for food and shelter and pulling children out of school—thus ruining their lives as well. In fact, the United Nations’ Common Country Assessment of Bangladesh, 2005, found that 95% of all female-headed households in Bangladesh fall below the poverty line.
How can women subject themselves and their children to a life like that?
Though it is true that the data compiled by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in 2018 found that divorce rates have increased 34% in the seven preceding years, an article by The Business Standard states that the rise was more prominent among couples with higher educational backgrounds. The nearly 30% of women in this country who do not have formal education and the 63% of women who do not participate in the labour force might not have the same confidence to take that leap.
So, the women endure and endure and endure, for years and years on end. Until they break. Until they can’t take it anymore. Until taking their own life seems the only escape.
As a result, it is almost unsurprising that an article by ResearchGate reports that the likelihood of suicidal thoughts among reproductive-aged women in Bangladesh was higher—about 11% to 14%—compared to other countries, where the rate is 5% to 6%. And, compared to non-abused women, abused women were two (among rural women) to three (among urban women) times more likely to experience these thoughts. Not to mention the fact that female suicide rates in Bangladesh are consistently higher than males’ by almost 40% to 50% as shown in the chart.
Additionally, according to The Daily Star, 4,747 women and girls killed themselves from 2001 to 2010 due to family violence, both physical and mental. In the six upazillas of Jhenaidah alone, a total of 1,086 women die of suicide between 2014 and 2018, while 9,373 others made an attempt.
The truth is simple to realise—this is not fair. It is not fair to mistreat and then victim-blame women while putting their abusers and husbands on pedestals. This cycle of abuse must stop. We cannot ignore the mental health of the abused, nor can we normalise traditions and beliefs that breeds toxicity. Legal reforms and actions are necessary. Open-mindedness is necessary. It may prove more difficult for some of us than others to accept this fact and to veer away from traditions, but it is undeniable that we must start sometime to stop this cycle of generational suffering. And, what is stopping us from making that sometime NOW?
- Domestic violence: a carcinogenic social disease
- No more violence against girls and women
- Child Marriage Global Database, UNICEF (2020)
- Domestic Violence Against Women: Cost to Nation
- 66pc Bangladeshi women suffer from domestic violence: Researchers
- Violence against women and mental disorder: a qualitative study in Bangladesh
- Will I Get My Dues … Before I Die
- United Nations Common Country Assessment of Bangladesh
- Divorces on rise among educated couples in Bangladesh: Official data
- Women’s health issues : official publication of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health
- 10,000 commit suicide a year
- Jhenaidah: A death a dayday
The writers belong to TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under their project “Strengthening voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.