Domestic Violence And Women’s Empowerment Initiatives: Exploring The Relationship In A Patriarchal Setting
Domestic violence is the most common form of violence against women and is reported globally to be experienced by one out of every three women. Women in low- to middle-income countries, including India, are disproportionately affected, owing to the predominant patriarchal culture in these countries. According to recent data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), close to 30% of Indian women have experienced some form of violence, whether physical, sexual, or emotional.
To combat this epidemic of violence, studies in this domain recommend various women’s empowerment initiatives, such as higher education, female labor force participation, and pay parity, among others. However, a recent study from India reports that lower levels of education, rural residence, lower family income, and higher earnings by women correlate with a higher incidence of physical abuse. The authors of one study (Singh & Babbar, 2022) argue that men in Indian society do not take kindly to their wives’ earning more money than they do. This prevalent attitude also correlates with Relative Resource Theory, which holds that a man is likely to be more abusive when he feels that his dominance is being challenged by a woman who earns more money than he does. In a patriarchal society the man is supposed to be the sole breadwinner and he controls his family through resource provision; if he fails to do so, he is mocked by the community. If a man lacks the resources to fulfill this role, he resorts to aggression and violence as a tool to control his family, especially his wife. Patriarchy is so deeply rooted in this socio-cultural context that any policy initiatives aiming to empower women are bound to fail, as women should not be seen as breadwinners. Several other studies in this same cultural context report the identical negative relationship between women’s economic empowerment and their risk of being abused. Incidences of domestic violence has increasingly been reported in high-income families as well.
This social prejudice thus raises the critical need for future research to disentangle this relationship. Among the sociological theories which explain domestic violence, the most popular is resource theory which postulates that domestic violence is more common among lower socio-economic groups due to lack of resources. However, the incidence of domestic violence has increasingly been reported in high-income families as well. A quick survey of the literature in this domain suggests that, except for a few, the existing studies do not explain the link between empowerment and the risk of abuse.
Women’s Role in Patriarchy
Patriarchy has been consistently reported to be the main cause of the violent victimization of women; however, the acceptance by women themselves of patriarchal norms tends to be neglected as a factor predicting violence against women. Research suggests that women who accept patriarchal norms are more likely to be physically abused by their husbands. According to data from NFHS-4 (2015–16), more women (25%) than men (15%) think that it is justified for a husband to beat his wife if she goes out without telling him, argues with him or neglects their children. Is this finding not shocking, given the discourse of gender equality so widespread in our society? Why would women themselves accept a subordinate position—the patriarchal norm—in an intimate relationship when she has the right to equality.
Patriarchy is the belief system which holds that men are justified in controlling women and have the right to exercise such control. The subjugation of women in and of itself is not the central theme in patriarchy but patriarchal culture is deeply misogynistic. In such a culture, women are seen as less capable, less trustworthy. Violence against women is justified by the choices and natures of individual men and women. Patriarchy is thus a social system and not a conscious conspiracy against women by men. Indeed, it is not always conscious and men too are victims, since in a patriarchal society men are supposed to be strong, to hide their emotions, to support their families through their work, etc., making men vulnerable to many mental health issues.
Women are often considered to be the principal victims of patriarchy, but in reality, they themselves are often enforcers of patriarchal norms. Patriarchy is considered to be the source of order in the family and many family members, including young boys and girls, are conditioned to believe that any failure to maintain this order may jeopardize the well-being of the whole family. Thus, the system continues to be passed on from generation to generation and women blindly carry this burden in the name of maintaining the harmony and dignity of the family.
Many tend to criticize men for promoting patriarchal norms, but children learn these cultural norms from their parents. Thus, it is “normal” for children to grow up thinking that male authority is the norm and that any deviation would bring disorder and disharmony. Thus, the education of women, especially the older generation, is needed to break this cycle. As per NFHS-4 data, it is women’s own acceptance of the patriarchal norms—for example, that wife-beating is justified—that is the most significant predictor of her own risk of abuse.
In my own ongoing research into the factors affecting women’s acceptance of patriarchal norms and the role of education, I found that, above and beyond other socio-economic factors, the media—specifically watching television—play a major role in shaping patriarchal norms among Indian women in the age group of 15 to 49 years. As per our data analysis in NFHS-4 (the domestic violence module) women who read newspapers daily are less likely to accept regressive gender norms, while women who watch television daily are more likely to accept patriarchal norms. This finding perhaps mirrors the arguments by feminists against TV soaps which tend to normalize patriarchy and male dominance and have the highest TRP (target rating points, the metric used by marketing agencies to measure the highest number of viewers of a given television program).
Gendered Content: The Role of Mass Media
In popular daily soaps broadcast on television, it is often seen that the woman who is submissive, who cares for everyone, and who gives preference to family rather than work, is considered “perfect” and is portrayed as a desirable “wife.” The most common theme among highly rated daily soaps is that of two women fighting to get the attention of a man. Lead actresses portray “superwoman”, who smoothly manages the household, the office, the children, her in-laws, even her husband’s business. Obviously, such content normalizes prevailing gender roles and the profound inequalities in the society.
The significance of the mass media in perpetuating patriarchal norms among women has serious implications for the content of daily soaps. There is no doubt that education has the potential to promote gender equality in society and that the media have the potential to play a crucial rule in reinforcing more progressive social and cultural norms. However, the question remains to be explored whether daily soaps are designed to serve the real needs of their consumers or whether they primarily promote regressive gendered norms.
The relationship between women’s empowerment initiatives and the risk of physical abuse is not linear. Unless and until there is an acceptance of women’s empowerment in a patriarchal society, these initiatives may not translate into a lower incidence of violence against women. Further research is needed to understand the factors predicting women’s acceptance of patriarchal norms, since research shows clearly that it remains a significant predictor of domestic violence against women.