The issue of domestic violence against women and its impact on their mental health is considered to be a ‘taboo’ topic in India – confined to hushed whispers and brushed under the carpet. In an effort to break the silence, Nishtha Narang attempts to create meaningful discourse by diving into the factors that give rise to domestic violence and the particulars of the mental health issues that stem from it. Conclusively, she explores pragmatic solutions to tackle these issues on both- individual and social levels.

Content Warning: The article includes descriptions of domestic violence and discusses issues against women that may be distressing to read. Reader discretion is advised.

“ … but after two months of marriage, his real behavior was unmasked. He started to drink a lot and often beat me badly.”
Yes, mother-in-law also beats me … holding my hair, twisting my hand backwards, kicking and punching, hitting on the head …”
I remember when he put me on the floor and kicked me in the stomach and it was just physically unbearable to take that.”
It was Diwali morning, and he decided that there is nothing better we can do right now, so he must impregnate me. And so, he raped me that morning.”
I live in a constant state of fear - of what could affect my husband’s mood.”
At one point after rebuking one of her insults, she (mother-in-law) came at me with a rolling pin and started to beat me, my daughter watching from the doorway.”

These are just some excerpts of the countless painful stories shared by married women.

In our country, domestic violence is … common. As harsh as that sounds, it is the reality. Every day, we hear of horrible atrocities committed against women, in our country. It’s almost as if, for us ‘yeh sab toh hote rehte hain’ (things like this are common ).

Before I dive in, here are some hard-hitting statistics. Try to wrap your head around the fact that these are only numbers that have been reported:

  • In India, 70% of married women between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of beating, rape or forced sex. - Restorative Justice in India: Traditional Practice and Contemporary Applications - published in 2017.
  • 52% of women thought it was acceptable for a husband to beat his wife and 42% of men considered beating their wives acceptable. - National Family Health Survey 4 Report, 2015-16.
  • Every third woman suffers from sexual or physical violence at home. - National Family Health Survey 4 Report, 2015-16.
  • Almost every third married woman, who has experienced spousal violence, reported experiencing physical injuries, including 8% who have had eye injuries, sprains, dislocations, or burns and 6% who have had deep wounds, broken bones, broken teeth, or any other serious injury. Yet, only 14% of women who experienced this violence sought help to stop it. - National Family Health Survey 4 Report, 2015-16.

What is the main reason attributable to  such violence? Patriarchy? Misogyny? Toxic masculinity? Sexism? All of it? In this article, I  explore some disturbing realities and try and unravel how toxic environments and domestic abuse can severely affect a woman’s mental health.

Toxic Masculinity & How it Fuels Domestic Violence Against Women

“She stays because the fear of leaving is greater than the fear of staying. She will leave when the fear of staying is greater than the fear of leaving.”
- Rebecca Burns

Domestic violence is a sensitive topic that is not talked about enough in India, for a plethora of reasons - fear, embarrassment, shame, normalization of abuse, cultural or religious reasons and lack of financial support. Domestic abuse can affect anyone - irrespective of gender, age, social status, sexual identity, religion. However, in our country, it predominantly affects women and is one of the leading causes of poor mental health of married women.

The violence can range from physical (any act that causes bodily pain or danger to life - slapping, pushing, hitting, throwing objects, biting, using weapons), sexual (coercion, marital rape), verbal (derogatory remarks and threats), emotional (harassment, threats, name-calling, stalking) and economic (depriving the victim of financial resources).

But why? Why would anyone resort to such brutality? Why does such cruelty take place? Some common reasons why women are subjected to violence include sociological factors (anger, domination), psychological factors (mental instability), historical factors (patriarchy and superiority complex), cultural factors (sexism, gender-based discrimination) and socio-cultural factors (dowry and honor killing).

These factors are often fueled by a cultural condition – one that continues to be a deeply ingrained part of most modern societies and is one that I have tried to focus on in this piece – toxic masculinity and misogyny. While growing up, most men are made to believe that they are the head of the family, that they belong to the superior gender, that they are the ‘hero’. Decisions are taken by the head of the family - who is a man, in most instances. From a young age, men are conditioned to feel powerful.

Moreover, media and mainstream movies portray men as the sole savior. There are songs and scenes where we see a woman’s dignity being thrashed casually. Consent becomes a difficult concept to understand on our television screens. We are all guilty of enjoying this kind of art (if it can be called art, that is) where it is socially acceptable for a man to assert his identity and behave like a ‘real man’. Women are objectified everywhere - all this leads to men believing that they have to conquer women. A common way this can be done is through violence. Men who feel like they are entitled to dominance and still follow stereotypes are the ones to resort to violence against women.

The UN Women Training Centre has come up with a booklet on ‘Understanding Masculinities and Violence Against Women and Girls’. We highly recommend it. Read it here.

Differentiating between our sons and daughters, preferring the male offspring, equating masculinity with aggression, teasing men for showcasing their emotions, creating and watching cinema that encourages a ‘macho’ lifestyle, insisting “boys will be boys” and excusing questionable behaviors time and time again are just some of the ways we, as a society, are responsible for fanning the flames of toxic masculinity – particularly within the four walls of home. When a man is made to feel that he belongs to the superior gender, it paves way for ill-treatment of females. Coupling this with our inherent belief or notion that men can (and in some cases, should) dominate women, it is no surprise that the reported statistics are staggering and shameful.

How this affects Women

The issue does not end here. In most cases of abuse, women are not aware of the long-lasting impact such behavior has on their well-being and mental health. In the few cases that they do, seeking professional help and legal recourse is not as easy as it should be.

Violence and abuse are usually cyclic. The outburst of the abuser is followed up by incessant apology. However, this honeymoon phase ends with another violent incident. Women anticipate this kind of behavior; therefore, they live in constant torment and feel unsafe in their own homes. It is thus fair to say that the pressure of living in such a toxic environment affects the mental health of the victim.

Some ways how the mental well-being of domestic abuse victims is affected are:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - severe anxiety, mistrust, irritability, self-destructive behavioral patterns, guilt, loneliness, insomnia)
  • Depression - feelings of hopelessness, social isolation, suicidal thoughts, loss of interest in activities
  • Anxiety - problems such as unhealthy thoughts, excessive worry, fear, insomnia, palpitations, sweating
  • Substance Abuse - over-dependence on alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism

In extreme cases, the victim resorts to ending their life.

Where do we go from here?

Step one of trying to combat this huge problem is awareness. Violent behaviors include (but are not limited to) physical violence, constant humiliation and use of abusive language, someone making personal decisions for you, limiting contact with your friends and family or perpetual yelling, unhealthy emotions such as extreme jealously and possessiveness. Understanding signs early on helps you to recognize an abusive relationship and make a conscious decision of the steps to be taken if things go too far.

Discussing marital issues is a taboo, just like talking about mental illnesses. We have to work together every day to break such norms and make our surroundings safer for women. Men who are violent against women live among us. They may be a family member, a friend or a coworker. When someone shares their experience with you - listen without judgment. Offer help by suggesting legal recourse and keep checking in on them. Call out toxic thoughts and actions, educate everyone around you and provide support whenever you can.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
- Margaret Atwood.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, please seek help here.