In Knots

The double agony of victims of abuse in intercaste and interfaith marriages

01 February, 2023

“I literally left everything,” a journalist, who did not wish to be named, told me. Entering an intercaste relationship, she said, was “really hard—to leave your family, to deal with the police.” But the couple stood their ground and married. Soon, however, a pattern of verbal and physical abuse crept into their relationship. Their marriage, once an act of love and rebellion, had now become a site of regular violence. “I used to wake up at night and start crying,” the journalist said. “I kept thinking there’s no one who’s my friend or my community.” They eventually separated.

Abuse within marriages in India is severely underreported. This abuse only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic—a 2021 survey report by United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women stated that violence against women was a “shadow pandemic,” with seven in ten women reporting that “verbal or physical abuse by a partner had become more common.” Women who defied social expectations and married outside their religion, caste or ethnicity found themselves more vulnerable. When women decide to make choices that go against familial or societal sanction, they often find themselves left out of the ecosystems of support and care in the face of abuse.

The latest National Health and Family Survey showed that more than ninety-eight percent of women who faced gender-based violence did not seek any medical or legal help. There was the fear of facing stigma from institutional sources such as lawyers or police officials, along with lack of awareness about where to go for redressal. The same data found that among the first points of contact are a woman’s family and friends, followed by the husband’s family—both likely untenable options for those in intercaste or interfaith marriages where the families were opposed. The awareness about accessing support remains scarce, compounded further by fears of engaging with the police system.

“The most common refrain women have been met with by friends and family is a ‘We told you so’ and ‘You made your bed so lie in it’ and some or the other variation of these unfair statements,” Kirthi Jayakumar, who runs the Saahas app for reporting domestic abuse, told me. “There is also the additional challenge from the system—social and security sector mechanisms carry the imports of patriarchy, casteism, xenophobia and misogyny into responding to any help-seeking behaviour from women.”