The torture must have been so unbearable that the 13-year-old waif of a girl thought it was better to jump from that 11th floor balcony. The minor had been enslaved for two years by then. Her employer, 23-year-old Sneha Yadav, studying at an upscale private university in Faridabad. Luckily, the girl did not fall to her death but got stuck in a bird net on the floor below. “She was so thin and emaciated that the net did not break under her weight,” says Rishi Kant, one of the founders of the NGO Shakti Vahini that helped residents of the high-rise building rescue the girl. “Had she fallen and died, it would have been treated as a case of suicide and all would have been forgotten.”
As it happened, the story tumbled out…through tell-tale signs first. “The burns on her body, bruises on her head and deep scars on her arms would have been overlooked, like in so many other cases. Her hands are gnarled and doctors say she probably suffered from broken bones because of the beatings and was never taken to a doctor,” says Rishi Kant. The usual postscript followed: a police case was filed against the young woman, but she received bail within 24 hours. The victim is still in the hospital, in a state of trauma.
More than the particulars, what merits attention is the very real but under-attested phenomenon of woman-on-woman violence and exploitation. It’s nothing new—social analysts have always talked of how in dowry killings, for example, patriarchal violence was often enacted through women. But is a new phase of this setting in? Urban women lead lives marked by incredible stress these days, often having to summon up much higher degrees of resoluteness, even aggression, than the average male as they go about the world, while still being expected to hold up all the sky back home in their ‘nurturing’ role. Is that producing a new form of violence?
This case was a cinch, though—plain old class privilege. Both the minor and the employer hail from Bihar. The latter’s father is a landed mine-owner, who employs the minor’s father. “The girl is rude, arrogant. Once or twice we tried asking her about the cries emanating from her flat. She turned back and asked us to mind our own business,” a schoolteacher living in the same building says.
Rishi Kant, who has seen hundreds of such cases, says it’s shocking how women are doing this to their domestic helps. “Maybe they’re under too much pressure. Women are working outside, have deadlines, and also have to look after the house. They need a full-time help. Problem is, they’re not treating them with respect, like workers providing a service, but like slaves,” he tells Outlook.
Clinical psychologist Dr Rajat Mitra, who has worked with both criminals and victims of trauma, says this kind of behaviour is inherited—it comes from the culture of the family. “She has probably seen servants and employees being treated like this, and thinks such exploitative behaviour is acceptable,” says the psychologist. In most instances, it also ties in with what they call the ‘kicking-the-cat’ syndrome—how a socially or financially stronger person displaces his or her frustrations by abusing a weaker, defenceless person. It’s one anger chain reaction that commonly connects offices and workplaces to homes. The Faridabad case is hardly the first of its kind.
Jagriti Singh, wife of former BSP MP Dhananjay Singh, allegedly used to kick and beat her three domestic helps. She was arrested on charges of murder in November 2013 after one of them, Rakhi Bhadra, died of grievous injuries inflicted on her by Jagriti, a senior dentist in Delhi’s RML hospital. Rakhi was burnt with a hot iron, hit with sharp objects, including antelope horns displayed in the hall of their South Avenue residence. That Dhananjay himself had over 25 criminal cases pending against him at one point—murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, extortion, rape—may not be an irrelevant fact.
The Jagriti case had come soon after a horrific case in south Delhi’s posh Vasant Kunj where Vandana Dhir, a senior executive with a multinational, was arrested for torturing her domestic help, an illiterate tribal girl from Jharkhand. According to the FIR, the girl was assaulted with sticks, knives, brooms, a hot tawa and bare hands by Dhir. A senior police official, recalling the 2013 incident, says the girl had maggot-infested wounds when she was rescued. She was said to be kept in a semi-naked condition to prevent her from escaping.
“In my 30 years of policing, I have not been able to figure out what makes educated, urban women behave like this. I have seen cases of torture for dowry in well-to-do families. Even cases where women ill-treated the mother-in-law as she lay on her deathbed. Cases of domestic helps being beaten and tortured are very common. Most of them don’t get reported; the illiterate village girls are coerced or bribed into not filing cases. One generally does not expect women to behave in this brutal manner,” the police officer tells Outlook.
Dr Samir Parikh, director, department of mental health and behavioral sciences, Fortis Hospital, warns against the stereotyping that leads to statements like “women aren’t expected to behave like this”. He says it’s not about ‘women’ ill-treating their domestic helps. “The fact is violence, aggression, frustration and crime have increased in society due to increased stress levels, and it’s affecting both men and women,” he says. Dr Mitra agrees. “Both genders commit violence and torture. It’s definitely less in degree where women are concerned, but it exists. It comes primarily from the culture of the family,” he adds.
All experts—sociologists, mental health specialists, doctors and even energy healers—hew to this point. That ‘violence increasing among women’ would be a very simplistic reading: because forms of it always existed, regardless of the gendered stereotype of women being more ‘maternal and empathetic’. What has indeed happened is the spike in stress levels faced by them—levels unknown to men—and this may actually be a contributory factor in increased aggression.
An energy healer talks in terms of yin and yang balance, grasping at the phenomenon in her traditional vocabulary. She says the role of a woman is changing from a nurturer to a provider, resulting in an increase in yang or masculine energy. “Yin and yang is present in each individual. An increase in yang energy can actually make a woman more aggressive. Beating a weaker person than you is a manifestation of that. If yin and yang energies can be balanced, it will reduce stress,” says the healer.
The diagnosis broadly matches the modern ones. Says Dr Parikh: “There are smaller families, less interdependence on extended families, like in a village. There’s pressure at work as conventional timings don’t exist any longer. Both men and women are expected to be available anytime. So working women face far more stress. They are virtually doing two full-time jobs,” he explains. At work, the woman is expected to perform equally at all levels. Yet, she uniquely feels the strain of having to manage home, and the guilt and despair that she’s perhaps failing. Worse, says Dr Parikh, with the “primary responsibility” of being “supposed to look after others” still applying in an unstated way, women are not encouraged to take care of their own health. “She has to be encouraged for self-care, to take time out for herself and invest in social support. Nobody has super powers. There are no Supermoms,” he iterates.
The Superwoman and Supermom model is putting too much pressure on women. Sociologist Dr Patricia Uberoi points to the unresolved overlaps between the old and the new. “The burden of expectations to be a good Indian woman—to behave in a certain manner—is too heavy. Family responsibilities are much larger as compared to elsewhere in the world. In addition to their jobs, they have to look after the children, old parents and in-laws,” she says.
The State abdicating does not help, says Dr Uberoi. “India is not a welfare state as it aspires to be, despite legal provisions. Welfare has not caught up with the needs in terms of old-age homes or financial aid. The care economy does not exist either at the level of the State or the private sector. All of it needs to be done at the family level, which in effect means ‘by women’. The pressures, the uncertainties coupled with the role of motherhood, which now includes educating children and preparing them for the new economy, each brings its own stress-points.”
Raising kids is one thing. The all-pervasive stress is wreaking havoc on women’s hormones and making many unable to conceive. Dr Renu Yadav, an infertility specialist in Gurgaon, says it’s rampant. “Work- and home-related stress, not eating properly, no time for themselves—all of it is having an adverse affect on reproductive health. Instances of PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Disease) have gone up. Many women are going through depression and it’s taking a toll on marital relations too,” she says.
“The general well-being of the family still depends upon the woman. Energy travels in ripples. If she is not happy, the sense of unhappiness will pervade the entire family. If things keep going as they are, I only see increased physical and mental health issues for women in the next 10 years,” adds Dr Yadav. In short, the woman-on-woman violence that one sees from those socialised in unequal power structures is just the tip of the iceberg. The real violence lies submerged in the psyche of all women: they are absorbing it.