Monday, April 2, 2012

Dissecting DV


Marriages are made in heaven. Till death do us part…

Are they? And, do we? At some point this past week, these beautiful and staid idioms sounded utterly hollow. When media began to pour out that Ranjan Koirala, a deputy inspector general of armed police, had admitted to killing Gita Dhakal, his estranged wife, the news sent a wave of revulsion through many individuals with some vestiges of humanity, dignity and common decency left in them.

As television stations continued to dramatize the sequence of the already disturbing events leading to the bestial murder, and as friends, neighbors and co-workers gasped in horror and cursed the doomed husband, the news forced every perceptive spouse to think about the intimate partnership, and the psychological and spiritual meaning of the marital bond. The fact that Koirala and Dhakal were married in 1994, the same year I married my wife, gave me a personal jolt. They both must be about our age, another reason for my sense of personal loss.

As he described, Koirala enacted the whole episode in such a way that he disrupted the very fabric of spousal relationship. On first hearing the news, I looked at my wife and she looked back at me. None of us needed to utter a word. It was a moment of intuitive reckoning, of appraising what we were and what could become of us should we fail to cultivate or uphold our loving bonds.

In other words, we have to put in some effort to make our relations work.

Our marital links, serve as the very basis of our families, communities and society, demand full use of our constructive energies. Gosh, the destructive release of potencies as witnessed in the increasing cases of domestic violence (DV) in recent weeks, months and years only magnify the darker sides of our species.

Such disgusting cases mortify us, and combined with the violence we witnessed in the past decade, perhaps even make us callous to the suffering of others. Within the primary frame of domestic violence perpetuated by the popular media, we only see the “others” taking all the heat and going through hell. It’s the third-person effect, until of course, tragedy strikes closer home— me, my family, my near and dear ones.

Looking at the extent of DV could provide some clues on how close it is from being a first person issue. A legitimate question to ask is: Are the recent cases isolated and random? Is DV really on the rise, or are we merely getting to hear more about it?

We know the media focus on the most prominent and deviant cases while eschewing average trends. Add to that their proclivity for official theatrics. Even a casual consumer of news would feel some spike in coverage of DV after the adoption of the Domestic Violence (Offense and Punishment) Act, 2066 (2009). The following year, the government launched a campaign against DV, which also received added attention of our social sectors, including the media.

It was then, in early 2010, that we heard of the incident from Saptari, in which one Lalit Mukhiya had allegedly killed his wife, Kalpana, for failing to bring enough in dowry. Then in July, one Saroj Phuyal of Kavre killed his newly married wife, Anju. Later that year, Purna Urawa of Jhapa killed his wife Lakhamani. The reported reasons for most of these heinous crimes: the murders were instigated by family feuds, desire for domination or economic needs.

Spouse murderers are not always husbands. In October 2011, Meera KC of Sindhupalchwok killed her husband Chhetra Bahadur KC for abusing her mentally, physically and sexually. In April of the same year, Bhakti Yakkha of Sunsari killed her husband, Khagendra, in a drunken family feud.

This trend (as well as the tragic end of Gita Dhakal) gives the lie to the maxim ‘marriages are made in heaven’. It must be a devastating blow to people who still believe in this time-honored ideal. But the fact is: homicides are universal, and every society is plagued by cases like these.

The important task is to understand the causes and patterns of such crimes, and to work to ameliorate the situation.

Because of the social stigma attached to family disputes and domestic violence as well as victims’ fear of reprisal and further abuse by perpetrators, many cases of DV go unreported. Thus their deep-rooted causes remain hidden. Sketchy data from the Women’s Cell of Nepal Police show that there were some 881 cases of DV offenses against the fairer sex registered with it during 2008-2009. It is not clear how many of these were spousal killing. If victims do not file complaints at the police post as per the law, it is as if no violence was committed, hence no need for legal action.

An indication of our limited success in curtailing DV can be found in Global Study On Homicide: Trends, Contexts, Data (2011) published by the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC). The report suggests countries like Nepal and Pakistan saw slight increases in their homicide figures over the last 15 years. Nepal had 87.3 percent of male and 12.7 percent of female homicides in 2008.

Although the study does not provide figures on partner-related killing in Nepal, globally, they range between 40 to 70 percent of all homicides, with women comprising of the vast majority of victims. The study found that India’s homicide rate has declined by 23 percent over the last 15 years. However, its dowry-related murders remain more or less the same for this period, with 2009 recording about 15 percent (1,267) dowry-related murders of all homicides.

Because statistics used from different sources—criminal justice, public health and civil society—have many gaps, the UNODC study itself cannot help assess the real extent of partner murders. For a more accurate and clear picture, we need to improve the reporting system, and harmonize and integrate data locally and globally.

Besides numbers, it may be important to look into the real character of partner killers. Of course, the first image we get of such killers is that of villains, full of contempt and rage. However, criminologists paint a different profile of such individuals. For example, Rebecca Dobash, who has researched on intimate partner murders in the UK, writes that killers look more like ordinary men, and most of them don’t suffer from personality or character disorder. They escape the traditional stereotypes associated with murders, hence the shock and surprise when they commit the crime.

Dobash found that contested relationships, the process of separation and divorce were important elements contributing to intimate-partner killings. Jack Levin, a noted American criminologist, concurs with her on separation and divorce, but he adds that depending on individual circumstances, there are other catalysts that go into the making of an “annihilator” (a killer) such as financial disaster, perverted sense of well-being, long and cumulative frustrations in life, social isolation, etc.

Painting a clear picture of the typical Nepali annihilator might help us spot warning signs and predict behaviors of potential spouse murderers. Structurally, in Nepal, the stigma attached to separation and divorce, besides the traditional causes such as male domination and dowry, may be a major factor.

If only Gita Dhakal had divorced her husband she would be living safe and secure, my wife told me later that day as the news of the killing started to filter out. Perhaps, but divorce itself remains a taboo for many in the country. Dhakal, despite living separately from her husband for six years, could not imagine it, despite urgings by others and relentless abuses.

Until we tackle the basic attitudes and behaviors in our families, homes and society, the laws we enact and the speeches our leaders give decrying DV will not help nurture a more peaceful future. Physical punishment must be outlawed in all forms. But in a society that has institutionalized physical violence in the form of corporal punishment in schools and as parental authority in homes, the contradictions we reveal are all too obvious.

Published April 02, 2012 in Republica.