Gender Norms, Domestic Violence, and the Southern Indian Puzzle

This study suggests that compared to NFHS-3, in NFHS-5, justification for wife-beating in most southern Indian states has increased or remained the same despite increasing prosperity, levels of female education, and better indicators of human development in the region. While the reasons for why this has occurred against the backdrop of improved conventional indicators for development are unclear, what is clear is that macroeconomic changes do not necessarily lead to changes in gender norms.

Introduction

The Global Gender Gap report (2021) released by the World Economic Forum recently ranked India at 140 out of 156 countries. While there may be several limitations to a metric of this nature, it is a barometer of a country’s performance on four indicators: educational attainment, health and survival, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment. For health and survival, India is second from the bottom and is ranked at 155 because this indicator gives significant weightage to sex ratios. Like China, India performs poorly on this indicator. It is worth noting that the declining sex ratio is not just a problem for North India, where sex ratios have improved between 2001 and 2011. However, they continue to be skewed, but the problem has spread to the rest of the country, too, including southern India, which has some of the worst sex ratios (Isaac 2019).

Sex ratios at birth are considered a proxy for entrenched patriarchal norms and practices because they suggest extreme son preference and the selective termination of female foetuses. For more than 25 years, more girls under the age of five have died than boys in India due to either neglect or inequitable allocation of household resources through processes that suggest implicit and explicit discrimination against the female child (Kashyap and Behrman 2020). The health and survival indicator also includes the number of years that women and men can expect to live in good health, taking note of the years that may be lost due to exposure to violence, disease, malnutrition, and other related factors. India’s continued poor performance on the annual Global Gender Gap Index is symptomatic of deeply entrenched patriarchal norms and misogyny that translates into poor outcomes for female babies, children, and women in the country.

While the Global Gender Gap report does not explicitly account for domestic violence in its estimation, domestic violence is an example of one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence. Globally one in three women report that they have been abused at some point in their lives by a current or a former partner (UN Women 2021). Not only is domestic violence a violation of women’s human rights, but it has long-term consequences for their physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health and also their abilities to engage in meaningful employment and opportunities in their lives. The infliction of violence against women in their marital homes and by intimate partners is an example of the exertion of extreme forms of patriarchal control over women. It is not a problem limited to India alone. The recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019) presents some somewhat discouraging figures on attitudes towards domestic violence and gender roles.

In this article, we focus on South India. In the national imagination and scholarship on women's autonomy, southern India is associated with less entrenched patriarchal practices than northern India. This is due to the prevalence of cross-cousin marriages, the absence of the practice of purdah that restricts women’s mobility, and state action that enhances women's empowerment through more significant livelihood opportunities, education, more political participation, and better infrastructure (Dyson and Moore 1983; Rahman and Rao 2004). However, violence against women has considerably risen in this region, as waves of NFHS data have revealed.

Also, we find significant heterogeneity among states in southern India, suggesting that the conventional North/South distinctions among scholars of demography concerning gender norms and violence against women need to be revisited. Even Kerala and Tamil Nadu are far from identical regarding some indicators we have analysed. Karnataka stands out as an outlier among the southern states, with indicators suggestive of very high levels of misogyny. While our analysis is blunt, given that we use aggregate-level state figures, we indicate areas which we believe deserve greater academic attention and advocacy efforts.

Whether men and women justify domestic violence is important because it reflects individual and community norms that may legitimise instances of wife-beating. Ethnographic research indicates that community norms, at least in informal urban settlements, against domestic violence are leveraged in support of women who are considered worthy victims – they have discharged their obligations of being good wives, mothers and daughters-in-law (Ghosh 2011; Chakraborty et al 2020). For women who have transgressed these norms either by disrespecting their in-laws or neglecting the home or children, community norms are likely to legitimise wife-beating as a form of disciplining or punishment.

Norms held by individuals might not be identical to the community. However, they may be influenced by community norms since the social penalties for transgressions from normatively held expectations in most traditional societies tend to discourage individuals from holding non-normative expectations. Having said this, not all women and men justify violence, and even if they support wife-beating in theory, they may display a great degree of ambivalence towards it in practice (Chattopadhyay 2022).

While women justifying domestic violence has been covered in the news, there have been no interstate comparisons that contrasts attitudes towards violence between women and men and by key demographic indicators using NFHS data (Sarkar 2021). We have chosen all of the southern Indian states – Tamil Nadu (TN), Karnataka (KA), Kerala (KL), Telangana (TL), and Andhra Pradesh (AP). More than half the population in all the five states justify violence, with over 80% in TL, AP, and KA justifying it. These are also states with high literacy levels that have improved female education over the last decade and share some cultural affinities. However, each state's history is varied and complex, and they display considerable disparities within each state regarding development indicators. We analysed the state level measures in NFHS-5 using the state reports for each indicator focusing on disaggregating the data by a key set of demographic variables – age (the youngest and the oldest cohorts in the NFHS), gender (male and female), education (no education, primary completed, some secondary, high school completed), residence (urban versus rural), religion (Hindus, Muslims and Christians). We also report on gender crosscutting with these measures and comment wherever we see large differences. While we did not check for statistically significant differences, given the size of the NFHS sample, these differences are more likely to be statistically significant than not. This is not suggestive of causation but does indicate that more investigation is needed to tease out why such large differences exist within states, between states and between several of these demographic indicators that we analyse.   

We find some striking similarities as well as differences across these states. Across all states, more women than men justify domestic violence, a pattern also found in NFHS-3.

Disrespecting in-laws and neglecting the house or children are the most or the second most common reasons respondents across all states use to justify wife-beating, suggesting that these are the norms whose transgressions are most likely to invite physical violence.

Concerning geography, in seven of the 10 groups, we find responses in the expected direction – fewer urban respondents justify domestic violence compared to rural respondents. For the remaining three – male and female respondents in KA and male respondents in KL, we find that a higher proportion of urban respondents justify violence than rural respondents.

With regard to age, we find that across all states, the youngest women (15-19) justify wife-beating the least. For men, in KA, KL, TN and AP, younger men justify violence more, while in TL, there seems to be no difference between older and younger men. The trend of younger cohorts of women not supporting wife-beating while older women do and the opposite for men have remained the same since NFHS-3. This is an area that deserves further investigation.

Regarding education levels, we find that only those respondents who have completed 12 years of education consistently indicate the slightest justification for domestic violence. Nearly 50% across all groups with this level of education justify wife-beating; in some states, this figure is as high as 80%.

Concerning the three large religious groups in the region – Hindus, Muslims and Christians, a smaller percentage of Muslim respondents across most states justify domestic violence compared to other religious groups, except for male respondents from Tamil Nadu.

While these responses cannot be causally linked to these demographic indicators and may change when controlled for education and wealth, the similarity of these patterns deserves mention. Since we are analysing the data at the state level, we have not checked for statistically significant differences across states. We have not conducted a more granular comparison that mitigates the impacts of education and wealth on respondents’ responses. However, we expect wide disparities between states with a large representative sample such as the NFHS-5 are likely to be statistically significant differences that need to be investigated once individual-level data has been made available to researchers.

Domestic Violence Reporting in the NFHS

The NFHSs have expanded the suite of questions it asks around exposure to domestic violence and attitudes towards such violence, including whether men and women justify such violence. These figures, even if domestic violence tends to be hugely underreported (Joseph et al 2017; Jacob and Chattopadhyay 2019) and NFHS data collection procedures suspect,   are essential for bringing these issues into public consciousness and making them a policy imperative (Karpagam 2019).

Over the years, the number of women reporting domestic violence has diminished – 37.2% in NFHS 3, 31.1% in NFHS-4 and 29.3% in NFHS-5. However, huge variations exist across states. For NFHS-5, among the southern Indian states, we see that 9.9% of women from Kerala, the lowest, report violence in contrast to 44.4% in Karnataka, the highest in southern India and higher than the Indian average and also the state where respondents justify violence the most in southern India. At the same time, the interlinkages between husbands' alcohol consumption and domestic violence are complicated and somewhat underexplored. It is worth noting that more than 70% of the men in KA, TL, TN, and AP who inflict physical or sexual violence also consume alcohol frequently.

Comparisons across States

The NFHS asks men and women whether a husband is justified in beating his wife for any one of these reasons – neglects family and children, disrespects in-laws if a husband suspects her of being unfaithful,  goes out without telling him, argues with him, does not cook properly, and refuses to have sexual intercourse with him. Across all states, it is disheartening that at least half of the population agrees that wife-beating is justified for one of these reasons.

 

Figure 1

Despite more than 50% of the population in KL across both sexes justifying domestic violence, it pales in comparison to the support that domestic violence enjoys among TL and AP women and KA men. The most significant gender difference is visible in TN, while the least gender difference is in KA, where a much higher percentage of both men and women justify wife-beating. Men in KA justify domestic violence the most across all groups, while women in KL show the slightest justification, followed by men from TN.

    Reasons for Justifying Domestic Violence

Transgressing certain cultural norms invite more severe consequences than others. Across all states, a wife refusing to have sex was either the least supported reason for domestic violence or the second least, and showing disrespect towards in-laws had the most or the second most legitimate reason for wife-beating was permissible. For men for KA and AP, violence is most justified if the wife disrespects in-laws. Women from TL, AP and TN seem to hold similar views about justifying violence if home or children are neglected. Men and women from TN and KL indicate the least support, and men from KA show the most support (26.6%) for violence if the wife refuses to have sex. In light of the split verdict of the Delhi High Court around marital rape, where Justice Rajiv Shakdher supported the criminalisation of marital rape and Justice C Hari Shanker did not, this figure has particular relevance (The Wire 2022). If more than a quarter of men in KA believe that it is justified to beat wives if they refuse sex, the decision to not criminalise marital rape is likely to invite more instances of domestic violence because men will feel even more emboldened to beat their wives. After all, they are told they have a legal right to unfettered access to their wives' bodies.

Table 1: Reasons for justifying violence by states – Percentages shown with the highest and lowest values in each category

Reasons

KA

W

KA

M

KL 

W

KL

M

TN

M

Reasons

TL

W

TL

M

AP

W

AP

M

TN

W

Refuses sex

22.9

26.2

12.0

9.8

6.6

Does not cook properly

15

12.9

14

10

17.8

Shows disrespects for in-laws

58.9

71.0

37.6

39.9

42.7

Neglects house or children

69

51.5

68.8

51

66

 
  1.     Comparisons by Geography

    One would expect that urban populations hold more gender equitable beliefs compared to rural populations. However, this is not uniformly the case – the largest difference one finds is for men from Tamil Nadu(TN) and women from Telangana(TL). In a counterintuitive pattern, more urban women and men from Karnataka(KA) and urban men from Kerala(KL) justify domestic violence than their rural counterparts. While it is unclear whether this is a statistically significant difference, these figures deserve further investigation. They could also be due to factors other than the area of residence, such as class and education, as analysis of the NFHS-3 data indicates.

    Rural AP and TL women and urban KA men report similar and the highest levels of justification for violence at over 80%, and urban and rural KL women report the lowest at over 50%.

  1.     Comparisons by Age

    While we would expect that younger populations will hold more gender equitable belief systems compared to older populations, we find this is not the case for men in any state other than Kerala. This is also consistent with analysis from NFHS-3. The most significant difference is between older and younger men in Tamil Nadu. It is unclear whether this implies that the impacts of toxic masculinity wane over time or whether what we observe are a form of patriarchal backlash among younger men. There is little scholarship on the former, but some evidence for the latter (Dhanraj and Mahambare 2021). For example, studies have shown that women being employed does not always become a source of greater autonomy for them. This is because male backlash and female guilt translate to a greater probability of being beaten and employed women justifying being hit.

    On a more optimistic note, for women across all states, lower percentages justify domestic violence in the 15-19 age groups, and adolescent girls in Kerala justify violence the least and significantly lower than at state average levels.

 

 

  1.     Comparisons by Levels of Education

    It would be intuitive to expect that with higher levels of education, respondents would be less likely to justify domestic violence. However, we find that this is true for only those respondents who report having the highest level in the NFHS data, that is, they have finished higher secondary education. This is not a consistent pattern for AP, as the figure indicates. In Kerala, no male respondents reported an education level below class five. Worryingly though, in Telangana and AP, most women (around 80%) who have completed 12 years of schooling still justified wife-beating. Tamil Nadu is the only state with a slim majority (49.6%) for those who have completed secondary education, not justifying domestic violence.

 

 For women, too, the picture is far from ideal – of all the groups, the lowest levels of justification are reported by women who have completed seven years of schooling in Kerala. Since we have not conducted multivariate analysis, we do not know whether this is picking up the effects of education on justifying violence or something else and whether these are statistically significant differences.

Even if not causative, these figures suggest that education or literacy levels by themselves are unlikely to lead to transformations in gender attitudes unless a gender equity curriculum is embedded in school education, as research from Haryana and Karnataka have indicated (Dhar et al 2021; Chattopadhyay and Srikanta Murthy 2018). Other actors in the political economy, such as teachers and parents, need to reflect gender equitable behaviours through their attitudes and behaviours since children learn through adult role models.

 

  1.     Comparisons by Religion

    The dominant discourse in India seems to suggest that Muslims hold more gender regressive norms than other religious groups. We do not find evidence of this. Only for Kerala and Tamil Nadu do we find a higher percentage of Muslim women who justify violence. Furthermore, only in Tamil Nadu do we find a higher percentage of Muslim men who justify domestic violence than other religious groups within the same state. In Karnataka, Christian men justify beating the most, while in Tamil Nadu, they do the least. Individuals who may self-identify as belonging to a particular religious group can hold starkly different views concerning whether they legitimise wife-beating depending on which part of the country they live. Not only that, there is little convergence between men and women on this even when they belong to the same religious group, even within the same state.

    Table 2: Differences by gender and religion across different states

For KA, Muslims hold the most gender-equitable attitudes and Christians hold the least. Hindus fall in the middle. The difference is particularly stark when Muslim men and Hindu men are compared, with 72.4% of Muslim men reporting that beating a wife is justified as opposed to 83.2% of Hindu men. It should be noted that the figure for KA presents a small number of cases. Even so, some patterns are clear, Hindu and Muslim women hold more regressive attitudes than most of the other groups, and they are, in fact, more similar even when they do not belong to the same state. Muslim men, independent of the state, are more like each other. Christian men and women and Hindu men display considerable heterogeneity in gender and residence where justification of spousal violence is concerned.

Conclusion and Policy Implications

Our preliminary analysis seems to suggest that compared to NFHS-3, in NFHS-5, justification for wife-beating in most southern Indian states has increased or remained the same despite increasing prosperity, levels of female education, and better indicators of human development in the region. For example, in the NFHS-3 in the undivided AP, 70% of women and men justified domestic violence, the highest among all the southern states. KA has worsened in terms of justification for wife-beating, which in NFHS-3 was between 50%-60% and is now over 80% for both sexes.

While the reasons for why this has occurred against the backdrop of improved conventional indicators for development are unclear, what is clear is that macroeconomic changes do not necessarily lead to changes in gender norms. We see some rays of hope with younger women justifying violence the least; however, in the absence of potential husbands and marital relatives following suit, this will mean women will resist and may also be victimised due to their resistance. Given the recent killings of young Hindu women due to dowry demands in Kerala, our findings, though depressing, are not surprising for southern India (Acharya 2021).

Firmly held regressive norms are most resistant to change and require early intervention. Against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where schools have remained closed for a long time, and the New Education Policy fails to mention comprehensive sexuality education, which helps in challenging sexism and misogyny, the future seems especially bleak. Moreover, this holds even in regions that have been held up as an example for the rest of India.

 

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