Violence against married women in India: Can the data tell us anything?
11 Feb 2013
crime against women
Violence against women in India has recently been brought to the world’s attention. But for too long the problem has been under reported. This column looks at what the data can tell us.
A recent G20 survey ranked India as the worst place to be a woman (Baldwin 2012).
Female foeticide, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other forms of
gender-based violence constitute the reality of most girls’ and women’s lives in
India. That domestic violence in India and globally is grossly underreported in
surveys and to the police is well known.1
But my recent analysis shows
that there is a gap between what is reported in the national surveys such as the
National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) and the figures from the police’s National
Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).2
How large is this gap and what can it tell
My analysis presents some surprising findings:
Prevalence of violence
- First, the disparity in reporting of domestic violence between the NFHS-3 and NCRB
(2009) ranges from a Difference of around 6% for Himachal Pradesh to a high of 58%
in Bihar – that is, in Bihar, half of domestic violence cases reported in surveys
are not reported to the police. Perhaps unexpectedly, southern India with greater
gender ‘fairness’ has large gaps (44% in Tamil Nadu, 32% in Andhra Pradesh and 20%
- Second, even within the national survey, the severity of violence is likely to be
underemphasised because the correlation between injuries sustained as a result of
domestic violence varies very little between severe and less severe instances of
abuse.In other words, those reporting ‘less severe’ abuse may in fact be suffering
- Third, despite the provision for the anti-dowry law 304(B) (to prosecute deaths
due to dowry harassment) to be read alongside 498(A) (to prosecute domestic violence),
this is frequently not the case particularly in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha
According to the national survey, the statistics on
violence against women in India are stark. Nationally, 8% of married women have
been subject to sexual violence, such as forced sex, 31% of married women have been
physically abused in a way defined as ‘less severe’, such as slapping or punching,
while 10% have suffered ‘severe domestic violence’, such as burning or attack with
Also, 12% of those who report being physically abused
also report at least one of the following injuries as a result of the violence:
bruises (D110A), injury, sprains, dislocation or burns (D110B), wounds, broken bones
or broken teeth (D110D) and/or evere burns (D110E). With regard to emotional abuse,
14% of Indian women will have experienced this at some point in their lives.4
Figure 1 shows that 31% of married women from Tripura, 20% from Bihar, 19% from
Assam and 15% from Uttarakhand report injuries as a result of physical violence.5
Above-average rates of less severe domestic violence are reported by women in Bihar,
Tamil Nadu, UP, MP, Rajasthan, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand,
Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. With regard to severe instances of domestic violence,
the same group of states reappear, with the exception of Assam and Manipur, but
including West Bengal. Above-average levels of sexual violence are reported by the
same states with the notable exceptions of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu but including
Manipur and Assam.
Figure 1. Prevalence of violence and battery in Indian States
Table 1. Correlation coefficients for injuries by type of violence reported
Table 1 above presents the correlations between reported abuse and injuries. It
suggests, unsurprisingly, that injuries from violence are correlated with severe
violence. What is much more surprising, however, is that the same sort of injuries
are similarly correlated with less severe
violence.This suggests that the
severity of violence is not necessarily a good predictor of injuries.
In other words, those reporting less severe violence may in fact be hiding the true
intensity of their abuse.
Analysis of data from NFHS-3 and NCRB indicates that for the most part, instances
of domestic violence reported by women in national surveys never make it to the
police or the courts.6
While this in itself is not surprising, what is
surprising is the extent of this deficit. The states that have the highest reported
prevalence of serious injuries – that is, burns, dislocations, strangulations, attack
with knives or other weapons, the deficits in police reporting are: 28% in Tamil
Nadu, 18% in Bihar, 15% each in Odisha and UP, and 14% each in Tripura and Arunachal
Pradesh. With less severe instances of abuse, the gap widens considerably, 58% fewer
in Bihar, 44% fewer in Tamil Nadu, 42.5% fewer in UP and 41% fewer in Manipur are
reported to the police. Even if we assume that instances of domestic violence that
find their way to crime statistics are the most severe instances, it is of significant
concern that there are such wide disparities between NFHS-3 reported violence and
national crime statistics in many of the states.
Figure 2. Disparities in reporting – national survey and police reports
Sources: NFHS-3 and NCRB 2009
Rates of dowry and rates of domestic violence in police records
According to the 2009 NCRB figures, the states with the highest rates of dowry deaths7
per 100,000 people are:8
Bihar (1.4), Haryana and MP (1.2 each) and UP
(1.1). Despite the fact that dowry deaths should be read with 498(A) since there
are provisions within 498(A) to prosecute violence inflicted in order to extract
money, durables and other valuables, it is surprising to find that the states with
some of the highest reported dowry deaths, have some of the lowest reported rates
of domestic violence, and only Rajasthan Delhi and Haryana feature in the top 10
for both. Dowry deaths are often preceded by a period of sustained physical and
emotional abuse of victims. However these figures suggest that this is seldom reported
to the police; thus domestic violence rates are under-recorded and under-reported
in crimes classified as dowry murders despite the expectation that 498(A) should
be naturally included with 304(B) both before and after the murder of wives.
Figure 3. Top 10 states for highest percentage of dowry deaths
Figure 4. Top 10 states for highest reported percentage of domestic violence deaths
What do the findings mean?
If exposure to domestic violence is any indicator of quality of life, these figures
reveal that the advances in lifestyles for women in southern and north-eastern India
over their counterparts in northern India seem to be eroding: above-average levels
of violence are reported in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well as in Arunachal
Pradesh and Manipur. Anthropological and sociological accounts on regional variations
in gender issues have found that women in northern India have less autonomy, mobility,
less say in household decisions and fewer property rights while those in southern
and north-eastern India fare better.9
These differences had been attributed
to elements in kinship structure such as village exogamy (marrying outside of a
social group), cross-cousin marriages, son preference, purdah
wet/dry crop cultivations, land tenure systems, histories of colonisation and other
However Rahman and Rao (2004) found that in the intervening 20 years since Dyson
and Moore’s study much has changed and southern advantages with regard to kinship
structures, have reduced. Investments by the state in infrastructure, schooling
and improving economic opportunities for women has been found to be more effective
in empowering women. If the police records were the weathervane for gender equity,
then West Bengal and Kerala would be considered some of the worst states to be a
woman while Bihar, UP and Odisha would look like good places. How can these incongruences
be explained? In effect what we find in the national survey is a more accurate reflection
of the extent of physical abuse while levels in the police records are seriously
underreported. Additionally, cultures of enumeration and the role of the police
could also play a role in explaining some of the differences. This analysis confirms
insights from studies that reveal that when women try to file first information
reports (FIRs) they are often told that it is a private matter and their injuries
are dismissed as minor.11
States such as Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Orissa, UP,
Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh that have some of the largest reporting disparities
particularly for severe violence perhaps have the worst institutional conditions
for encouraging police reporting.
The current levels of abuse that many married women across India endure are scandalous
and measures must be put in place to rectify it.
- See for instance Heise 1998, Ellsberg et al. 2001, ICRW 2001, and Jansen et al.
- The two primary sources of data are the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-3)
and the National Crime Records Bureau Reports. The base year for analysis is taken
as 2009 because it is closest to the 2005 NFHS-3 in terms of chronology. Chi-square
tests and other non-parametric tests have been used to identify statistically significant
- The following acts have been classified as sexual violence in the
NFHS-3: D105 (H) – ever physical forced sex when not wanted, D105I – ever forced
other sexual acts. Less Severe Violence D105A-D105 includes the following acts:
spouse ever pushed shook or threw something, spouse ever slapped, spouse ever punched
with fist or something harmful and spouse ever kicked or dragged. Severe Domestic
Violence D105E-F includes: spouse ever tried to strangle or burn or spouse ever
threatened or attacked with knife or gun or other weapon.
- Emotional abuse (D103A-D105C)
includes the following acts: spouse has humiliated respondent, spouse has threatened
respondent with harm, spouse has insulted respondent or made respondent feel bad.
- Differences between states are statistically significant at the 0.01 level.
- My experience doing qualitative research in a slum in Mumbai indicates that of the
52 women I interviewed in 2005, 20 reported physical violence and none had filed
a police complaint (Ghosh 2011).
- Dowry deaths’ are deaths of young women who are murdered or driven to suicide by
continuous harassment and torture by husbands and in-laws in an effort to extort
an increased dowry.
- The NCRB calculates these figures by dividing the incidence of the particular crime
in the state by the estimated mid-year population.
- See for instance Dyson and
Moore 1983, Kishor 1993, Malhotra et al. 1995, Das Gupta et al. 1996, Kishor and
Neitzel 1996, Jejeebhoy 1996, and Rahman and Rao 2004.
- ‘Purdah’ is the practice of veiling and concealing women from men, especially those
unrelated to them.
- See for instance Agnes 1993, Geethadevi 2000, Prasad 1999,
and Kethineni and Srinivasan 2009)
- Agnes, F (1993), ´Marital murders - the Indian reality.´,Health Millions,
- Baldwin, K (2012), ´Canada best G20 country to be a woman, India worst - TrustLaw
poll´, Thomson Reuters, 13 June.
- Das Gupta, M, LC Chen, and TN Krishnan (1996), Health, poverty, and development
in India , Oxford University Press.
- Dyson, T and M Moore (1983), ´On Kinship
Structure, Female Autonomy, and Demographic Behavior in India´, Population and >Development
Review , 9(1):35-60.
- Ellsberg, M, L Heise, R Pena, S Agurto, and A Winkvist (2001), ´Researching Domestic
Violence Against Women: Methodological and Ethical Considerations´, Studies in Family
- Geethadevi, M, R Raghunandan, and Shobha from Vimochana
(2000), ´Getting Away with Murder: How Law Courts and Police Fail Victims of Domestic
Violence´, Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society , 117:13-41.
S (2011), ´Watching, Blaming, Silencing, Intervening: Exploring the role of the
community in preventing domestic violence in India´, Practicing Anthropology,
- Heise, LL (1998), ´Violence against women: An Integrated
Ecological Framework´, Violence Against Women, 4(3):262-290.
- ICRW (2001), ´Domestic
Violence in India II: Exploring Strategies, Promoting Dialogue´, in ICRW Information
- Jansen, HAFM, C Watts, M Ellsberg, L Heise, and C Garci-Moreno
(2004), ´Interviewer Training in the WHO Multi-Country Study on
- Women´s Health and Domestic Violence´, Violence Against Women, 10(7):831.
Jejeebhoy, SJ (1996), Women´s education, autonomy, and reproductive behaviour : assessing
what we have learned.
- Kethineni, S, and M Srinivasan (2009), ´Police Handling
of Domestic Violence Cases in Tamil Nadu, India´, Journal of Contemporary Criminal
- Kishor, S (1993), ´´May God Give Sons to All´: Gender
and Child Mortality in India´, American Sociological Review , 58:247-265.
Kishor, S and K Neitzel (1996), The status of women: Indicators for 25 countries
, Demographic and Health Surveys comparative studies, No. 21, Macro International
- Malhotra, A, R Vanneman, and S Kishor (1995), ´Fertility, Dimensions of
Patriarchy, and Development in India´, Population and Development Review,
- Prasad, S (1999), ´Medicolegal response to violence against women
in India´, Violence Against Women, 5(5):478-506.
- Rahman, L and V Rao
(2004), ´The Determinants of Gender Equity in India: Examining Dyson and Moore´s
Thesis with New Data´, Population and Development Review , 30(2):239-268.