I woke up from my summer afternoon nap to find that social media has become yet another transient battleground. Although there seemed to be more consensus than the usual cacophony, nothing more than some temporary truces were to be expected.
Having come to spend the summer at my Ammachi’s (grandmother) at Trivandrum, only a district apart from Kollam where the tragic death of Vismaya, a 24-year-old medical student, transpired, was triggering, to say the least. My friends from other parts of the country called me up, perplexed and aghast, “We thought Kerala was gender-sensitive and more than anything “developed”.
This kept bugging me especially as a student of Development Studies. Where do we fit in unconventional and non-quantifiable indicators like domestic violence and dowry deaths in the wider discourse on human development?
Gender asymmetries like these, deeply ingrained in our society are a clear indication of why trickle-down effects of development are just a scam, at least in the socio-economic paradigm.
Vismaya’s death is neither an isolated incident nor one of peculiar origin. Glorification of men hitting women has been accepted in box office hits during the dark age of Malayalam cinema, not more than a decade ago. But moving away from the age-old parable of the ill-effects of media pushing Indian society into an abyss of immorality, I would like to point out three major facets of this layered issue.
Moving away from economic indicators
Firstly, Vismaya was a medical student and her husband was also educated and gainfully employed. Hence, it must be underscored that neither education nor poverty were contributing factors here.
In fact, in societies with pre-existing gender hegemony, it has been found that the relative position of women will slide down because their participation is invariably based on unequal terms unless the policies are gender-sensitive and equitable.
Economic changes may create altogether new gender configurations for that culture. Therefore, it is pertinent that we bring into the spotlight a more heterodox and inclusive set of indicators. A baby step towards this direction could be gauging agency imparting determinants like how much a woman’s choice matters in a practical scenario. The trifecta of psychological, physical, and socio-cultural health of a woman must be put at the centre of economic independence to make any intelligible conclusions.
Flexibility over seeking help?
Moving on to the second point: One of the indispensable indicators would be access to legal and medical support.
As we witnessed Women’s Commission chairperson M.C. Josephine’s disturbing response to a woman calling for help against domestic abuse, it wasn’t an isolated voice.
The question ‘why didn’t she file a complaint’ is a reductionist statement that obliterates all nuances of mental health issues induced by violence and abuse.
The victim is shamed for tolerating abuse, which further discourages them from seeking help. Violence and oppression are often invisibilised because of internalised subordination.
From a very young age, girls are programmed to be “flexible and tolerant”. Compounded to this is the added guilt and shame of being called a “divorcee”, and women are rarely able to get out of this vicious cycle.
Politics within households
Third, a lot of discussions have been made on why the victim’s family didn’t intervene, exposing how dysfunctional Indian families might be.
Kerala DGP Loknath Behera, while addressing Vismaya’s suicide, said: “Such situations are very rare in our society. We believe that our society is different from others and has an advanced approach.”
However, in 2019 itself, India reported dowry death cases that amounted to more than 7.1 thousand. According to data released by NCRB up to 2019, approximately 21 women die every day across the country due to dowry-related crimes.
Something that intrigues me is how a historically matrilineal society like that of Kerala, is now at the cusp of such atrocities. The power relations within households are intrinsic to mediating psycho-social distress.
A study by Kota, Carstairs, and Kapur (1976) found that the change from the traditional matrilineal to a patrilineal system was associated with stress for women compared to men because of the disempowering effects of the change.
While the cases look unabated on the national front, we must keep in mind that although conventional indicators might not be a panacea to dowry death, they help drastically in reducing it.
Kerala after all is among the best performing states in terms of lowest number of dowry deaths. In 2016, the worst-performing state was Haryana, followed by Bihar and Odisha.
This indicates a correlation between dowry deaths and GDI indicators like education, life expectancy, sex ratio, etc.
Therefore, the ‘Kerala model of development’ is a strong foundation on which more nuanced policy actions focussing on micro and macro aspects of gender, must be built upon.
Abhiramy. S.M is a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai