Psychiatry in combating gender violence


Difference or distinctiveness resulting in inequality between man and woman is the gender question. Let me give some examples from the legal world. In 1873 Mrs. Myra Bradwell, wife of  a lawyer, appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn the state’s refusal to license her to practice law. In a concurring opinion, Justice Joseph P Bradley, joined by Swane and Field, JJ, gave judicial cognisance to prevailing belief that women were unfit by nature to hold certain occupations:

The civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in divine ordinance, as well as the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood… a woman had no legal existence separate from her husband, who was regarded as her head and representative in the social state…. The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator”

In 1872 Illinois legislature had passed an act giving all persons, regardless of sex, freedom in selecting an occupation. Mrs. Bradwell did not again apply for admission to the Bar, but in 1890 the Illinois Supreme Court, acting on her original motion of 1869, admitted her to the practice of law in the state. Two years later she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In England the Court of an appeal held in Bebb vs. Law Society (1914) Cha 286 that women were, by reason of their sex under a common law disability to become attorneys or solicitors. The ban continued till the passing of the sex Disqualification Removal act in 1919.

In British India women were denied entry in the legal profession until the High Court of Allahabad allowed the application of Miss. Cornelia Sorabji by its epoch-making judgment on 24th August 1921 to practice law. At present there are quite a few thousand advocates in our country. Our Appellate Division has one and the High court Division has seven women judges.

In 1947 when we became independent for the first time, we inherited the fruits of struggle for the right of franchise, equality between sexes and other human rights. Pompous and ponderous judicial announcements against equal rights of women melted in the air. Some religious divines are still insisting that the women should only get equitable but not enjoy equal rights.

At present it appears that we are living at women’s world, in the “Promilar Sangsar”. Promila is a South Asian equivalent for an Amazon lady. For some time since the restoration of parliamentary form of government we are ruled by women prime ministers. Few months back apart from woman prime minister we had women ministers in the ministry of home affairs, foreign ministry, agriculture, telecommunication; our speaker of National Parliament and the leader of opposition are also ladies. With these background of so many distinguished ladies in helm of affairs, one may wonder why so many efforts are to be made in combating gender violence. As with male prominence in the administration violence does not abate, gender violence goes on unabated under women leadership. According to World Health Organization (WHO), every one of three women is a victim of gender violence. Unfortunately, our country is the second in position where women are suffering violence in the hands of their male company. The modern technology has complicated and heightened the gravity of gender violence. Acid throwing and taking photograph or videos and then releasing those in the internet are new phenomena in gender violence. These things were not present 60 years back.
Another pernicious thing is the scourging of women at the behest of the fatwa sermonised by religious divines. Our last and final court in the country has pronounced that anybody can give his opinion or fatwa but no fatwa be executed buy anyone other than the court. This pronouncement has often been broken by enthusiastic religious leaders.

In 1996, the Human Rights Watch stated that, “Gender-Based Violence (GBV) occurs as a cause and consequence of gender inequities”. It includes a range of violent acts mainly committed by males against females, within the context of women’s and girls’ subordinate status in society, and often serves to retain this unequal balance. GBV includes, but is not limited to: (1) Domestic Violence (DV) by an intra family member and Intimate partner Violence (IPV) including physical, sexual or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse; (2) Sexual Violence (SV) including rape, sexual abuse, forced pregnancies and prostitution; (3) Traditional harmful practices including female genital mutilation (FGM), honour killing and dowry related violence; and (4) Human trafficking.

A few years back on 8 March 2007 Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General, said:

“Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families, and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence – yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned.”

At least one out of six women worldwide – and a majority of women in some places – is physically assaulted or forced to have sex at some point by their husbands or intimate partners. Such violence is both a health and human rights concern: It inflicts physical and emotional harm and prevents women from achieving their full potential.

Training health care providers and raising awareness about gender based violence will not be enough. Rather, the entire health systems need to respond, with linkages to legal and social services.

In 1996, the World Health Assembly declared violence against women to be a major public health problem. All women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence will need emotional support of some kind, but their needs will vary. Some women may benefit from more formal counselling or psychotherapy. Counselling is a two-way relationship, in which the counsellor listens to whatever you want to say, in confidence and without making judgments. Counsellors are not supposed to give advice, but they may ask questions or challenge the victim in ways which may help her to look more carefully at some of the assumptions she may have taken for granted. Psychotherapy tends to be more intensive than counselling, and may continue for a longer period of time. The aim of counselling is to help the victim understand herself better and comes to terms with what has happened to her. The counsellor or therapist is to be appropriately qualified and experienced.

Counsellors should also offer support if the survivor experiences any post-traumatic disturbance, if she has difficulty dealing with family and community reactions, and as she goes through any legal procedures. The objectives of counselling are to help survivors understand what they have experienced, overcome guilt, express their anger, realise they are not responsible for the attack,

know that they are not alone, and access support networks and services.

UNDP advocated in some countries shaped a national notion of zero-tolerance towards violence against women, involving distinguished persons in public events and campaigns through its support of the network of “Men against violence against women”.

In combating gender violence if you want to receive  adequate and effective support from the psychologists, our policymakers, health programme managers, educators, and founders all must play a role in ensuring that the health system responds to gender-based violence. Such a response is critical for combating a hidden but pervasive problem. There must also be support linkages between law enforcement; health services, and other services to support survivors of violence.

Combating gender violence is definitely a question of law and order. But it is also a social problem, which cannot be remitted without the assistance from social scientist like psychiatrist. I think main function of a psychiatrist in this regard would be how the appropriate counselling could be done for the benefit of the victims. Psychiatry is an expensive profession. It has been said by an anonymous writer that a neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the air, a psychopath is a man who lives in it and the psychiatrist is the man who collects the rent.

We are to remember ours is a poor country. Seeking support from a psychiatrist is not a simple matter. I said in one of my poems, Proverbs On Poverty:

‘A poor man going to a psychiatrist

what artist ?

I mean a doctor that folks visit

In a mood of depression

Or when suffering from any repression,

A poor man  does not suffer from any depression,

Whatever  may be the form of his repression,

For his blue moods and loose ends

He goes for a chat , an adda with his friends.

I hope the deliberations made here will help us to device ways in combating effectively the gender violence that is unfortunately prevailing in the country.

(The article is based on the speech read out as the chief guest at 7th International Conference on Psychiatry (ICP) – 2013 at Dhaka (24-25 November, 2013), Bangladesh.)


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