When thinking of sexual violence, most people imagine the perpetrator a stranger lurking in the dark.  In reality, as a new study reasserts, most cases of sexual assault in India are perpetrated by people the women know. In fact, the number of women sexually assaulted by their husbands is 40 times the number of women who suffer such violence from others.

The study, by Aashish Gupta of the US-headquartered RICE Institute, cites statistics published by UN Women in 2011, which say that one in every 10 women has suffered sexual assault by their husband and one in three has faced physical violence from the husband or intimate partner.

For the study, Gupta used data from the national family health surveys in 1998-'99 and 2005-'06 as well as the numbers compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau.

“Husbands consider it alright to assault women,” said Sanchita Ghosh, a researcher at the human rights organisation Breakthrough.  "They think partners have the right to control women in a marriage."

However, only 1% of the cases of sexual violence by husbands are reported to the police, the study shows. This ends up concealing the true and “endemic” levels of violence against women in the country.

The study also highlights the dangerous under-reporting of violence against women. Just 5.8% of sexual assaults on women by men other than their husbands were reported. As for physical violence, only 2% of the incidents involving husbands and about 1% of the cases involving others were reported. The prevalence of physical violence against women by the “intimate partner” in India, as the chart from the study (below) shows, is extremely high at about 35%.

As part of the India Human Development Survey 2004-'05, the study says, women across the country were asked about the conditions in which a woman is likely to be assaulted by her husband. According to the survey, “nearly 30-40% of the respondents said that women are usually beaten up for going out without asking permission, not bringing the expected dowry, neglecting the house or children, and not cooking properly”.

“Violence against women has to do with power and dominance,” said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “In most households, even working women do not have equality, respect or dignity. Domestic violence is rampant in such power structures.”

The social stigma attached to breaking a marriage makes it difficult for a woman to report domestic violence, explained Krishnan. “They feel that filing a police case will cause upheaval in their lives. They wonder about child protection and so refuse to acknowledge the violence.” She suggested creation of “safe spaces for women, where they get privacy, support and counselling, to help increase reporting of cases.”