Feminist counselling and domestic violence in India

Neha Kagal


Padma Bhate-Deosthali, Sangeeta Rege, Padma Prakash. Feminist counseling and domestic violence. India:Routledge; 2013. pp 352 ISBN 978-04-158-3206-9 Rs 895.00

Very rarely does one get to review a book that’s a first of its kind! By bringing together the themes of domestic violence and feminist counselling, this book has filled a vacuum in the Indian literature on feminist interventions, in particular, feminist counselling practices. It emphasises the need for a feminist praxis in counselling for domestic violence within the Indian context. The ease and simplicity with which the book flows is delightful, as is the evident link between theory and the lived experiences of women. The passage of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005, which was a result of the concerted efforts of women’s movements for a comprehensive law to prevent domestic violence, is an important milestone as far as challenging domestic violence is concerned. The book, however, drives home the point that laws alone cannot ensure that women will stand up to violence effectively. It is just as important to encourage them to recognise unjust power structures, assist them in challenging this oppression and stand by them through their difficult journey; and this is the goal of feminist counselling. The book stresses the fact that patriarchy cannot be ignored while dealing with the issue of violence.

A constant thread running through the book is the differentiation between mere “counselling” and “feminist” counselling in the context of domestic violence. Mainstream counselling approaches typically ignore larger societal attitudes, power relations and gender issues. Feminist counselling, on the other hand, places individual distress within a framework that acknowledges these power relations and, in turn, legitimises women’s experiences. Thus, feminist counselling shifts the focus from women’s psychological/physical suffering and demographic contexts to the broader issues of patriarchy, power and social–political–cultural structures, which devalue women and their experiences.

The book is divided into four parts and begins with a well articulated and in–depth history of domestic violence in India. While the issue of women’s rights was taken up by activists as early as the 19th century, it was only in 1983, after intense campaigning by women’s groups across the country, that domestic violence was officially recognised as a crime by the Indian state. Since then, numerous support groups, shelters, crisis centres, legal interventions and counselling services have mushroomed across the country for survivors of domestic abuse. This section deals exhaustively with key concepts, such as patriarchy, gender and feminism, and will be useful to interventionists who are unable or unsure of how to incorporate feminism into everyday interventions for domestic violence. It also explains the cycle of domestic violence, adapting it to the Indian context. The book gives examples of experiences from the field to delineate the challenges and ethical complexities faced by interventionists dealing with domestic violence. Most importantly, however, it highlights the fact that domestic violence is a public health issue, in terms of the long- and short-term physical, psychological and sexual problems that it causes. Most health professionals are not trained to recognise, or ignore, visible signs of violence among their female patients. It is important to note that the health system may be the first point of contact for victims of violence and, therefore, medical professionals can play a critical role in initiating early interventions. Caste, class or gender biases, in addition to persisting with the belief that domestic violence is a “private” issue, play a significant role in preventing timely intervention by health professionals.

The second part of the book documents Indian models of feminist practice related to domestic violence. It traces how the interventions in this sphere have undergone several changes in the last three decades. The 1980s saw the rise of autonomous women’s groups, who made pioneering efforts to bring the issue of domestic violence before the public and challenged the rising rate of dowry deaths. Counselling involved the victim speaking out about the abuse and garnering mass support. Following this, in the 1990s, there was an increase in the number of organisations that expanded their scope of work to include the generation of income by the victim, sexual and reproductive health, and issues related to communalism. These organisations worked with both urban and rural communities. In addition, there emerged a few organisations that worked directly with the State, demanding accountability with respect to issues relating to violence, including (but not limited to) legal reform and shelter homes. This section of the book then goes on to give specific examples of how psychotherapeutic models of intervention can be used within a feminist framework to ensure that the survivors of violence are equipped with the emotional resources necessary to stand up for themselves.

The third section deals broadly with issues related to intersectionality. Women are oppressed in myriad ways by the various axes of power in society: caste, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status and location. Feminist counsellors must not only be aware of this diversity, but must also remain alert to the possible power relations inherent in the ensuing counsellor–counsellee relationship. Moreover, since patriarchy manifests itself differently for women across the variables mentioned above, counsellors have to individualise their strategy for each woman, instead of following a general therapeutic approach.

The last section of the book focuses on the quality of counselling, the training of counsellors and the need to establish indicators to monitor counselling. In addition, organisations need to be equipped to provide support to the counsellors themselves so as to prevent burnout and facilitate sharing. This section also gives an empirical account of guidelines on setting up a crisis centre for domestic violence. This covers setting standards for counselling, ensuring the safety of the staff, interfacing with referral agencies, documentation, and interaction with researchers and the media.

This book provides a much-needed critique of mainstream counselling in the field of domestic violence, and more importantly, offers an alternative feminist perspective by interlinking theory and praxis in a way that is relevant to the diversity of women’s lived experiences. By attempting to conceptualise feminist interventions in the field of counselling and documenting the existing practices across India, the authors display a strong commitment to expanding feminist literature in the Indian context. The book also gives us a clear picture as to how and why the various “actors” involved in cases of domestic violence against women, ie judges, protection officers, non-governmental organisations, social workers and health professionals, need to understand feminist counselling and incorporate it in their approach. Thus, by producing knowledge that has emerged from people’s lives, knowledge that challenges the existing ways of “knowing” and “doing”, this book can potentially inspire significant change, especially in the existing approaches to counselling victims of domestic violence.

About the Authors

Neha Kagal ([email protected])

PhD Scholar

School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1H 0XG




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