By Shreya Das

I returned home one day two years ago, to find my aunt comforting a sobbing woman as she told her about her experiences at the hands of an abusive husband. Poonam was a maid working several shifts during the day while simultaneously looking after her children and her own household in the evening. Her husband had just forced her into an abortion. Poonam seemed unusually pale, sick, and bruised. This wasn’t the first time.

Domestic violence happens in every corner of the world, but the way women experience it varies widely across cultures, countries, and communities. In India, abuse is deeply intertwined with economic dependence and social stigma. Women, regardless of affluence, often justify returning to their abusive marriages or controlling families because they lack financial independence. A 2015 UNDP Report shows that roughly 80 percent of Indian women don’t have a bank account. This can be attributed to a culture where women are encouraged by their families to give up their careers in order to get married early and dedicate themselves to familial duties. In several instances, a woman’s role is confined to the household and their earning controlled by their husbands. Regardless of circumstance, women are taught to believe that they lack the ability to make their own decisions and sustain themselves off their own earnings.  

What can be done to financially empower women?
Financial Planning: Every woman needs financial independence, which starts with saving money even if it’s in very small amounts. In India, many NGOs  teach women financial literacy and provide them with a platform to share experiences.

See It, Believe It: Movies, advertisements, literary pieces, and other channels of mass communication can play a crucial role in women’s financial empowerment, on an individual and collective level. Bollywood movies are watched by everyone in India, and a shift in the ways women are portrayed in films could transform attitudes and perceptions surrounding a women in society.

Professional Settings: Women often rely on their husband’s income due to inflexible labor laws, unfair hiring practices, lack of childcare, and lower wages. Creating an environment conducive to a woman’s needs during her career is essential when encouraging women to leave the kitchen for the corner office. Further, debunking myths around women’s professional abilities must take place at a micro and macro level.  

Money is Power
Financial independence can dramatically boost a woman’s confidence, empowering her to make decisions in her personal and professional life. Access to finances can mean everything from starting her own businesses to exiting an abusive relationship – women are able to unleash their true potential. It also makes economic sense, women pass their benefits onto their children and improve national economies.

So, what happened to Poonam?
My aunt and I helped Poonam find a legal counsel to file for divorce, a place to stay at a shelter for abused women, and financial assistance for her to recover the from the physical effects of abuse. But a month later, Poonam returned to her husband. However, Poonam’s story is not one of absolute defeat. Unlike many women, she shared her story to seek assistance with others, the process of divorce, and the consequences of her abusive marriage for her children. In India, that itself is a step towards a positive direction reflecting Poonam’s courage and bravery to consider the possibility of a life outside of her abusive husband, despite breaking societal norms and pressures. Given the existence of close-knit communities in India, stories of courage, like that of Poonam, can go a long way in helping many women seek a better life, one of respect and dignity.

About the Author: Shreya Das was an intern for the B.A Rudolph Foundation in summer 2017. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in international economics and international development from Johns Hopkins. In 2015, she moved to DC from India where she worked as a policy and outreach associate at a research organization conducting impact evaluations for international development projects.

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