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Partner or perpetrator: Understanding the causes and consequences of intimate partner violence in adolescents

Read time: 5 mins
2 Jul 2020
Partner or perpetrator: Understanding the causes and consequences of intimate partner violence in adolescents

Numb, bruised and in pain, she tried getting up. It was a cold night, and the hallway was dark. The last thing she remembered was she being pushed down the stairs after an argument about who would do the dishes. The dinner was a happy time. There was her special biryani and his most-liked murgh makhani. Their favourite sit-com was running on Netflix—something they enjoyed from their dating days. They were discussing her thesis and his semester exams—both due in a couple of days. But, it soon turned ugly, nasty and violent. “Our arguments always quickly snowball into major fights because of anger,” she says. Then, the beating follows, and soon, she is out in the cold—always. Only this time, the slap was hard.

“The next morning, my ear was numb, and I could not balance myself. Later I found out it was a punctured eardrum, and now I can barely hear with this ear,” she cries, recollecting her thoughts. She is young, bright and had a world of opportunities waiting for her. Now, she sits weeping in the corner of her room, severely depressed. “My dream of graduating from college and pursuing my love for physics is in shambles, but I am trying,” she smiles, knowing she has a long way to go. Yes, that is how detrimental acts of violence from partners can be.

It is a story almost one in three girls, aged 15-24 years in India, experience according to a study, based on the data from the National Family Health Survey of 2006. Intimate partner violence or spousal violence, defined as violence perpetrated by a spouse or a partner, is one of the most common forms of violence against women. It can involve physical, sexual, emotional and economical abuse and controlling behaviour by the abusive partner.

A report from the World Health Organisation says that about 60% of people in an intimate relationship have experienced physical abuse, and about 75% have experienced emotional abuse from their partners. While such acts of violence affect people of all age groups, it can be especially damaging for adolescents.

“Adolescent women, in countries like India, face severe policing and have no agency of their own. They are young and vulnerable, without economic freedom,” says Prof Simantini Ghosh from Ashoka University.

In the last four years, she has worked to understand the prevalence and causes of intimate partner violence in the state of Haryana in India.

What drivers the perpetrators?

A diverse set of factors could be responsible for intimate partner violence among adolescents. A 2016 study by Prof Karl Peltzer from the University of the Free State, South Africa, and his group of researchers analysed about 17,000 university students from 22 countries to understand what drives it. The study found that 16.3% (roughly, one in five) experienced some form of sexual or physical violence from their partners. It identified that individuals with a history of child abuse, use of tobacco and alcohol in the context of sex, and individuals showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression were associated with intimate partner violence. Besides, sociodemographic factors like living in a low or lower-middle-income country, or pursuing their senior year of study, were also associated with partner violence.

In the Indian context, the above study found a prevalence of 12.1% of physical and sexual violence among the students of a single university. The National Family Health Survey of 2016 pegs the overall prevalence at 35.5%, and the WHO reports that South Asia has the highest regional rate of intimate partner violence of 43%.

"Adolescent women, who are married off early, face a higher burden of such violence, says Prof Ghosh. “They are vulnerable because they enter an unfamiliar marital home and get pregnant in their teens,” she says. Pregnancy is also a risk factor associated with partner violence.

Women who experience violence by an intimate partner, 2016 


Consequences of spousal violence

Motivated by their previous study on the predictors of partner violence, Prof Peltzer and his group wanted to look at the possible effects of such acts of violence. In a new study, they have investigated the consequence of intimate partner violence on university students in 25 countries, including India. The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, assessed 18,335 university students, with a median age of 20 years, across Asia, Africa and the Americas. It used a survey to gather information on interpersonal violence, health behaviours, and mental well-being of these students, along with their age, sex, wealth status and income.

The researchers found that physical or sexual abuse by partners is associated with risky sexual behaviours like having multiple sex partners, HIV infections and pregnancy, violent behaviours like getting into a fight or carrying weapons, poor mental health like experiencing depression, loneliness, PTSD and sleeping disorders, drug and alcohol addictions and unhealthy eating habits.

These associations varied across geography. For example, while pregnancy was associated with 16.2% of the students in Sub-Saharan Africa, it was 1.8% in South Asia and China, which included India. On the other hand, depression among respondents from South Asia and China was highest than in other regions.

“Culture shapes how victims cope following intimate partner violence. It depends on what is culturally more acceptable in the region,” explains Prof Peltzer.

These findings seem to agree with what Prof Ghosh has observed in peri-urban and rural households in Haryana. 

“We have seen victims of intimate partner violence, who are mostly women, suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD. In one of our surveys, about 23% of the victims said they experienced suicidal tendencies,” she explains.

Fostering a support system

In a formal university set-up, recognising and helping the victims of intimate partner violence may be easier than doing so in orthodox societies.

“Programmes that target the victims of physical and sexual partner violence among university students should consider multiple risk behaviours, including sexual risk behaviour, violence-related activities, poor mental health and substance use,” says Prof Peltzer.

However, studies show that these interventions could have short-term effects that decay over time.

The WHO recommends strengthening the legal framework and women’s rights, building trust between society and governments, empowering women and girls, designing school-based programs to sensitise the youth early, and providing early interventions for at-risk families, among others.

If you are a victim of intimate partner violence, the National Commission of Women has a list of helplines that can be approached.