Transformative or functional justice? Examining the role of health care institutions in responding to violence against women in India

Anuj Kapilashrami

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With the growing salience of ideas and reforms concerning women's human rights and gender equality, violence against women (VAW) has received heightened policy attention. Recent global calls for ending VAW identify health care systems as having a crucial role in a multisector response to tackle this social injustice. Scholars emphasize the transformative potential of such response in its ability to not only address the varied health consequences but also prevent future recurrence by enabling wider access to support and justice. This wider consensus on the role of health systems, however, demands stronger empirical basis. This article reports findings from an exploratory research developed around the core question: What are the perceived strengths and challenges confronting health systems in offering a comprehensive response to VAW in India? Drawing on site visits, observations, and interviews with front-line staff and program managers of an integrated intervention to tackle violence in Kerala and nongovernment organisation staff in Delhi and Mumbai, the article presents its historical context and key barriers to effective implementation. While promising in terms of outreach and incremental changes in attitudes, barriers include deficits in infrastructure and institutional practices that reinforce inequities in gender-power relations, hostile attitudes, and limited capacities of health workforce to tackle the complex and diverse needs of women experiencing abuse. Locating these experiences in relation to other models rooted in feminist approach, I argue how conventional intervention models of provisioning fail to challenge institutional contexts and structural inequalities that underpin violence and compound vulnerabilities experienced by women, thereby serving a functional response. Health systems are social institutions embedded in prevailing gender norms and power relations that must be tackled alongside addressing imminent needs of women victims of abuse. To this end, feminist approaches to counselling and relational perspectives to social justice can strengthen responsiveness (and transformative potential) of integrated sector-wide interventions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Interpersonal Violence
Early online date13 Oct 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Oct 2018

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