Hundreds, indeed thousands, of Indian women continue to languish in mental homes and institutions for reasons ranging from family quarrels with spouses to being seen as demonically possessed by families – and more than half of these women even have physical disabilities – making them a disposable lot by their families.
A case in point is the testimony of an Indian woman, Sangietta, (not her real name) who testified that “I saw people in shackles. I had no idea where I was because no one visited me. I didn’t know who had put me away, and if I protested or demanded to call my family they would drag me like a sack of potatoes to my bed and sedate me.” And to show that she continues to live in fear of husband and family, she added “Sometimes when we argued my husband would say to me, ‘I can always have you locked up again’. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen to me but once it does you are just so scared. They take everything away. You are stripped of all your dignity.”
Sangietta was educated and possessed a MBA, and she has four children that are all below the age of 10. But she was committed to a psychiatric hospital by her husband and parents for 46 days, and she was continually sedated and isolated until a family member felt the need to seek her release.
A Human Rights Watch report reviewed this condition in India and found that the mental health system is not only archaic and obsolete, it is also frequently abused by people who explored the loophole in Indians guardian system. Most disabled women committed to mental institutions end up being raped in very unsanitary places, and some of them abused with electro-shock therapies to the hurt of the victims.
Kriti Sharma, a Human Rights Watch researcher reveals that “Women and girls with disabilities are dumped in institutions by their family members or police in part because the government is failing to provide appropriate support and services. Once they’re locked up, their lives are often rife with isolation, fear, and abuse, with no hope of escape.” And she came to this conclusion after reviewing the conditions of 200 patients in mental institutions over a two-year period; she found that most of the psychiatric institutions are overcrowded and very unsanitary for most patients.
And Abdul Mabood, a mental health advocate condemns India’s 1987 Mental Health law as nothing short of a penal law. “There is no accountability and no monitoring body. People can be imprisoned by their families at any time and only a family member can have them released. Even if the hospital says they are ready for release,” he says. Under the current legislation, mental patients can be detained for 90 days without any legal representation or judicial review, and their testimony will not even stand if they happen to access any legal aids.
Two bills on mental health are currently being examined by parliament, and it is hoped that this legislation will guarantee the rights of women with mental illness or physical disabilities to legal representations and independent livelihoods.