Afsana Bibi, a resident of Rajarhat, a slum on the outskirts of Kolkata, had been a silent victim of domestic violence for many years. The beatings began immediately after marriage but it was nearly six months before the 20-year-old could even tell her parents about it. Her husband stopped the abuse for a couple of months when Afsana's parents intervened, but it all started again soon enough.
Afsana is not the only one in her locality who has faced such extreme abuse without seeking any help. The Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal has 60 government-authorised slums where domestic violence is commonplace. Points out Madhupurna Ghosh, an advocate, "The usual causes for domestic violence are alcoholism, unemployment and illicit relationships with other women. The wives have no recourse to any form of support in such cases. Their parents are usually extremely poor, with no financial wherewithal to either take care of their daughters and grandchildren or fight lengthy legal battles on their behalf. So the women just have to bear the violence, the torture."
The West Bengal Crime Records Bureau registers the highest number of cases under cruelty by husband or relatives of husband in the crimes against women category. The latest figures available are for 2008, during which 13,947 cases were registered - an extremely high figure when compared to other crimes against women that are on the rise, like rape (2,095) or molestation (2,716).
Fortunately, today, legal help and support is available to such victims through a legal literacy programme being run by the NGO, Sutanatir Sakhya, in different localities in and around Kolkata. 'Staying Alive', which began in 2009 and initially reached out to 35 wards in the Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality area, is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID). It aims to empower women with legal knowledge and provide legal support to victims, besides creating awareness of the legal system of India among schoolchildren, sensitising protection officers appointed under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA), and disseminating information regarding various provisions of welfare legislation in the regional language.
To reach out to women in the slums, Sutanatir Sakhya banks on those who are part of the Community Development Society (CDS), which monitors all the development work in these localities. These women are trained as volunteers because they are already in regular touch with the locals and can get through to them easily. "The women representatives of different wards in each CDS have a community network in place. We simply tap this network, training the women to identify domestic violence and abuse. We also make them aware of their rights through workshops on the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) laws to prevent atrocities on women," explains Ghosh, who is also the Joint Secretary of Sutanatir Sakhya.
These volunteers in turn go into the localities to educate women on the whole spectrum of gender-centric laws, including the Anti-dowry Act, property laws, the law against sex selection, laws on rape and sexual harassment, as well as the Hindu and Muslim divorce and marriage laws. They also talk to women about the help available to them. "It is imperative to gain their confidence so that they can ask for support and advice. Information and education and communication (IEC) materials like brochures, posters, pamphlets are used to achieve this," says Ghosh.
It was Mumtaz Bibi, a trained CDS worker, who came to Afsana's rescue. "One day, she sent for me when her husband began his abuse. When I reached her house, I saw Afsana's husband badly thrashing her. He also beat up her mother when she tried to stop him. When I intervened he refused to let Afsana come with me. I took her mother and went to the Rajarhat police station and lodged a complaint. The police then rescued Afsana and her two children. Seven days later I helped Afsana file a case against her husband and he was arrested," recalls Mumtaz.
Confidence building among victims of domestic violence forms a large part of what Sutanatir Sakhya and its volunteers do. Mumtaz had been in touch with Afsana and her neighbours for almost a year before Afsana was confident enough to send for her on the day she decided to stand up for herself. But achieving this has not been easy. Reveals Mumtaz, "Our main problem was with the police. The women who went to them were often sent back without even so much as a complaint being registered, which only leads to more violence and threats from the perpetrators." To address this, a dialogue was initiated with the authorities. Now, after many meetings, the police recognise the CDS volunteers and at least any victim accompanied by them is not turned back. Complaints are being registered and cases are going to court.
"When we go in a group, we have the power to make the police listen. We have lodged 20 FIRs (First Information Reports) in the last few months on domestic violence and matrimonial divorce-related cases," informs Sobha Mondal, a CDS volunteer.
The legal aid cell in Rajarhat alone has helped file 156 cases in the last two years. "I filed for divorce from my unemployed husband with their help. Before marriage, he worked as a security guard but afterwards he quit and expected my parents to take care of all his expenses. Beatings were common. I didn't know how to escape from the marriage. But now I am aware. A lawyer arranged by the legal aid cell is fighting my case pro bono," says Maya Banerjee, who suffered for two years before seeking help.
Legal aid programmes are clearly very important. Although they were started for poor women, even upper class victims are seeking help. "Girls come to us even in the middle of the night asking for help. Earlier, our own husbands and in-laws were skeptical, but now they support our work," says Amita Nath, another volunteer.
Although Sutanatir Sakhya operates from centres in Rajarhat, Madhyamgram and Shovabazar, thanks to word of mouth publicity, women from far flung areas are approaching the organisation either through the telephone or by visiting the centres. On an average 65-80 women either visit or call each centre on a daily basis.
Though the lawyers fighting cases on behalf of the victims do so mostly on a pro-bono basis, those who can afford it are encouraged to pay some legal fees, even if it is nominal. "If they pay, they feel bound to attend court hearings. Otherwise, lawyers say most cases fall apart because the women fail to appear before the judges or are not persistent enough. We counsel the women to continue with the case and win compensation or alimony for themselves and their children," says volunteer Sampa Das.
Today, while around 400 CDS women have directly benefited through this project – they are BPL, who were given free training in legal matters, enabling them to recognise abuse, their own as well of others - it has made the lives of many more better. Sutanatir Sakhya now plans to introduce vocational training for the victimised women to help them achieve economic independence. "If these women become economically independent, it will be that much easier for them to get out of a violent relationship and also legally fight for their children's and their rights," says Ghosh.
Awareness of their rights is definitely helping victimised women fight the violence. However, legal action is not regarded as an end in itself. Economic independence is regarded as essential for these women to truly free themselves from the shackles of abuse or neglect.
(Names of victims have been changed.)
By arrangement with WFS