What began as an innovative experiment 12 years ago is now an important instrument of justice delivery for the women of rural Uttar Pradesh (UP). Across 20 blocks of 12 districts in India's largest state, rural women, some of them totally illiterate, have taken on the responsibility of dispensing justice at the grassroots through 'nari adalats', or informal women's courts for social justice.
'Nari adalats' were initiated in 1997 by the Mahila Samakhya (MS), an autonomous registered society sponsored and supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Education. The MS was started in the late 1980s, as part of a movement for women's equality in three states - Karnataka, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. It works in the areas of education, social justice and livelihoods through 'mahila sanghs' (women's collectives) formed in villages. While initially there were only a handful of women volunteers in these collectives, today they comprise over 95,000 members.
The very popular 'nari adalats' - the first of which was held in the Nagal block of Saharanpur district - come together every month on fixed dates in various districts. 'Nari adalat' activists draw up the dates with the help of the MS functionary. The venue is decided through the common consent of 'sangh' members, though it usually is a centrally located public place mostly near a 'panchayat ghar' (village council office), a 'thana' (police station) or a 'dak ghar' (government guest house).
In all, 12 'sangh' women are a part of one 'nari adalat'. However, at a time only six listen to complaints and then deliver justice. Besides being well versed in gender concerns, these women have analytical skills, understand administrative procedures and are trained to deal with the police and other officials. They even know the procedures to lodge a First Information Report (FIRs) and make draft applications. And all this training is imparted to them by the MS staff, experts, NGOs and lawyers.
On the appointed day the women sit as part of a jury and carefully listen to each case. The timings of the informal court are usually from 11 am to 3 pm, depending on the number of cases to be heard. It is fairly simple to approach a 'nari adalat'. A complainant has to either give a written application or verbal information on the case. Once the case is registered, a letter or message is sent to the other party. Only after they hear the arguments of the both sides, do the women pass a judgement. For this they sometimes even make an effort to physically talk to different stakeholders. Usually, around two to three hearings are sufficient to give a final verdict. But for all the hard work and effort they put into this process, none of the women expect any monetary compensation.
To set such a process in motion is certainly no mean achievement, especially in a state like UP, which holds the dubious distinction of leading the rest of India in crimes of violence against women and which has the lowest levels of female literacy.
Talking to the women judges is a real eye-opener. It is interesting to note how they deal with cases ranging from child rape and wife beating to girls' education. "A maximum number of cases are related to domestic violence. Media reports concentrate on violence in urban areas. The media have generally failed to report on domestic violence that rural women routinely face," argues Ram Rani from Sitapur, who is a judge on the district panel. Incidentally, she was one of the 1,000 women from across the world who was nominated by a women's initiative for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Madhu Sharma, a jury member from Saharanpur in her early fifties, agrees. "We have to change mindsets. Men have to be made gender sensitive, they have to be taught to treat women with respect," she observes, adding that male dominance seems to be far greater in rural areas than in urban areas.
She quotes her own example. Last year, Madhu had to face a lot of opposition from her family simply because she chose to register the plot of land she had purchased with her savings in her own name. "My husband was furious. He lodged his protest by refusing to eat food for one full day. But I held my ground and eventually he gave in," she recalls.
Madhu remembers another difficult case they resolved - that of Phoolvati, 35, of Sitapur. After the death of her husband 15 years ago, Phoolvati had put all her jewellery in the custody of her brother. But at the time of her daughter's wedding recently, when she wanted it to be returned, her brother refused. Phoolvati was distraught and lodged a complaint in the local nari adalat. It took seven months, but Phoolvati's brother was finally persuaded to return the jewellery to her. Also, thanks to the wisdom and counseling of the judges, Phoolvati's relations with her brother actually improved after this episode.
The various kinds of discriminations - religious, social and gender-based - which are roadblocks in justice delivery are addressed at the community level. Clearly, one of the biggest hindrances in women's empowerment in rural India is the ever-present threat of violence and these all-women courts have offered redressal in many such cases.
The advantage of these informal courts is that, unlike in formal court proceedings, those seeking justice here don't have to wrestle with complex legal procedures or shell out large amounts of money. "Women bring their problems to these courts without any reservations. They have full faith that they will get justice here. They believe that their problems will be heard with compassion and commitment, and that every attempt will be made to solve them as early and as effectively as possible," says Sumita, 50, another rural judge from Saharanpur.
"Today, rural women are far more aware than earlier. They recognize violence and its many faces. In fact, they now battle archaic customs and come out against violence," says Rashmi Sinha, Director, Mahila Samakhiya UP. According to her, the principal objective of her organization is to build an environment in which women can access their situation better and shake off their helplessness by empowering themselves and emerging as agents of change.
According to Sinha, the collectives of rural women are being strengthened through information flows and through regular training. Over time, women have realized the power of their unity and are ready to make meaningful interventions in issues that affect their daily lives like drinking water, equal wages, education, gender discrimination and violence, both within the home and outside it.
But what accounts for the success of these 'nari adalats'? Sinha explains, "This is an actively functional system of social justice. It encourages group decision-making, seeks to analyze situations and problems of local women from a feminist perspective, and quick and inexpensive justice to the aggrieved without legal acrobatics. 'Nari adalats' also provide for follow-up action to ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice."
Given this success, there is also a rising demand to increase the frequency of these sessions. Presently, the courts are held only once or twice a month because of a paucity of funds and human resources. But clearly, 12 years after the first session of the 'nari adalat' in UP, there is a manifest need for such a process and that in turn should ensure that it grows from strength to strength.