The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, was rightly hailed as a historic moment for Indian women's rights. What has happened since then? Well, the Bill was notified only in October 2006 so that's when its implementation really began. Now, barely four months later, women activists are questioning the government's sincerity in implementing the new law in letter and in spirit.
The PWDVA Act had its detractors when it was passed by Parliament in 2005. (It was notified on October 26 last year.) The Act - the salient features of which makes domestic violence against wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and other female relatives a civil offence - came under sharp criticism, mainly from men, who argued that it was open to manipulation as it provides for wide-ranging powers to women.
When the Bill was tabled in Parliament in 2003, male members protested that it was denigrating the institution of marriage. It took a further struggle of two years before it was eventually passed, claims Brinda Karat, Member of Parliament and member of the Politburo of the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist).
"Politically, there is no conviction in this Act and without sustained pressure from women's groups on the government it can be sabotaged," Karat feels. The politician-activist was addressing over 300 women activists from 23 states who had converged in Delhi in February to deliberate and review the implementation of the PWDVA. The three-day meeting was organised jointly by Delhi-based NGOs, Action India, Jagori and Joint Women's Programme.
The new law is mainly meant to provide protection to the wife or female live-in partner from violence at the hands of the husband, male partner or his relatives. Among its other provisions are the right to reside in the matrimonial and shared household, appointment of protection officers (POs), service providers and counsellors and setting up of shelters for battered women.
According to activists, however, the reality is that most state governments have yet to set up either counselling centres or shelters or to appoint POs, often shunting off this latter task to police officers who are already overburdened and disinclined to taking on additional responsibilities. They stress that in order to set up the legal and support mechanisms provided under PWDVA, a substantial and specific budget allocation, both at the Central and State government levels, would have to be earmarked in the 2007 Budget.
In this context, Karat warns women that the gender budgeting process underway in the Finance Ministry and other departments may not actually lead to the allocation of additional resources for women. Observing that in the name of gender budgeting, money was simply being transferred from existing heads to new ones, she calls for transparent gender budgeting and specific allocation for the PWDVA.
According to Delhi High Court Judge Gita Mittal, there is tremendous demand for redress under the new Act and that 302 cases have been filed in Delhi so far. However, she pointed out that the overburdened judiciary cannot meet this demand and that sufficient judges need to be in place to deliver justice to women. "The Delhi experience has shown that the POs are highly unequipped to give the required support to the judge and the POs have become a mouthpiece of the party which is more persuasive," she remarks.
This view is exemplified in the case of Nazi of Varanasi, a survivor, who spoke of the mental and physical torture she suffered at the hands of her husband and in-laws. When she decided to leave after seven years of marriage and take along her five-year-old daughter, her husband threw acid on her face on November 3 last year. When she was subsequently hospitalised, he frequently visited her to make threats against her and her family to force her to withdraw the case she filed against him after the acid attack.
"Since then, 10 different police officers have questioned me and said I'm lying to them. Meanwhile, my husband has renewed his threats to kill me if I don't withdraw the case against him," says the shaken young woman.
It is not easy for a woman facing violence at home to speak out for a variety of reasons, mainly because of economic dependence on her husband, adds Alka Pande of Lucknow, another survivor. "You face a lot of humiliation as no one takes you seriously. When I fled from my husband I had to leave my two young children behind because I had no home, no job and had to take shelter with a friend."
It was two years before she could get both a job and home and reclaim her children. "At that time, the Act was not there to help me. Then again, this Act is not enough to help a woman. We need to bring about a change in society", she emphasises.
Justice Mittal is of the view that in order to implement the law, NGOs and activists will have to work very closely with the judges. Deepa Jain, Secretary in the Department of Women and Child Development, while reiterating the government's commitment to implement the Act, agrees that women remain vulnerable to violence at home due to lack of
access to services.
According to her, the government has sent the rules and provisions of this Act to all State governments as well as posting it on its official web sites to create greater awareness about it. Future steps include translation of the Act into regional languages, user guides and an illustrative list of possible domestic violence scenarios and immediate response routes that the victim has access to.
But finally, as many activists agree, the ultimate push has to come from within the community itself. Jain underlined the fact that the pressures exerted at the Delhi conference by the different women's groups must be an ongoing process both at the Central and State levels. The battle continues.