Why the Domestic Violence Act is not Helping Women

Aarti is an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) in Mahandergarh, a village in Haryana. She supports the family and even funds her husband's drinking bouts, which she realized there was little point resisting, because, "he gets what he wants regardless." Yet, in spite of her earthy wisdom, it took a public thrashing in a crowded 'bazaar' and an ensuing media debate on her plight, for her to accept that she was a victim of domestic abuse. 

What was unusual in her case was not that she was traumatized but that she was beaten in full public view without shame or remorse. In a state where wife beating, dowry deaths, forced abortions of female fetuses and pulling out girl children from schools is part of life, there is an unspoken code which maintains that all acts of this kind be committed within the confines of the home. Which is why it was not Aarti's beating, but her humiliation and helplessness in front of the entire community, that caught public attention.. The irony, however, is that although Aarti was unprepared for the support she received, she was still unwilling to take any step to change things.

When Nirmala, a protection officer (PO) designated by the Haryana government, read about her public thrashing, she visited Aarti to see if she needed help or counseling. But Nirmala was left dumbfounded when, in a dramatic volte face, Aarti said, "He did not beat me. I have nothing to say." After she had said this, Aarti pulled Nirmala aside and whispered, "Please understand, you will come once, maybe twice, but I have to live here, in this house, with these people. This is my destiny. Going against them will only make it worse for me. I cannot lodge an official complaint." 

Indira Jaising, Director, Lawyer's Collective, explains, "While there is provision for a third party complaint, which a neighbor, well wisher or family member can register for, the autonomy of the woman has to be respected. The law gives the PO the right to go and investigate such cases. Whether the battered woman admitted it or not, she feels empowered by the officer's presence, knowing there is a legal system to support her."

Aarti may not have taken the PO's help but other women in Haryana and Delhi are sure to benefit from government POs, who are authorized to help women get speedy justice. But in other states, implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) has been abysmally poor. This was the conclusion at a recent consultation of women's groups, government officials, law enforcement agencies and civil society organizations held in the Capital. There was consensus that although an increasing number of women were stepping forward to lodge complaints, demanding justice and bringing perpetrators to book thanks to awareness about the Act, there was still widespread ambiguity about it and its implementation remains weak. 

According to Ranjana Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research, Delhi, apart from Haryana and Delhi, few states have appointed POs. The existing POs are overburdened with work and are reluctant to take on additional responsibilities. What has also led many women to suffer in silence is the existence of corrupt police personnel, a shortage of state sponsored medical and shelter facilities and non-access to legal aid in states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Arunachal Pradesh. 

In Uttar Pradesh, women are made to pay for paper work and the visits of POs, and bribes are often given by offenders to get themselves absolved of their crimes. According to Jaising, "If at the first stage POs fail to deliver, the whole purpose of having a law is defeated." 

According to the National Family Health Survey III, 37.2 per cent Indian married women experience violence and abuse by their spouse. Among the states with the widest prevalence of domestic violence are Bihar, with 62.2 per cent urban cases and 58.5 per cent rural; followed by Rajasthan (46.3 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (45.8 per cent) and Uttar Pradesh (42.4 per cent). The number of women seeking legal action is yet to show any substantial increase after the 2005 Act. According to a report by Lawyers Collective, a non-profit legal organization, 7,913 applications were filed under the Act as of July 31, 2007, with the maximum cases from Rajasthan (3,440), followed by Kerala (1,028), Andhra Pradesh (731) and Delhi (607). 

Shruti Singh, a PO in the Patna High Court, has filed nearly 200 petitions in the last two years. She says she feels as if she is walking a tightrope. She has had to contend with taunts, sarcasm and threats, not just from those against whom women have filed cases but from lawyers and judges, too. Says Singh, "Most men had not heard of the Act and those who had, were convinced it was the perfect recipe to ruin homes, corrupt their women and be misused." 

Singh recalls a recent victory, which was an order for the right of residence to a woman whose husband had started living with someone else. The court also granted the woman ownership of one of the three shops that the man owned. But she says that getting an order alone is not enough. "What if in spite of the order, the house is found locked or pledged against debt? The woman in this case would not be authorized to break the lock," she says. 

What is needed is a single window system that makes it easy for women to get justice. According to Jaising, the capacities of all judges in the country must be built. They must be sensitized to the issue and be told to give their verdict within a stipulated time period. Shalini Mathur, a woman activist in Lucknow, has a poser, "What would it be like to have the residence order but to live with the daily humiliation and indignity of having another woman in the house?" She suggests the removal of the clause of compulsory counseling within the Act, which aims to save families, homes and marriages. Instead, she says, the issue needs to be looked into on a case-to-case basis. 

Adds Ranjana, "Money must be allocated by the Planning Commission to set up civil infrastructure if women are to be safe in their homes." Citing a recent Monitoring and Evaluation report brought out by the Lawyers Collective that highlights state-wise budgetary allocations for infrastructural investments designed to protect women from violence, she observes that there is a "lack of serious political will to tackle the issue when you see the skewed financial disbursements." While Andhra Pradesh has Rs 100 million (US$1=Rs 50.4), Kerala and Haryana have Rs 10 million. States with the least allocations include Gujarat at Rs 10,00,000 and Madhya Pradesh with Rs 2,92,000. In spite of the rising levels of domestic abuse in Delhi only Rs 50,00,000 has been allocated.

There is also need for state-specific advocacy to enable communities to become more proactive. The 'bell bajao' (ring the bell) campaign is one example. Initiated last year by Breakthrough, an international human rights organization, it is an awareness and intervention campaign against domestic violence that uses the media, education and pop culture to reach out to society. 

Among the various approaches to address domestic violence is the attempt to engage men in a constructive way. The US-based Family Violence Prevention Fund will replicate their successful "coaching boys into men" campaign in Mumbai's 60 schools and lower income communities later this year. It will use cricket coaches to disseminate 'teach early, teach often' messages. 

Changing attitudes will take time, but a beginning has to be made.  


More by :  Taru Bahl

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