India: Better Legal Options Equal More Justice for Women

In Indian households, often organized around extended families, violence can erupt in many forms. It occurs between siblings, sexual partners, in-laws, children and parents, young and old. While violence against women within a marriage has been a crime, the narrow scope of existing laws and lack of legal measures for victims led women’s groups to campaign for a new and broader civil statute. In 2005, they successfully pushed through the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.

The Lawyers Collective, one of the groups that led the campaign, will now use a grant by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women to help the Indian legal system adjust the ways it handles domestic abuse cases.

The new law protects all members of a household, and it embraces the definition of violence adopted by the United Nations as being any form of abuse, whether emotional, physical, sexual or verbal. It also offers a wide range of new protection measures: injunctions, protection orders, and maintenance and custody orders. The common practice of throwing a married woman out of her home is now illegal, and while there is still no law making marital rape a crime, the 2005 act opens the door to make it so.

“We wanted to build on but also expand the existing legal framework,” says Indira Jaising, a long-term activist and lawyer with the Lawyers Collective. “It is absolutely path-breaking, for example, that we were able to include sexual abuse under the definition of violence. A lot of reproductive rights will be strengthened.”

First, however, groups like the Jaising’s must contend with initial confusion about the new law, which calls upon members of the legal system to think and work differently. There are not many existing parallels to a statute that has both criminal and civil components: The violation of a protection order, for example, can be followed by arrest. The act also introduces a new category of court staff — the protection officer. Ideally this person should be a social worker with expertise in handling domestic violence, but Jaising points out that the tendency is to believe this is a job for the police.

The Lawyers Collective will use its Trust Fund grant to work with judges on developing a bench manual spelling out protocols for tasks such as issuing timely protection orders, developing safety plans and preparing counseling for abusers. A second part of the project will produce a training manual with comprehensive guidelines for protection officers and service providers. Training sessions in individual states led by peers will introduce both manuals to a spectrum of judicial staffs.

Jaising emphasizes that awareness about domestic violence has traditionally been very low in India, where the forms of abuse against women run the gamut from bride burning to female infanticide to the forced eviction of widows. “Domestic violence is so pervasive that women are not full partners in development or society,” she contends. “You cannot talk about education or employment when you are trapped by abuse.”

But the new law has already sparked a nationwide debate in the media. Jaising says the Trust Fund project will help keep this momentum going by continuing to build bridges with journalists, as well as exploring new means of public outreach such as text message campaigns and opinion polls.

The Lawyers Collective has spent more than a quarter century looking for ways to use the law as an instrument for social justice, working on homelessness, HIV, livelihood issues and discrimination against minority women. The UN Trust Fund grant will now help it deepen the impact of one of the most recent major triumphs for women’s human rights.

The Lawyers Collective received a grant in 2006 from the Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women for the project titled "Staying Alive – Empowerment through Law."

(Story Date: 22 November 2006)

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