As we celebrate another International Women’s Day, it has become ritualistic to assess the gains secured by Indian women. The focus of the women’s movement has primarily been centred around legal reforms to combat violence. Sadly, the overemphasis on legal reforms has overshadowed the social reality of inaccessibility of legal mechanisms to those who need its protection the most.
Meanwhile, a parallel narrative has gained credence that women misuse stringent provisions and implicate innocent men. This myth is being perpetuated at all levels of the legal edifice, including Supreme Court judges. Endorsed by lawyers, sensationalised by the media, it provides fodder to men’s rights groups. Their anecdotal stories run counter to national and international statistics about the extent of violence against women in India. Since violence is a norm, stories of even death and murder are passé. Yet these mundane stories of everyday violence must be told.
Let’s start with Anita George (name changed), a frail woman of around 40 who was severely beaten by her husband ever since they got married. Finally, when she could not endure it any more, with the support of a well-wisher she approached a state agency mandated to help women. She pleaded that her husband was threatening to kill her. When the husband didn’t respond to the letter sent by the agency to come for counselling, the woman was referred to the local police station. Instead of registering a complaint, the police called her husband for counselling, and then sent her back to her matrimonial home. No agency did any followup, nor was any step taken to ensure the woman was safe — this would be recorded as a success story in their records.
Three months later, the husband assaulted her brutally and broke three of her ribs. In utter despair, she drank poison and would have died, but for the timely intervention of her sister, who admitted her to a nearby hospital. The state agency that sent her back to her abusive husband wasn’t held accountable for her condition. For us, it was a herculean task to get the police to register a complaint under the much-maligned Section 498A IPC. When the woman approached us, we filed a case under the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) for protection and maintenance — which is still languishing.
Anita is losing faith in the judicial system, as after the initial intervention there is no progress in her case. Instead of passing orders, the magistrate’s entire focus is to reunite the family! Her economic situation is grim. As a bleak future looms, Anita, who is living with her sister along with her son, may even consider this suggestion, as she can’t see any other option. And when that happens, her case filed under Section 498A will be quashed and it will be added to the list of “false cases”.
Let’s look at Jovita (name changed), another middle-aged woman from the lower middle class. Not much educated, she took up different jobs to support her family — domestic help, office assistant, receptionist, catering — any job that she got, including an overseas assignment that came her way, where she could save some money. With the money she earned, she purchased three small tenements in a nearby chawl — two as joint property and one where’s the sole owner. Her alcoholic husband controls everything.
Jovita raised three sons in this violent marriage and even got them married. The brutal violence she endured has left deep scars on her body. Today the younger sons are siding with their father to grab her property. Recently, her husband assaulted her as she was attending church service because she was dressed in a pair of jeans. Someone guided her to the police, but the cops told her, “ye ghar ka mamla hai” (domestic affair), registered an NC (non-cognisable) complaint and sent her back. The husband threw her out of the house. She took shelter at her sister’s home. A few days later, her husband came to her sister’s home, beat her, took away her documents and warned her to never return home.
Then someone guided her to us. She was unaware of our existence, though her matrimonial home is just 500 yards from our office. We advised her to take a bold step, file a written complaint and enter the tenement, which is in her sole name. Two days passed peacefully, on the third day the storm broke. She ran out, screaming. The husband chased her and caught her by her dupatta that was draped round her neck, and dragged her. Then her husband and son literally lifted her, put her in a rickshaw and took her home. As they pinned her down and were pouring some liquid down her throat, her sister arrived with the police. They took her to the police station, where she fainted out of sheer trauma. Finally, a complaint was registered, but not under Section 498A. The police used other sections to skirt the mandatory “counselling”. The husband and son were arrested, but later released on bail.
The acute violence which Christian women suffer is seldom addressed; even the Church looks the other way. Women too are ridden with guilt as they are indoctrinated to believe that divorce is a sin. However, the situation is not peculiar to Christians. We see it everywhere.
Let us look at Saira (name changed), who was married just after she finished school. For two years, she was harassed for dowry. Her husband, a drug addict, used to return home late at night and assault her violently and force sex on her. She had no respite even when she got pregnant. One day, after a brutal attack, she suffered a miscarriage. She was writhing in pain and begging her husband to take her to hospital, but he refused. Finally, she called her mother who admitted her to a nursing home. That was the end of the marriage. No, he didn’t send her a talaqnama. He just didn’t come to discharge her from the hospital. So, she went to her mother’s place. After all attempts at reconciliation failed, Saira went to her matrimonial home to pick up her belongings and valuables. She was abused and asked to leave. Before she could reach the local police station, the husband and in-laws filed a complaint against her and her mother. So there were cross NCs.
Imagine her shock when the special cell located at the police station called her on the complaint filed by her husband. The social worker directed her to a protection officer to file a case under the Domestic Violence Act, but didn’t accompany them. They were lost. In sheer desperation, her mother approached an NGO. After a lot of pressure, the police registered a case under Section 498A and her belongings could be retrieved. The local NGO then referred her to us, and we filed a case under the DVA. Due to the pressure of litigation, the husband agreed to pay `1.5 lakh as final settlement and a divorce by mutual consent — mubarra. The case under Section 498A will soon be quashed — one more “false case”.
Similar stories can be narrated of women from across class and religious communities. However, collectively, interventions by majlis and other organisations do not add up to even a drop in the ocean.
The concept that marriages are forever is deeply ingrained within our legal system, and a woman who approaches a court or the police is viewed as a deviant. It is against this ground reality that the narrative of misuse gets perpetuated.
All the names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the women.
The writer is a women’s rights lawyer