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Our experiences in addressing the complex legal needs of Gender-based Violence survivors

Nov 11 2022 / Posted in Gender Violence

“स्नेहा नसती तर मी अजूनही अत्याचार सहन करत असते”

- By Reshma Jagtap, Vinita Fernandes, Nikhat Shaikh (Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Programme team)

“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”
-Dr B.R. Ambedkar

This quote by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar often makes us wonder and reflect on a very pertinent facet of a community’s progression and we ask ourselves - is our community really progressing the way it should? And the answer is as complex as the question, posing in front of us the multiple realities of women and girl survivors, who are surrounded by layers and layers of vulnerabilities and societal expectations in the several roles that they play. We have continually witnessed them struggle to balance the expectations resulting in the burden and pressure they succumb to as women in a patriarchal family set up.

As women's rights supporters at SNEHA and having worked with women survivors in informal settlements, we often try to create a pathway for justice.

We work with women and girls who have been abused, neglected, sexually assaulted and denied their basic fundamental rights. Lack of support from their families or other social groups, intersectionally makes them more vulnerable to injustices. When a woman defends her rights, stands up for herself our society often disparages her. The deeply ingrained patriarchy existing in our society inhibits women from accessing legal guidance and services. In our experience the journey for women survivors of gender based violence towards exercising the right to “Access to Justice'' in practice could itself be traumatising. For these women one dimension of the struggle is to fight the legal battle for their rights to live a life free of violence and the other dimension is to fight the resultant pressure and guilt at the familial and social level that may emerge as a byproduct of this decision. Nevertheless there are several such stories where the women have stood up for themselves and have come out of their abusive relations.

Vanita (name changed), a woman living with her husband and 17-year-old son in a slum in Mumbai had been married for 18 years. She was a homemaker and so was financially dependent on her husband. She came to us in grave distress after her husband started physically, emotionally and financially abusing her. Since he was the primary breadwinner who refused to contribute to household expenses, she was struggling to make ends meet. She arrived at the Counselling Centre one day, stunned after learning about her husband’s second marriage from a newspaper article. The article featured a family photo of her husband taken at the Kathak Alankar of his 14-year-old daughter from his other marriage. Several attempts were made by our team to conduct a joint intervention with her husband, but he declined to be present for the meeting. While Vanita did want to file a legal case in the court, we soon realised that she had no corroborating evidence to support her complaint. Despite that, we took on Vanita's case, provided psychosocial support and legal guidance. We filed a case under ‘The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA)’ with the assistance of the Protection Officer and argued for her rights. After navigating a lot of uncertainties, we were finally able to successfully argue that she was entitled to maintenance. She was granted maintenance of Rs. 15,000 per month. The case was further converted to divorce by mutual consent and we were also able to negotiate a fair settlement as alimony from her husband.

Like Vanita, many women are oblivious to the injustices in their lives.

Women are essentially unaware of their fundamental rights and what can be done to secure them. Even if some women reach out for support they often take this decision as a last resort to combat violence. We have also found that when a woman seeks legal discourse, there is a complete lack of awareness about the crucial documents that would help build a legal evidence for defense.

With the objective of educating women about their rights and subsequently assisting them if they seek legal assistance, SNEHA started a Legal Aid Centre on October 24th, 2002 in collaboration with the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), Mumbai. The goal of this Centre is to respond to and help prevent gender-based violence in urban areas by providing services that enhance the well-being and secure legal rights of women and children facing violence. The SNEHA Legal Aid Centre provides legal counseling and guidance to women and girls as part of a collaborative venture with the Free Legal Aid Cell of the Maharashtra Government. So far, a total of 16,595 cases have been registered across all the counseling centers at SNEHA of which 2,518 cases were referred to the Legal Aid Centre for legal assistance. Following are the services that SNEHA's Legal Aid Centre offered to the cases it received:

No. cases provided legal guidance 2459
No. of cases referred to the DLSA 782
No. of cases received court orders 390
No. of NCs filed by survivors with help of the legal team 1671
No. of FIRs filed by survivors with help of the legal team 104
No. of legal applications submitted by survivors 1305

The Centre focuses on educating women of their legal rights, the measures that can be taken to secure these rights, linking them to public prosecutors and free legal aid services. Our legal team also explains to the women survivors and their families the importance of maintaining legally-binding documents like marriage certificates, income certificates of her partner, documents of her children, and the necessity of being informed about her partner’s job, income and monetary transactions. This information is helpful not only during divorce but also in case of the partner's sudden death, disability due to an accident, when she is forced to leave the house, or when the husband refuses to pay her maintenance. The Centre’s legal work extends beyond just handling domestic violence cases; it also offers assistance in cases involving sexual assault including assistance in filing First Information Reports (FIRs), acting as watching advocate with the public prosecutor during the court proceedings, etc. 

To take this initiative to the next level, we (with support from DLSA) are building the capacity of community-based women volunteers as Para legal Volunteers (PLVs) for first response and legal interventions to bridge the last-mile service gap.

Our vision for the PLVs is to facilitate an environment wherein they own this initiative and offer first response and legal interventions addressing gender-based violence. The primary goal of this training is to equip volunteers with legal knowledge that will enable them to act as first responders, ensuring that those in need receive legal assistance at the right time.

Our para legal volunteers

During the three days of the PLV training, the women volunteers are informed about the various schemes under the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), Constitution of India, Code of Criminal Procedures (CrPC), Criminal laws, various laws related to rights of women like The Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) and Property laws. Recently we have extended these services to the suburban areas and now have consolidated the work of the PLVs and their role expectations while associating

with SNEHA in collaboration with DLSA. We have been conducting these trainings in Mumbai City and Mumbai Suburbs since 2017. More than 140 of our women volunteers have completed this training and are currently working as PLVs in the community, providing legal information and counseling to more women like Vanita.

One such successful intervention carried out by our PLV was with Sujata (name changed), a resident of a slum in Mumbai. Sujata was being harassed by her husband and so she had approached the PLV to seek guidance. The PLV referred Sujata to our Centre after realising the complexity of her situation. Sujata’s husband was abusive from the beginning of their marriage but being conditioned to accept the flaws of her husband she tolerated the violence. She began working as house help soon after marriage to provide for herself as her husband did not contribute to the household expenses. The violence aggravated after Sujata gave birth to a daughter, diagnose as autistic. We learned that she had been living separately from her husband for the last three years and that around a year ago she had bought a house. Her husband began visiting her and abusing her after learning about the house. She further informed us that he was pressuring her to give him the ownership of the house.

During the meetings, we also learned that Sujata’s sister, who lived nearby, cared for her daughter Radha (name changed), who couldn't walk or communicate, while Sujata went to work. Her sister’s granddaughter Varsha (age 10, name changed), used to spend time with Radha and take her to the park occasionally. Sujata’s husband visited Radha in the park and at her house in Sujata’s absence.

On several occasions, Varsha noticed him touching Radha inappropriately. After thorough consultation it was determined that Sujata’s husband had sexually abused Radha. SNEHA's lawyer spoke with Varsha to better comprehend what she had witnessed, and also explained The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) to Sujata. Thereafter, Sujata with the help of our team and PLV filed a case under the POCSO Act at the local police station. SNEHA’s lawyer worked as a watching advocate along with the public prosecutor during the court procedures. SNEHA's PLV accompanied Sujata to talk with the public prosecutor during the lockdown. She also guided Sujata in obtaining a hospital-issued medical certificate needed to enroll Radha in a special school. Sujata's husband was eventually convicted and sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment.

The Constitution of India recognises “Right to Equality'' as one of the fundamental rights. It was on this principle that the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) was established with its vision statement ‘Access to justice for all’. The main objective of the legal services authority is to provide free legal aid to the underprivileged and marginalised section of the society and DLSA was established in every district in order to operationalise this. On the occasion of National Legal Aid Day, celebrated on November 9th, we raise community awareness about these issues while keeping the Constitution the central point of discussion.

SNEHA has always been a critical part of discussions to frame legislations to reduce injustice through affirmative action and positive discrimination. We share the information about various legislations and hold discussions around framing of gender laws at the community level and with the various stakeholders like other NGOs, public health systems and the Police. We hope that our continued efforts towards building awareness and support within communities for women will result in change of perceptions, resulting in a more just gender equal world.