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'The domestic violence law restores equality'

By Sheela Bhatt
November 02, 2006 13:46 IST
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Indira Jaising is a well-known Supreme Court lawyer and women's activist. For 16 years she has been at the forefront of a battle to help all women who have been victims of domestic violence.

She used her experience of the law to help give back dignity to women who were abused in their own homes.

In an exclusive interview with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt she speaks of how her dream was fulfilled when the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 was implemented by the government.

The prevention of domestic violence law explained

Can you tell us the most difficult part of your struggle to get this Act passed?

The struggle goes back more than 16 years. The most difficult part was to convince law makers and policy makers that such a thing exists. They did not know that something like domestic violence needed to be dealt with by law. The words 'domestic violence' did not exist in Indian law.

It is true that we did have section 498A in the Indian Penal Code which deals with cruelty to a married woman. However, there was no explicit definition of domestic violence. There was no explanation that verbal, emotional and sexual abuse is also violence. For them, violence meant only beating a woman, that that too severe and repeated beating.

Can you please help us demystify the Act? The general perception is that now victims of domestic violence will get justice. Is it so?

Existing laws relating to the family favors men, in terms of the economic imbalance in the relationship. Men are the earners and woman stay at home as home makers. This is slowly changing and more and more women are working now. But the mindset of people in society is that women are subordinate to men. This is true of all classes of society.

Look at the language that is being used in the media about the Page 3 types. Women are referred to as 'arm candy'. Violence is a manifestation of this inequality. This act therefore restores equality when it says 'Stop violence against women'.

When supporters of the Act claim it recognises the inequality within the home what do you mean by that? How is this Act creating the 'coordinated response'?

What we mean by coordinated responses is that all branches of government, must coordinate their efforts to stop violence. They must work in partnership with civil society to send out the message that violence in the home must stop. In particular judges, police, social workers, non-governmental organisations and the medical community must work in a supportive way.

Can you explain who and what are the new authorities and mechanisms the law introduces?

The law introduces Protection Officers as people who will assist the court in implementing the Act. Ideally, these should be sensitive qualified social workers. They will have to make sure that the relief given by the court actually gets to the woman. The complaint against our laws is that they are never implemented.

You cannot expect women facing violence to implement laws They need to be assisted to restore themselves to a situation of self confidence and good mental health. They need access to information. They need someone to assist them in accessing their rights. I have no idea if Protection Officers will be appointed and when.

However, even without a Protection Officer, a woman can use this Act and take the help of a service provider such as an NGO.

How does a woman get to decide between civil and criminal law, and why is this important?

Criminal law exists to take care of crime against anyone. If a woman is a victim of a crime, the law will deal with the perpetrator. This new Act offers her stop violence orders, compensation orders, maintenance orders and the right not to be thrown out of the shared household.

You need to know that not only married women, but also mothers facing violence from sons, sisters from brothers or fathers, widows and live in partners are also covered by this law.

What are the provisions which the average woman should keep it in mind?

An average woman must first of all remember that she has a right to be free from violence. This itself is empowering.

The first form of help is self help. She must know that she cannot be thrown out of the shared household. She must be aware of her finances and of the finances of her partner.

Many women sign documents presented to them by their partners in trust and then find out that they have been deprived of their assets or rights. This they must avoid. They must learn something about finance, accounts and taxation.

I do not want to suggest that they must become greedy but remember that they too are contributing to the family income, even if they are not employed. Household work as important as any other work.

What are the legal implications? Is this an update on previous laws, if so, how does this improve earlier efforts?

This law is in addition to other laws. It is an improvement or two. It defines domestic violence to include all form of violence and it provides a right to reside in the shared household. It provides accessible remedies and empowers judges to grant injunctions restraining violence.

What are the punishments prescribed? Which courts will deal with it?

This is a civil law. The relief is civil relief. But if a civil court order is violated, that is an offence for which a man can be punished. The court to approach is the magistrate's court. This provision has been made to make the courts accessible to women at a place close to where they reside.

If a person is victimised, how does she take recourse to this law -- in the sense of, does she file an FIR herself, is there a special authority to approach, etc?

She has several options. She can file a Domestic Incident Report with the police, or with the Protection Officer, or with a registered service provider (NGO). But she need not do any of this. She can directly file a complaint with a magistrate who will deal with it.

Do you have any idea about domestic abuse among NRIs?

The commonest problem is marring a woman in India and then taking her to another country, normally the US and then sending her back with no visa to get back. It is a major problem which the government is looking into. Inter-governmental agreements are being worked out. In my opinion, such men should be kicked out of the US and sent back home to face the consequences.

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Sheela Bhatt