7 Jun

More and more women are turning to the Domestic Violence Act, even though it continues to be hamstrung by a lack of adequate resources. Hemchhaya De reports ,The Telegraph Kolkatta

Saira, 25, saw her dreams coming true when she moved to Mumbai from Calcutta after her marriage. But after a few months, trouble started brewing in her marital life. When she became pregnant, her husband asked her to abort the foetus. Or else, he said, he would divorce her. Saira obliged.

But this was not the end of her plight. When she became pregnant again, she was made to undergo an abortion one more time. Then, after she became pregnant for the third time, her husband asked her to move to her parents’ home in Calcutta and get an abortion done once again. Her parents’ pleas to their son-in-law to let Saira return to her marital home fell on deaf ears.

Saira has decided to file a case against her husband under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. Despite the trauma she has been subjected to, the 25-year-old doesn’t want her marriage to break up and wants to move back to her Mumbai home.

Rita, 26, doesn’t want a divorce either. She just wants her husband and in-laws to recognise her right to stay in her marital home. Both she and her husband are doctors. She has to live through mental torture from her in-laws who never fail to point out that it’s their home and she has to either abide by their rules or move out. Yet her husband doesn’t want to live away from his parents. Rita has sought legal counselling and filed a case under the Domestic Violence Act.

Seema, who’s in her late 50s, is also planning to file a case under the Act against her husband who has just retired from work. Her husband bought a flat after retirement, but he locked it up and told his wife that they didn’t need such a big flat. He rented a room in a building and asked her to shift there. Seema has been staying there on her own. Her husband never visits her; nor does he allow her access to the new flat, which she co-owns.

Saira, Rita and Seema are potential beneficiaries of a landmark section of the Domestic Violence Act, which came into effect in 2006. Section 17 (1) of the Act says, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, every woman in a domestic relationship shall have the right to reside in the shared household, whether or not she has any right, title or beneficial interest in the same.”

Thanks to efforts made by non governmental organisations, women activists and lawyers, awareness of the Act is spreading slowly but steadily across some parts of the country.

“The Domestic Violence Act is a path-breaking law in many respects. It recognises several forms of domestic violence — physical torture, mental torture and, more importantly, economic violence,” says Manabendra Mandal, executive director, Socio-legal Aid Research and Training Centre (SLARTC), Calcutta, one of the 11 ‘service providers’ in the state. Under the law, service providers are tasked with helping victims of domestic violence with legal aid, temporary shelter and medical and financial assistance.

Mandal reveals that over the past few months they have been increasingly receiving cases filed under the Act, either from protection officers or from district magistrates.

The law stipulates that a state government is to appoint a required number of protection officers for each district in the state. They can be either government employees or members of NGOs with a minimum experience of three years in the social sector. For instance, there are two protection officers for Calcutta while there is one officer for each of the other districts. Among other things, protection officers are required to help the magistrate in discharging his duties as specified under the Act, receive complaints of domestic violence, take preventive or emergency action and facilitate the aggrieved person’s access to legal processes and other services. A woman can approach a protection officer in her district directly with her complaint.

Though activists argue that the law is still hamstrung by the lack of an adequate number of protection officers and service providers, others say that even then there has been a marked increase in the number of cases registered under the Act. Says Moushumi Kundu, protection officer, Hooghly district, “There is definitely a lot more awareness now about the law even in the rural pockets of my district, thanks mainly to awareness campaigns carried out by some NGOs.” Kundu reveals that about six months ago, there was only one registered case in the Serampore subdivision of Hooghly. But now the number is 20. “On an average, we have around 250 registered cases under this Act in Hooghly alone. The number can vary from one district to another. But in most places the number is more or less the same.”

Data collected through various sources show that there are now 15,320 cases registered under the Domestic Violence Act in India. That figure may look encouraging, showing as it does that more and more women are coming forward to avail of this law. But activists feel that this does not really amount to progress. “This is nothing if we consider that women account for as much as 50 per cent of the our billion-strong population,” says Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research (CSR), New Delhi. She adds that the funds allocated for implementing the Act are still very meagre in many states. “In states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, it’s as little as Rs 3-4 lakh per annum. Andhra Pradesh has the highest allocation — Rs 10 crore,” she says.

“In an interesting development, while the number of cases registered under the Domestic Violence Act is on the rise, there may be a decline in the number of cases being registered under Section 498A of the IPC in some states. (Section 498A is a criminal law to punish dowry offenders.) Of course, this can also imply that the police are not discharging their duties properly in 498A cases,” says Soumya Bhaumick, consultant, CSR.

But though the Domestic Violence Act seems to be helping women, some point out that it is early days yet. Flavia Agnes, lawyer and women’s activist associated with a Mumbai-based women’s organisation called Majlis, cautions against media hype over the Act. “It’s true that many NGOs are raising awareness among victims. But this awareness is not really getting translated into more judicial orders,” she says. The appointment of protection officers is also erratic, she says. “In states like Maharashtra, the appointment of protection officers is quite irregular.”

Majlis activists will organise a workshop for women lawyers and service providers in Mumbai this week to do a reality check on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act. The Centre for Social Research will also take part in a training programme for service providers in Calcutta.

Clearly, this is one law that needs to be constantly monitored at the implementation level to make sure that women can root out violence from their homes.


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