BENGALURU: A home is supposed to be a safe, nurturing and loving space — and yet for many women it is no less than a battleground where every day they have to try and find a way to cope with the harassment and abuse unleashed on them by those closest to them. Whereas there is a strong law in place to safeguard the rights and interests of those facing violence at the hands of their spouse as well as other members of their natal and marital families, a decade has gone by and still only a few women are able to get the relief and justice they deserve.

“Not many women are able to use The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (DV Act) 2005, to get the help they need to free themselves from an abusive, violent situation at home. It is, therefore, essential to encourage them to access and benefit from this powerful legislation. That should be a priority for the police, lawyers, judiciary, healthcare professionals, social workers, counsellors, relevant government officers and the media as well,” urges Rekha Shetty, a Bengaluru-based lawyer working with the Human Rights Law Network.

Shetty, who has been litigating in Karnataka for many years especially in cases of domestic violence, was part of a discussion focused on finding ways to strengthen the grassroots implementation of the DV Act, organised by Breakthrough, a human rights organisation working across India to make violence and discrimination against girls and women unacceptable. According to her, the law in itself is woman-friendly. For instance, as the Act looks at domestic violence as a civil offence, it is easier to give evidence, obtain compensation and even punishment or penalty. Additionally, it can be applied to brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, parents-in-law, brothers-in-law or sisters-in-law or others in the immediate family who trouble or attack a woman or girl verbally, sexually, emotionally, economically, psychologically or physically. Moreover, the aggrieved woman cannot be evicted from her home. Yet, the percentage of women using this strong legislation to seek succour is miniscule owing to several factors including social stigma, the lack of awareness, social support and self-confidence, absence of financial backing or livelihood options and an insensitive police and judiciary.

Of course, in the event that a survivor does make up her mind to file a formal complaint, the chinks in the system do end up creating different problems for her. For example, the law mandates appointing protection officers to assist girls and women experiencing domestic violence. However, they are unavailable between evening and early morning when such incidents usually happen. Indeed, many protection officers have jurisdictional limitations, insufficient legal awareness and resource shortages. Then, the doctors examining survivors rarely file complete reports fearing repercussions and court summons. And as a 2010 study conducted by Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, a women’s rights organisation in Bengaluru, points out, the counselling services and government homes for distressed women are quite unsatisfactory. Also, sadly, the Act is not applicable to boys and transpersons who are vulnerable to experiencing domestic violence at the hands of their parents or partners.

Sumitra Acharya, a litigator and legal scholar, who handles cases of violence against women, explains whereas there is no FIR required to file a case under the DV Act, a Domestic Incidence Report (DIR), with details about the survivor, perpetrator and the episodes of domestic violence, has to be duly filled by the protection officer. Acharya reveals how marginalised women survivors receive minimal assistance from the state legal services authority although it must provide them free counsel. In fact, it frequently deputes inexperienced and uninterested lawyers for them. Such persons typically prolong cases by a year or more, by absenting themselves from court appearances. Further, they and many other lawyers believe that sexual violence is a personal issue and do not question the perpetrator about it. Acharya and rights activists opine that even women police personnel and judges show sexism perhaps because they are up against their largely misogynist male counterparts.

Yamuna Devi, a Hyderabad-based domestic worker in her forties, has “suffered because of the greed and insensitivity of corrupt police personnel” when she filed a complaint against her late husband, Gautam Kumar. She elaborates, “My complaint regarding his regular and extreme physical violence and verbal abuse towards me and my younger daughter was ignored because Gautam managed to give the local police money to look the other way. Even when my two daughters and I moved into another house he would trace our location and threaten us. Fortunately, a few of my employers sheltered me and my children in their homes and offered us moral support when he tried to kill me. Eventually, he succumbed to alcoholism.”

Be it the working class Yamuna Devi or Janet V., a young woman in Bangaluru, whose wealthy parents married her off when she was in the second year of her undergraduate degree programme, their struggles and lived realities are pretty much the same because domestic violence is an affliction that does not discriminate on the basis of age, education or social and economic status.

In Janet’s case initially things were fine with her husband even though she had to give up her studies at the insistence of her marital family and stay at home. Later, their relationship went south because of his extremely suspicious nature. As the violence and harassment escalated, Janet informed her parents but they advised her to ‘adjust’ as best as she could. She finally got help when a friend she had confided in put her in touch with Vimochana, a human rights organisation that reaches out to women in distress. After some intensive counselling, Janet mustered the courage to divorce her husband, finish her education and start working.

Most domestic violence survivors rarely reconcile with their abusive partners. But Firdaus, 30, is an exception because the mandatory counselling managed to bring in respite in a timely and sensitive manner. The Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, based woman shares her story candidly, “I come from a financially disadvantaged family in Varanasi. My mother, sisters and I used to string flowers for a living while my father did carpentry work whenever possible. At the advice of a local social worker my eldest sister Rameeza Banu relocated to Lucknow to join at a non-profit organisation that assists women and girls in crisis. After she moved, I too married a man of my choice and shifted base to Lucknow around five years ago. My husband, Mohsin, who runs an automobile repair service, treated me well for the initial two years of our marriage when I remained a homemaker. However, once our child was born two years later he would often beat me badly for flimsy reasons. Unable to bear the torture, I left him and started living with Rameeza. Around then, I joined Humsafar, a support centre for women in Lucknow, as an administrative assistant. With my colleagues’ encouragement, I learnt financial accounting. I was able to get my life back on track without any help from my husband.” Today, she has reunited with her husband after he promised never to repeat the violence. Being the strong, independent woman she has become, Firdaus took the decision to be with him because she knows he cannot push her around anymore. So far, Mohsin, too, has kept his word.

The experiences of women like Yamuna, Janet and Firdaus have important learnings – but the one thing that most activists impress upon is the need to speak up. Kanmani M. of Breakthrough concludes, “We strongly believe that even a simple intervention like ringing the doorbell of a home, where someone is being subjected to domestic violence, can make a difference. It signifies that the woman is not alone.”

( Women's Feature Service)