Non-governmental organisations never have it easy. They are dismissed as peripheral if they work individually, detached from the government, to effect change. And if they try to make a difference by working with the government, they are damned as sell-outs.

In India, the women’s movement has always been characterised by its demands for legal reforms, which led to amendments in the rape law in the 1980s and in 2013 following the Delhi gang-rape. Sadly, the movement’s constant demand has been trailed by the constant refrain that laws do not work, that the system has failed.

Victims of domestic and sexual violence place immense faith in the justice system and when this system lets them down it is an ultimate betrayal. As Justice Prabha Sridevan, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, said at an event to mark 25 years of the feminist group Majlis, “Unless the system works for women, we will not see any change.”

This is the principle that governs the work of Majlis Legal Centre, which has been attacked in an open letter by the founder trustee and Executive Director of Majlis.

The letter, which accuses the Legal Centre of “becoming an arm of the state”, has hurt the sentiments of the young feminists who joined the group to ensure that women and children secure justice as mandated under the law. A dynamic team of over 30 women lawyers and activists believe that the letter lacks an understanding of the work we do and the depth of our intervention. Can helping the implementers of the law perform their roles better be termed “becoming an arm of the state”?

Working with the State

Initially, we at the Legal Centre were content with representing individual victims of domestic and sexual violence, but the scope of those interventions was limited. They did not ensure a systemic change in any way. We realised bitterly that after a successful campaign to bring in new laws, comes the painstaking effort of making the laws work on the ground.

So, instead of settling for the relatively easy service provider model and creating more centres, we chose the more challenging path of working with the implementers of the law. We decided to teach them the nuances of the legal provisions to bring about a change from within the system.

We tentatively entered this new area in 2010, and laboriously learnt the ropes of making state functionaries work for women. It was a herculean task as compared to protesting from the outside against police inaction or writing articles about adverse comments by the judiciary.

Initially, it was difficult to gain entry into the corridors of state administration, police bureaucracy and the trial courts. Apart from a general mistrust about allowing NGOs entry into the criminal legal system, there was also an arrogance among the state functionaries that they knew best.

But slowly, one step at a time, we worked our way through the labyrinthine corridors of power. Our sound legal knowledge and unshakable determination helped us through this process. When the Mumbai police invited us to train their officers on provisions of the new statutes after recent amendments to the rape law, we were happy to respond. At the same time, we stipulated that we would monitor the impact of the training and if there were lapses, they should be dealt with stringently so that a clear message goes down. This formula facilitated a rigorous monitoring of state functionaries at all levels within the criminal justice system.

Failings of the system

In the last four years, the Legal Centre’s rape survivor support programme has walked over 600 victims through their rape trials and while doing so has held the State accountable at every step of the way. This has led to positive outcomes for the victims and helped restore their faith in the system.

Though the issue of rape has been in constant limelight, very few people know what exactly transpires during a closed-door rape trial – the derogative manner in which adolescent girls are cross-examined and their dignity violated; how even the minimum protection of a screen to shield the victim from the direct gaze of the accused is not followed; how young children are perched on the railing of the witness box for hours together so that the judge seated on a high podium can hear their deposition; how victims faint while giving evidence out of sheer anxiety and fatigue.

Without knowing these failings of the system, it is not possible to change it.

There is another fine balance that one has to strike. For instance, while we provided support to both victims in the famous Shakti Mills case and worked closely with the prosecution and the police, we were the only ones to expose the way the mothers of the four accused were humiliated in a packed courtroom. It was us who exposed how the prosecution had stage-managed the trial to secure a death penalty. How could we do this if we were not working closely with the system?

We are at a vantage point – we stand outside the bounds of the State and ensure that it fulfils its mandate. We make sure that it provides support to the victims and maintains their dignity while they go through the harrowing journey through the legal system. My message of solace to my team as they come to terms with the backlash is: “Let your work speak for itself”.

The writer is the Director of Majlis.