For the first 14 years of her marriage, Amina (name changed) had a satisfactory life. A teacher from a Mumbai suburb, she earned a decent living at school and cared for her husband and three children at home. But things changed in 2007 when her husband unexpectedly lost his job. As he grew insecure and resentful of his working wife, Amina found herself at the receiving end of increasing emotional and mental abuse. Over the years, he also abused her physically.

In 2010, distraught by her husband’s threats of throwing her and the children out of their house, Amina finally drew up the courage to step out and seek justice. Her first stop was the local police station, where she sought to report the domestic violence. On multiple occasions, the police would note down her complaint, detain her husband for a night and let him go the next morning.

With the help of a friend, Amina then reached out to Majlis, a feminist legal aid organisation in Mumbai. Following the processes of the Domestic Violence Act, the lawyers at Majlis drafted a domestic incident report, or a DIR, recording the specific incidences of violence that Amina had faced. They filed an application in the local magistrate’s court and after numerous ups and downs, in January 2012, the court passed interim orders in Amina’s favour. The order gave Amina and her children the right to live in their home, and directed her husband to pay her Rs 6,000 per month as maintenance for their children.

Under the Domestic Violence Act, a court can appoint a protection officer to enforce its orders. The protection officer is a special post created to serve as a liaison between victims of domestic violence and the system. But when Amina was assigned one such officer, she realised that the process would not be as smooth as the law made it appear.

Amina had to make multiple phone calls to reach the protection officer to secure an appointment. She turned up at the officer’s zonal office on the scheduled day and time, only to wait for over an hour. For Majlis, this was a familiar story. “Given our past experience where victims are made to wait indefinitely, we asked Amina to directly call the DWCD officer [the protection officer’s boss],” said Audrey D’Mello, a lawyer at Majlis.

Calling the District Women and Child Development officer proved effective for Amina, who finally received the protection officer’s help to enforce the court’s orders. Her case is now close to conclusion, but had she not received help from an established social organisation like Majlis, her experience with the protection officer could have been much more unpleasant.

“Protection officers are often missing from office under the guise of field work, and ask women to visit repeatedly,” said D’Mello. “They often lack sensitivity and make victims run from pillar to post.”

According to Majlis, such problems are the reason why the majority of domestic violence victims prefer to report their cases through a private lawyer instead of a free, state-appointed protection officer.

Who are protection officers?

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was introduced in 2005 after women’s groups campaigned for nearly two decades for a law that recognises forms of domestic violence beyond dowry harassment. It is a pioneering law because it recognises not just physical violence against women, but also emotional, verbal, sexual and economic violence. It recognises that women can be abused in any kind of domestic relationship, and that they have a right to live a life free from such violence.

The law is also unique because it does not compel women to file criminal cases of domestic violence. Even without a police case, a complaint under the Domestic Violence Act enables a woman to seek protection, maintenance, custody of children, compensation and rights to a “shared household”.

The post of the protection officer is one of the most crucial provisions of the Domestic Violence Act. It is meant to help aggrieved women connect with the courts, the police and various support services. According to the rules prescribed under the Act, state governments must appoint at least one protection officer in the jurisdiction of every judicial magistrate. Protection officers can be members of either government or non-governmental organisations, with at least three years of experience in the social sector, but they must preferably be women.

Approaching a protection officer is not compulsory for any woman trying to file a domestic violence complaint – she has the option of directly approaching a magistrate through a lawyer. However, if a complainant first approaches the police, a court, a hospital, shelter home or non-governmental organisation, these stakeholders are required to put the woman in touch with a protection officer.

The officer’s primary duty is to inform the woman of her rights and prepare a detailed domestic incident report. It is the protection officer’s job to ensure that the woman and her children are not victimised or pressurised during the filing of the domestic incident report, and are connected with medical, shelter home and other support services. If the court orders it, the protection officer is also expected to conduct home visits, write economic status reports and help the woman regain custody of her children or belongings from the abusive home.

While the duties of protection officers are clearly chalked out in the Domestic Violence Act, their functioning on the ground is riddled with problems that often make the experience of reporting violence more harrowing for women.

Different states, different rules

The Domestic Violence Act may have been introduced 12 years ago, but the implementation of its provisions was not taken up uniformly across the country.

In Maharashtra, consistent advocacy by social work organisations like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences has ensured that the government has now appointed as many as 216 permanent, full-time protection officers across the state, with their own zonal offices and assistants. To qualify for the post in Maharashtra, protection officers are required to be graduates who must also clear a special entrance test.

But in many other states, protection officers were not appointed even years after the Act came into force. Today, everything from their qualifications to the nature of their appointments can differ from state to state.

“Sometimes protection officers are law graduates, in some cases they are undergraduate degree holders, sometimes they are experienced social workers,” said a spokesperson from Lawyers Collective, a human rights and legal aid organisation headquartered in Delhi. “The number of POs [protection officers] also depends from state to state. Some have very few POs while other states have too many people given that responsibility.”

According to Jagori, an organisation that offers support services to women, Delhi has a glaring gap between the number of protection officers appointed – one for each of its 11 districts – and the number of domestic violence cases the state has to deal with. “At least 25 DV [domestic violence] cases are heard in Delhi courts every day,” said a Jagori spokesperson who wished to remain anonymous. “Despite this, POs [protection officers] work part-time, not full-time. And they are also given other responsibilities by the Women and Child Development department.”

Under the Domestic Violence Act, protection officers are meant to be full-time workers, but Delhi is not the only state where this rule is flouted. In Chhattisgarh, protection officers are often lawyers hired on a part-time, contractual basis.

Attention divided

This is not the only problem, however. Even if protection officers are full-time government officials, they are rarely allowed to devote their complete attention to cases of domestic violence.

In many states, existing government officials are burdened with the additional charge of being protection officers. “For example in Rajasthan, the CDPO [Child Development Protection Officer] is given the additional responsibility of a PO [protection officer],” said the Lawyers Collective spokesperson.

Other states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, West Bengal, Haryana and Tamil Nadu have appointed independent protection officers, whose primary job is supposed to be handling domestic violence cases, but they too are often loaded with secondary responsibilities.

A protection officer in Maharashtra, who did not wish to be identified, did not deny that she and her colleagues perform other government duties outside the purview of the Domestic Violence Act. “We do other government work too, but if there is an emergency domestic violence case that needs immediate attention, of course that will be our priority,” the protection officer said.

For victims of domestic violence, the divided attention of protection officers means that they face undue delays in the process of filing a complaint. “On some occasions, just filling and submitting the main form has taken 60 days,” said D’Mello of Majlis, referring to her experiences with protection officers in Mumbai.

But delays are not the only reason why many women approach private lawyers instead of protection officers to file domestic violence complaints.

A ‘save the family’ attitude

To begin with, most people are not even aware of the existence of protection officers. Since violence is typically regarded as a criminal offence, the first stop for most women is the police station. And the police is either unaware of protection officers themselves, or end up filing a criminal case of cruelty under Section 498A – if they do file a case at all.

“Most people who come to the police station with domestic violence complaints end up wanting to settle their cases off-paper,” said a female police officer at Mumbai’s Bandra police station, under the condition of anonymity. “Women ask us to lock up their husbands for a night, and then go back to them. If we beat the husbands, the women themselves ask us to stop after a while. They are Indian wives after all.”

According to this police officer, the few women who do want to take their cases forward usually don’t want the police to refer them to a protection officer. “I don’t know why, but they trust private lawyers more.”

D’Mello has list of reasons to explain why women are weary of going to protection officers. She said that some protection officers are themselves not clear about the procedures under the law. “They ask for documents when not needed, and don’t interact with necessary stakeholders,” said D’Mello. “The quality of the direct incident reports is often not good enough.”

Besides, not all of them fulfil their role of making home visits or draw up economic status reports properly. They often don’t have information on jobs, vocational courses and other services women may need. “Maharashtra has appointed a large number of POs [protection officers] and spent a lot of money for their infrastructure, but where is the accountability?”

In addition to all these specific problems, there is also the larger attitudinal problem that plagues the Domestic Violence Act. D’Mello describes the Act as a “make the marriage work” law, where the state is often more concerned about preserving the Indian family than the condition of the woman. Protection officers, then, are not exempt from the attitude. “Because of their ‘save the family’ attitude, they don’t always file women’s complaints,” she said.