This was probably one of the most gut-wrenching traumatic days I have spent in a long while. It was worse for the women who spoke, but those of us who listened came out with our equanimity shattered.
I have been writing about women, about violence, about neglect, about inequality, about injustice, for more than three decades. Yet, on April 10, as I sat with a panel of four other women listening to woman after woman testifying to a people’s court, I saw how little has changed.
Laws have been changed but mindsets have not. New laws have come in. But their non-implementation is identical to what happened in the past. In other words, nothing has changed.
The jan suvai had been organised by Majlis and several other non-governmental organisations working with women on issues concerning sexual violence, divorce, maintenance, child abuse and related issues. The idea was to give women a chance to tell their stories, and then to strategise about what could be done to address their individual problems, as well as the larger systemic issues that their individual experiences exposed.
Around 40 of the 72 who had recorded their testimonies with the various groups came in person to speak. These were women cutting across community lines – Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Among them were middle-class white-collar workers as well as poor uneducated women doing odd jobs or working as domestics. What was common was that all of them were victims of domestic violence in one form or the other and all of them were seeking some form of justice from the criminal justice system. And had failed in doing so.
This is why they turned to an NGO, in the hope that this would give them some respite. But Majlis and the others narrated their frustration too at the many roadblocks on the way to getting justice for these women, many of them systemic, embedded in a corrupt and uncaring system where the word of a poor person, and particularly a poor woman, simply does not count.
By the end of the three hours, my ears were ringing and my hands were hurting from taking down notes. Each testimony was searing. But some I will never forget.
She is small built and spoke quietly, without any drama. She told us that her husband is an alcoholic, that he would beat her even when she was pregnant. As a result, she had an abortion. She described the house where she lived. There were two rooms. She, her husband and the child slept in one and her father-in-law in the other. One night she found her father-in-law in bed next to her, with his hand on her chest, even though her husband was asleep on the other side. When she shouted and woke up the latter, he refused to believe her.
She also narrated how she had weaned her daughter off the breast and got her used to drinking milk from a feeding bottle. One night, she found her husband had the two-year-old on his chest, and then saw him slowly lower her so that she could suck on his penis. She shouted at him but he continued. Finally, she went to the police and filed a case under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 or POCSO, by which it is mandatory for the police to register the offence. Despite this, the husband has not been arrested. She has also filed a case against her father-in-law for sexual harassment. But again, nothing has happened because the husband has contacts with the police through a local politician.
Then there is a dowry case. Who says the problem has disappeared? After she got married, this woman’s husband demanded a motorcycle. When her parents could not pay for it, she was beaten and left for days without food. He would tell her that the only reason he married her was for sex. She was beaten so badly, that she had to be admitted to hospital and all this within three years of her marriage. Her father had sold his shop to pay for the wedding and had nothing more to give. Finally, she was compelled to move out and go to her parents. Yet when this woman went to the police to register a case against the husband, the police wanted proof of how much money had been spent on the wedding and how much had been given to the bridegroom. She says she stood for 15 days in the police chowki and they still did not take down her complaint. “Sometimes we went there are 12 midnight and stayed till three in the morning, waiting,” she said. Instead of helping or taking down her complaint, the police keep sending her to another police station.
Even if the police do not help, under provisions of the Domestic Violence Act, the designated Protection Officer should come to the aid of such women. Yet several women spoke of how the officer told her that they never take note of a complaint the first time it comes and tell women to go back and try and work it out. Even if they went with a social worker, the latter was shouted at and insulted.
One of the most heart-rending cases was that of a four-year-girl who had been raped. When the family found her, and realised what had happened, they went to the police to register a complaint and took the child to the hospital. It took them hours to get the medical examination done. The child was traumatised and exhausted. A few weeks later, she was raped again. This time, she refused to let the doctors touch her when they wanted to examine her. The mother was asked to sign a document saying that “the victim” would not cooperate. The little girl’s sister, who narrated all this, appeared equally traumatised. How can she believe that there is justice in the world if a little baby is put through this kind of treatment after being assaulted?
There were many more testimonies but there is a thread that runs through all of them.
First, the nature of the horrific violence they experience in their homes is virtually indescribable. One woman spoke of how her husband went out and bought leather belts to beat her and that her children had to apply balm to the welts on her back. Yet despite the relentless nature of such violence, and even after filing cases, many of these women have nowhere to go and choose to live in the matrimonial home because of their children. In one case, the abusive husband would enter the house, sit near the door, douse himself with kerosene and threaten to set himself and the entire family on fire if they complained.
Second, in almost every instance, when they did go and try to register a complaint with the police, most often because there was a social worker around to help, they were routinely told to go back and settle the matter as it was a domestic issue. At most, the police would take down an NC – non-cognisable – complaint whereby the abusive husband cannot be detained or arrested.
Third, even those who succeeded in filing cases, and sought help through the free legal aid service that was available, got no relief. The lawyers assigned to their cases were indifferent, inefficient and often demanded money. Most of them could not afford private lawyers and their exorbitant fees.
Fourth, under the Domestic Violence Act, Protection Officers are assigned to handle such cases. In Mumbai, these POs, although still not in adequate numbers, have been given extensive training and sensitisation courses. Yet, they continue to be rude and indifferent to the complainants, sending them home and telling them that they never register a first complaint. The women say that both the police and the Protection Officers seem to only care if a woman is either near death, or dead.
Fifth, the experience in hospitals is as bad as that at police stations. There is a long delay before a medical examination is held, the victims are made to run around from one place to another and sometimes even turned away. The entire process, including having to narrate details of the attack to the doctor, with others listening, makes the victim revisit the trauma several times over. And although there are funds now for one-stop crisis centres, these exist mostly on paper.
I might add here that the media has failed to bring out sufficiently these systemic problems in the justice delivery system in cases of violence against women. Some select cases are reported in depth, but the widespread prevalence of this problem doesn’t impinge on people because these issues are simply not reported.
For instance, there is hardly any reporting on dowry harassment or dowry deaths. If you skim through the print media, you might well believe that the giving and taking of dowry, and the torture of women in connection with dowry, has lessened. But clearly, this is not the case. In the 1980s, the anti-dowry campaign by women’s groups, after many young women were killed within days and months of being married, brought to light the horrific nature of this crime. It remains condemnable even today, and needs to be monitored, reported and stopped.
It is a subject that is waiting for follow up by sensitive journalists who care about the lives of women, and who expect it a worthwhile cause to expose injustice.
A version of this article first appeared on Kalpana Sharma’s blog.