Over a month after being appointed as the chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, Susieben Shah talks about the various limitations in the functioning of the body and its plan of action for effectively dealing with cases of atrocities against women. At an Idea Exchange moderated by Stuti Shukla, Shah talks about the range of cases received by the commission.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: What kind of cases have come up in the first 40 days of your stint in office? And where are the complaints largely from?
The commission deals with a wide range of cases ranging from petty fights to larger issues such as bride burning. Largely, complaints are received from Mumbai and Pune, as a lady from Nagpur will not be able to reach us due to the distance. Therefore, we need divisional headquarters. We also need to start periodic benches at the divisional offices, which will provide women access to proper legal procedures. Implementation of laws is our aim. In the entire plethora of governance, women’s issues are getting sidelined.
STUTI SHUKLA: The commission has quickly cleared a part of its large backlog of cases. How do you react to criticism that cases are disposed of without proper hearing?
A due process is involved in hearing and disposing a case. It cannot be done in four days or one hearing. In cases where the matter is already in court, our role cannot be higher than the law and hence we have to dispose them of.
STUTI SHUKLA: How often do the police not act as per the commission’s order?
A large number of complaints we receive from women are against police apathy in lodging complaints. But, things are likely to change now after the government came out with a GR asking the police to immediately file an FIR in case a woman complaints.
MIHIKA BASU: Do you think that the commission should have more powers to take action against the guilty? Is there a follow up mechanism?
That will set up a parallel body. If the Women’s Commission is given the role of any of the three existing arms – legislature, executive and judiciary – a parallel system will be formed. As a commission, we have teeth but it is a recommendatory body without executive or prosecution powers. It has the authority of a civil court. I can summon people for hearings and pass orders which have some sanctity in the court of law. Hence, the commission has no choice but to take help from the existing government machinery. On February 15, we will hold a consultation of all the stakeholders, including NGOs and media.
TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA: The helplines for women are only functional in urban areas. What about women in rural areas?
We have already taken up the matter with the Women and Child Development Department and the police. The existing helpline has also failed to be utilised to the fullest because of technical issues.
SUKANYA SHANTHA: Women’s commission is supposed to keep aside biases. In that context, how do you perceive member Asha Mirge’s comment that women should be dressed properly to avoid being assaulted?
It was a very unfortunate and un-called for statement made by her at a political function of the NCP. I immediately asked her to apologise for the statement publicly. Even if you have the mechanism at your disposal, how does one change mindsets? It is difficult.
SHALINI NAIR: Do you think reservation for women in politics will be a game changer?
Women constitute less than five per cent of candidates of all political parties. Reservation, therefore, is important. Parties think about the aspect of winnability of women’s candidates and hence not many seats are given to women. There is criticism about proxy women candidates, but this is slowly changing, especially in rural areas where strong women leaders are emerging.
SANDEEP ASHAR: A number of deserving women candidates from the Congress and NCP are not given tickets because daughters of politicians are preferred.
That is not completely true, because a lot of them do not come forward to contest elections. I cannot divulge names of women candidates, but I can say that women candidates from the Congress will be fielded in the parliamentary elections.
SHARVARI PATWA: What is your view on banning mannequins displaying lingerie, a stand taken by a woman corporator?
Banning everything is not a solution. But, in this case, mannequins can be displayed a little discreetly.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: What is your view on women policy?
I think it is great. Each department will be answerable at the end of the year on how much money they used on women empowerment. All these things are processes, the impact of it cannot come in a day.
SAGNIK CHOWDHURY: Does the commission have a take on dance bars?
A woman should have the right to do whatever she wants. How can I stop a woman from professing whatever she wants? She has her own fundamental rights.
STUTI SHUKLA: 50 per cent complaints received by the commission are related to domestic violence. So how quickly are the cases disposed of?
We need to understand what the woman wants. If she wants to live with her husband then we have to take a separate course of action. The commission is largely about what a woman wants. If she wants separation then we ensure she gets police security.
SHALINI NAIR: How do you deal with cases of marital rape?
Dealing with cases of marital rape is very difficult. So far, no case has been reported to us. But, it is difficult to assess. More than that, woman are promised marriage but the man then leaves them. That is when we lodge an FIR and intervene. Also, an FIR should be very strong and we counsel women on those lines.
SRINATH RAO:In your workshops on gender sensitisation, what kind of reluctance do you come across from the police?
Unlearning is difficult. It is usually a four-day training schedule with the help of the inspector general. Changing mindsets is a long process.
SANDEEP ASHAR: In terms of the implementation of the Vishaka guidelines, where sexual harassment at workplaces are concerned, we have a report which states that there is a rise by 355 per cent. What is the commission’s take on it?
That is why I have arranged for a panel discussion with NGOs. It is not only the commission who can work on it. The police also need to keep a check on it. All stakeholders need to work on it.
MAYURA JANWALKAR: The In-Vitro Fertility industry is not governed by anyone. The women are not protected by any law or act.
There are no guidelines so far, it is a grey area. It is a complex issue that needs to be debated. These policies cannot be implemented easily, it requires a lot of discussion.
SHALINI NAIR: There was a draft that ensured minimum wages for domestic workers, but nothing has been done regarding it.
It is very difficult to arrive at a minimum wage for domestic workers. There are so many variable factors. A part of the unorganised sector is frequent change in employers. It is very complicated. They need to get organised. At present, we are getting them registered under the welfare board so that we get a count to work on. There will be no minimum wage, but some provision will be made for them.
(Transcribed by Stuti Shukla & Tabassum Barnagarwala)