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We have the law. To what effect?

Parliament has passed the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Bill. We can pat ourselves that as a nation we have risen to ‘prot...

Written by Nirmala Sitharaman |
October 12, 2005

Parliament has passed the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Bill. We can pat ourselves that as a nation we have risen to ‘protect’ women, this time from domestic violence. However, can the legislation in the present form offer any extra protection to women?

The worst form of harassment is the condition which some women are subjected to in their homes. In our country, a woman enters a marital home leaving her maternal household. Most Indian women are conditioned “to enter and adjust” to this new surrounding. Many others face difficulties. It is here that they need protection. The abuse a woman undergoes — physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic — are rightly brought under the rubric of “domestic violence.” But the debate is about how effective, in practice, will be the protection envisaged by this bill.

This bill allows any person to give information in good faith about domestic violence without any civil or criminal liability. This will help in situations where the aggrieved woman is unable to reach for help. The information is to be given to a police officer, protection officer, a notified service provider (NGO) or magistrate. They, in turn are expected to brief the aggrieved woman of her right to seek shelter, home, legal aid, medical services, or file a complaint under section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. This is where the effectiveness of yet another well-intended law for the well-being of women becomes doubtful.

Prior to this bill, a policeperson and/or the Department of Women and Child can extend assistance of such nature and kind. But do they? In several cases, they do. The difficulty is that this task is one of the several other things they are expected to do. To get over this difficulty, this bill relies on the appointment of Protection Officers in every district.

Let us look at the implementation of the Dowry Prohibition Act. The state governments are expected to appoint an officer in each district for the purpose. Invariably, the revenue officers double up as Dowry Prohibition Officers (DPO). In reality, the aggrieved invariably seek police help, not the DPOs. What the DPO can do that a policewoman cannot is unclear.

The remedy suggested by the legislation constrains its effectiveness much more severely. If the aggrieved woman seeks legal remedy for the violence she underwent, it suggests section 498A of the IPC as the panacea. Several advocates feel that once action is initiated on a complaint under section 498(A) reconciliation becomes impossible.

About the pendency of cases in courts, the less said the better. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, a third of all the pending cases related to “atrocities on women” as on June 30 2005 are those under sections 498 and 498(A). In the first six months this year, 3801 new cases under just these two sections were instituted.

Thanks to the awareness levels among women, many more are approaching the courts today than before. Consider this against the number of cases that are disposed. They are only 2432 cases. Of them, only 164 cases led to convictions. 1449 cases ended in acquittal with the aggrieved women considering further appeals.

The bill enjoins that the magistrate shall fix the date of first hearing as not beyond three days from the receipt of the application. More importantly, Section 12 (5) of this bill states that the magistrate “Shall endeavor to dispose of every application within a period of sixty days from the date of its first hearing.” But are there enough number of magistrates hearing and conducting cases? Statistics tell a sobering tale.

Due to the way in which the criminal justice system works, the odds are stacked up against women. The production of evidence on “verbal and emotional abuse” may not be in the forms and shapes the courts appreciate. The large number of acquittals in IPC 498 cases proves this point.

As it is, there are 41 acts that are women related and/or women specific. Dowry Prohibition Act, Illegal Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA), Pre-Natal Diagnostics Act (PNDT), to name just a few, are each well intended. But it is time to make them effective.

Parliament would have done a greater service to the women of this country if it looked at the recommendations of commissions to improve the judicial infrastructure and reform the criminal justice system. It is time we thought of bringing all offences of criminal nature against women under one umbrella act. This act should allow the aggrieved woman to choose her prosecutor, and provide legal aid and protection, like the Atrocities against Scheduled Castes (Prevention) Act. Such cases should go through fast track courts. Only then can the promise of justice for women be meaningful.

The writer is a former member, National Commission for Women

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