Legal literacy an effective tool to control violence against women in India

Women during a safety march in India | Photo: Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

The equality of men and women is integral to the achievement of all Millennium Development Goals. Hence, through many initiatives, women around the globe are fighting for equality so that gender justice can be achieved. Gender justice entails ending the inequalities between women and men that are produced and reproduced in the family, the community, the market and the state. It can be achieved through efforts towards achieving social, economic, political and legal empowerment of women so that they would be able to live as educated, skilled, healthy, income earning, politically conscious and legally literate human beings. Such women would be empowered women with the ability to live their life without economic dependency on men and live with dignity and confidence to face the challenges of their lives within homes, workplaces and in society. If such women have legal awareness too, they would be in a better position to fight against all type of violence and exploitation of any type.

India has slipped to the 112th spot from its 108th position in 2018 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, which covered 153 economies. There are many reasons for the low rank in gender equity and equality in India. The main factor responsible is the growing violence against women. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) suggests that 30 per cent of women in India in the age group of 15-49 have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. The report further reveals that 6% of women in the same age group have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. About 31% of married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their spouses. Today, in India, there is a rape every 29 minutes, a case of molestation every 15 minutes and a dowry death every 4 hours. The majority of these cases, under the Indian Penal Code, were registered under cruelty by husband or his relatives (30.9%) followed by ‘Assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (21.8%), ‘kidnapping and abduction of women (17.9%), as the NCRB data for 2019 showed.

This is, inhuman for a nation that prides itself on all the dignity it gives to its women as part of its culture and traditions. If a nation is allowing women to suffer endless violence of all types, it cannot claim to be a cultured nation. Therefore, the injustice suffered by women in this matter has to be effectively challenged — legally, if not socially.

Women who experience violence are more at risk of unwanted pregnancies, maternal and infant mortality, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Such violence can cause direct and long-term physical and mental health consequences. The abused women are less likely to earn a living and are less able to care for their children or participate meaningfully in community activities or social interaction that might help end the abuse. In many societies, women who are raped or sexually assaulted and subjected to acid attack are abused, are stigmatised and isolated, which impacts not only their well-being but also their social participation, opportunities and quality of life.

Legal empowerment of women would grant courage to face challenges of life and get justice for crimes against them. But the reality is, in India majority of even educated and employed women do not have legal awareness i.e. to say, they are not aware of the existence of most of the women-centric laws which have been passed so far, to protect them, their provisions and the way to recourse to these laws. Even if they are aware, they avoid seeking legal protection since, they are wary of court proceedings due to the delayed justice delivery system, the existence of layers of appealing machinery, the expenses involved and the lack of family’s support. But it is important and urgent for women to have legal awareness, considering the present scenario of growing violence against them. If the Indian women have legal awareness and use them to protect themselves from abusive relationships and crimes against them, many young women would not be losing their lives by committing suicide leaving their children as motherless and prolonged agony to their near and dear ones.

Women rights can be broadly classified into two categories — constitutional rights and legal rights. Those guaranteed by the Constitution include the Right to Equality, no discrimination in employment on the ground of sex, to secure adequate means of livelihood, equal pay for equal work, securing just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief etc. On the other hand, legal rights are available to women in the form of prevailing law or enactments in the country. The Constitution of India not only grants equality to women but also empowers the State to adopt measures of protection to eliminate violence committed against women. Fundamental Rights, among others, ensure equality before the law and equal protection of the law; prohibits discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and guarantee equality of opportunity to all citizens in matters relating to employment. Articles 14, 15, 15(3), 16, 39(a), 39(b), 39(c) and 42 of the Constitution are of specific importance in this. On the other hand, legal rights are available to women in the form of prevailing law or enactments in the country.

The British government which ruled in the past did not interfere too much with the then-existing injustice against women, due to fear of interference with religious customs. Hence they were inactive to bring in laws to remove social evils. This policy of stagnation created social tensions, which would have taken serious proportions, but for the untiring efforts of some of the social reformers. Due to their tireless demands laws were brought against Sathi and child marriage. India has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments committing to secure equal rights of women. Key among them is the ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1993.

Hence, with very many objectives, various measures were taken to legally empower Indian women. They are:

  • The State to create a provision of free legal aid by suitable legislation or scheme or in any other way to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen because of economic or other disabilities (Article 39 A).
  • The State to promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and to protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation (Article 46).
  • The State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people (Article 47).
  • The State to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India and to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women (Article 51 (A) (e).

Thus, having regard to these constitutional provisions, the various central Governments have a series of legislations to improve the social status of the woman.

The existing women protection laws in India include the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, Dowry Prohibition Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, Equal Remuneration Act, Family Courts Act, Legal Services Authorities Act, Hindu Marriage Act: Hindu Succession Act: Wages Act,Special Marriage Act, 1954 Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 Indian Divorce Act, 1969 Maternity Benefit Act,1861. Etc., Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act, National Commission for Women Act, 1990 Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2019, Surrogacy Regulation Bill Equal Remuneration Act Family Courts Act, Legal Services Authorities Act, Hindu Marriage Act and The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act. The Muslim Women (Protection of Right on Marriage) Act was introduced in Lok Sabha on June 21, 2019. The purpose of the Bill was to declare triple talaq illegal.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act, or commonly known as POSCO was passed in Rajya Sabha on July 24, 2019, and on August 1, 2019, in the Lok Sabha. It was proposed to protect children from any kind of sexual offences if a police officer, member of armed forces, a public servant, a relative of the child or any other person injures the sexual organs of the child or the child becomes pregnant; died due to assault.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights)was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 19, 2019.It prohibits discrimination against a transgender person in various fields (education, employment, health).

In 2020, the Parliament not only passed few landmark Bills in favour of women and children and created a record to pass maximum Bills in the last 67 years. Given the number of crimes that are committed against women, women must be aware of the existing women protection laws and their provisions because, as a wife, daughter-in-law or mother-in-law or as a senior citizen or as an employee women face many challenges and are subject to various types of crimes and suffer the loss of lives, social prestige and dignity. Legal awareness endows women the knowledge about the ways of protecting them and the confidence to get justice from courts. There is no dearth of laws and policies in India for protecting women safety and rights. Despite these well laid out policies and laws to prevent gender-based violence, India was ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women by Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual poll. This is a tragic situation.

Shortcomings of the law
The laws enacted for the protection of women suffer from various shortcomings. The attitude of the courts in interpreting these laws is conservative rigid and traditional. The enforcement of these laws is so poor that the offenders seem to have lost all fear of authority. They grow bolder because they are not caught immediately and hence, they think that they can indulge in crime with impunity. Even brutal sexual crimes against women which made to the front page of the newspapers and stirred the conscience of the nation are treated with callousness if the offenders are politically influential. The majority of women is still groping in the dark and has not yet realized the need to have legal awareness to protect themselves from all types of violence against them. The reasons are, illiteracy, lack of family support, delayed justice delivery system, financial problem, stigma attached with entry into courts battle etc. In a society where a considerable number of females are illiterate, orthodox and tradition-bound, cultural moorings cannot disappear soon and hence the affected women would not rush to the courts as soon as a crime is committed.

If a law is enacted but not properly implemented it only shakes the confidence in the efficacy of the laws in getting justice for the affected women. The implementation of social laws requires that laws are passed without loopholes and with stringent punishments for crimes against women. Moreover, widespread legal awareness among women is an essential requirement.

A study on masculinity, son preference, and intimate partner violence (IPV) in India showed that two out of every five men were rigidly masculine (defined as having inequitable gender attitudes and high levels of controlling behaviour) and that these men were three times more likely of controlling behaviour) and that these men were three times more likely to perpetrate acts of physical violence against their partners, according to the Public Health Foundation of India

To curb gender-based violence, the existing initiatives must prioritize sexual and reproductive health rights to tackle harmful gender norms. Policies and programmes which support women’s socio-economic development should be given priority than giving freebies to women.

Addressing the need to sensitise the police, lawyers and other judicial officers about the need to give up their patriarchal attitude towards women is important because that continues to contribute to low reporting and conviction due to the way the laws are interpreted.

Strict implementation of the law should be given maximum attention because, in India, the enforcement of the laws is poor. After all, the laws are passed with loopholes and the offenders of the laws use them to their advantage. The offenders are educated by their lawyers about the loopholes in the laws and hence the offenders grow fearless. They walk freely in front of the victims and intimidate them in different ways and making them lose confidence in the justice delivery system of our nation. There is media attention and public outcry on gruesome violence against girls only for some time. This type of excessive coverage in the media and then sleeping over a crime incident should stop.

Bridging the gap between laws and its correlated areas such as legal rights to property, land, inheritance, employment and income, that allows a woman to become economically empowered and to walk out of an abusive relationship is an urgent need. While paying attention to enrol more girls in schools and colleges, care should be taken that, they do not drop out due to poverty, safety, early marriage or son preference attitude of parents.

With higher education and certified job oriented training, girls would be able to land up high profile jobs that would offer them a decent salary and that would give them the confidence to face the challenges of life. The gender studies subject’s curriculum should include gender-based legal literacy chapters so that the youth of this nation are equipped with sufficient knowledge on legal protection measures. Counselling and effective free legal aid facilities are to be expanded to help poor women who face domestic violence so that, they would not be driven to commit suicide while they are in a helpless state of mind.

Demand for change and improvement in the legal status of women is not only Mahatma Gandhi’s endeavour in favour of women, but also their active participation in the national movement. Jawaharlal Nehru and other eminent leaders of India also realized that the position of women should be improved not only in the ideological sphere but in the sphere of law. Equality of status must be ensured to them. This was reflected in the legislative activity in the early twentieth century. Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act may be cited as a landmark social legislation in this regard.

The central and the state governments have indeed undertaken various legislative and other measures for promoting the welfare of women. We cannot, however, say that the intended purpose of the government is fulfilled and the targeted persons have received all the benefits. The educated, middle class and upper-caste women of towns and cities have taken relatively greater advantage of these measures, whereas the vast mass of uneducated and backward caste women of the rural areas are still suffering in silence from all types of violence due to their lower social, economic and political and legal status.

We have miles to go to reach these goals in gender justice.

Dr Rameeza A. Rasheed is a retired Professor of Economics. She is a freelance writer interesting on writing on gender and higher education.

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