Fri, Apr 06, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Women's rights laws emerge in India

SIGN OF THE TIMES In a society traditionally dominated by men, new legislation is beginning to make itself felt, particulary in how it affects victims of domestic violence


Magistrates in India are becoming involved in the intimate living arrangements of unhappily married couples as they struggle to enforce a new law against domestic violence.

Legislation passed late last year has given women victims of domestic violence greater rights, principally the right to continue living in the marital home. Earlier, most Indian women had suffered beatings without protest because they knew that their husbands and in-laws could throw them out of the house, rendering them destitute and homeless.

But implementing the law is proving difficult for magistrates who end up arbitrating over such matters as who has the right to use the bathroom and other such minutiae.

Anusha Rewari, 38, used the new law to get a magistrate's order giving her the right to continue living in her home, owned by her husband Bharati in Lajpat Nagar in the Indian capital.

Rewari and her three young daughters had been thrown out earlier when Bharati had attacked her with a cricket bat. Every time, she fled to her parents' home and every time she returned, the dishonor of a married daughter returning home was too much for her parents.

"It was such a relief to know that I could stay at home even though he's in the next room. But he has refused to let me use kitchen and bathroom," Rewari said.

The magistrate has recently issued another order directing the family to give her access to these sections of the family home.

Lawyer Priti Kapoor who gives legal advice to women's groups, believes the law is a step in the right direction as it serves as a reality check for violent men and gives women a roof over their heads but is also concerned at the complexity of already fraught domestic situations that are emerging.

"How can you ensure that a woman feels safe or that the children can move around freely in a house? Does the wife use the kitchen at different times from the mother-in-law or what? Legislating over these private, daily matters is very difficult. It will take time to evolve guidelines," Kapoor said.

The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act may be a complicated piece of legislation but his hasn't stopped thousands of women going to police stations to file cases under the new law against violent husbands.

Although it's too early for any figures, women's groups in the capital say cases are pouring in as battered women realize that they finally have a weapon against their abusive husbands.

At dinner parties in middle class homes, men joke nervously about how they had better watch themselves now that the wife has greater powers than ever before.

Women like Hansie Pande, 35, had no choice but to run to a refuge with her two children when her husband's beatings became too savage. The home was owned by her husband and registered in his name. Whenever he threw her out, she had no means of stopping him.

Now, a court has given Pande the right to stay in her home and her unemployed husband knows that if he harasses her or is violent, he can be sent to jail for a year or fined.

"He is really angry that I'm still here. If it weren't for this law, he would have punched me senseless and thrown me out on the street but he's helpless. I've never seen him so frustrated," Pande said.

India's National Crime Records Bureau registers a case of cruelty by husbands and their relatives every nine minutes and last year's legislation is the product of 10 years of campaigning by women's groups.

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