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Access to Justice: A Prerequisite for Sustainable Development

WomenStrong India

Access to Justice: A Prerequisite for Sustainable Development

Many Indian women face such problems as dowry demands, physical and psychological abuse, harassment, property rights and alcoholism on the part of male members of the family.

Women in India, who constitute almost half the population, have always been ill-treated and deprived of their right to life and personal liberty as guaranteed under the nation’s Constitution. According to a latest report of India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a crime against women is recorded every three minutes, two women are raped every hour and a young married woman is found beaten to death, burnt or driven to suicide every six hours. According to a recent United Nation Population Fund report, roughly two-thirds of married Indian women are victims of domestic violence attacks, with as many as 70 percent of those between the ages of 15 – 49 falling victim to beating, rape or forced sex. Indeed, nationwide, more than 55 percent of women suffer from domestic violence, especially in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other northern states.

This is the status of Indian women – our own mothers, sisters and daughters. One of the prime reasons behind all those sufferings is a lack of awareness about the rights bestowed and theoretically protected through our Constitution and legal system.

As Indians, members of a sovereign democratic republic, who conduct our affairs striving to meet the aspirations of the four corners of our nation’s Constitution, its goals and values, we expect the benefits of democratic participation to flow to us — all of us, so that we can take our rightful place in the league of nations, befitting our heritage and collective genius. Consequently, we must also bear the discipline and the rigors of “Constitutionalism” — the essence of which is accountability of power, whereby the power of the people vested in any organ of the state, and its agents, can only be used to promote constitutional values and vision.

Micro-Justice and Local Communities

-left “Presentation on the differences between feminine and masculine qualities by workshop attendees.

Micro-justice aims to improve people’s lives by facilitating opportunities to achieve peace and fairness in local relationships. The Constitution of India guarantees equality and equal protection under the law, and Article 39A mandates the state to ensure that the legal system promote equal access to justice, an access not to be denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. One of the greatest obstacles people face in accessing justice is the lack of knowledge.

”Illiteracy, ignorance and economic conditions were the magic contributors to inaccessibility for justice,” noted Chief Justice of India P. Sadasivam, adding that major challenges faced by disadvantaged groups were availability, affordability and adequacy legal aid and that government organizations had the duty to ensure both this access and awareness.

The Kalanjiam institution – the particular Self-Help Group structure developed by Dhan Foundation — provides space for practicing democracy at the grassroots by developing women leaders. Especially in the EMPOWER: WomenStrong Madurai project, more focus has been given to building the capacities of people and their organizations to go beyond micro-finance and to demand and raise their voices for real, accessible justice.

The Madurai Symposium

The Madurai Symposium is a biennial event organized by the Dhan Foundation since 2003 to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and experience on development themes and on various interventions carried out by the many stakeholders in development, including NGOs, government institutions, civil society, financial Institutions, academics and researchers. This year’s Symposium, the seventh, took place September 12-16, 2015, at Thamukkam ground in Madurai. The program included workshops, seminars and people’s convocations focused on the theme of “Localizing the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The knowledge-building workshop took place on September 14, 2015, with a focus on Sustainable Development Goal

16, to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Workshop Objectives

The workshop was conceived with the broader objective of imparting information and facilitating dialogue on the following:
– To impart practical knowledge about the basic legal rights and remedies provided under various women-related laws, thereby helping them become fit to face the challenges in real life situations.
– To help the women become aware of the various machineries/organs of justice and their roles in the justice delivery system that are actually available to redress their problems/grievances.
– To undertake a broad-based community mobilization for a fundamental shift away from the ideas, beliefs and practices of those individuals and institutions supporting violence against women.
– To sensitize women and girls about their rights as provided under various laws, including the Indian Penal Code, 1860; the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961; the Prevention of Domestic Violence to Women Act, 2005, etc.

Dhan Foundation invited lawyers, a working group of legal NGOs, law students and professors, police officials, the Legal Service Authority, our Micro-Justice programme-related field staff and community leaders to participate in the workshop.

The workshop would bring out recommendations and proceedings, as well as shared understanding, with respect to:
– Advancing the micro-justice model in people’s institutions
– Knowledge-building regarding the process, procedure and systems for strengthening a legal network within people’s institutions, especially on gender issues

Workshop Outcomes

Opening Address on Domestic Violence

The opening address was given by Ms. S. Vasuki, Protection Officer in the Social Welfare Department, who assured participants that the “protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 tries to address the issues of domestic violence not only through legal course of action; it assures the victims of emergency relief and counseling.

“The Social Welfare Department,” Ms. Vasuki continued, “has an exclusive arm for addressing cases related to domestic violence and to protect the working women from sexual harassment, a committee to act on sexual harassment against working women has been formed within the department. The support from NGOs and service providers are commendable in implementing this act.”

In the course of the workshop, Ms. Vasuki also had the opportunity to interact with Self-Help Group women and field workers. She explained that violence against women can come in different forms, such as sexual abuse from a husband, father, brothers and in-laws, harassment by mother-in-laws, verbal and emotional violence, economic abuse, such as someone retaining a woman’s salary, jewels, and so on. Ms. Vasuki detailed such provisions of the Act as relief extended to victims, medical support, shelter, counseling and free legal assistance.

Role of Community Mobilization

A respected advocate and social activist, Ms. Saravana Biju discussed the need for community mobilization to address and reduce incidents of domestic violence. Ms. Anusha, a lawyer, presented a lead paper on advancing micro-justice in community organizations, and other legal experts shared about relevant acts, legal rights and remedial processes. Field-level issues related to domestic violence, dowry, child labour, alcoholism and other topics were discussed very emotionally and in detail.

To take one example, Ms. Parameswari, a Kalanjiam or Self-Help Group member victimized by the Sumangali contract labour system, shared her experience. Taken on contract for three years to a factory in Palani, in Tamil Nadu, Ms. Parameswari described such various forms of exploitation as low wages, extended working hours, denial of leave and punitive contract extensions of 6-12 months (with no additional pay), even for such small infractions as taking a two-to-three-day leave. Finally, her contract amount was not paid; Ms. Parameswari said that 650 adolescent girls now remain toiling like this, in that same mill.

Imparting Knowledge of Legal Rights

The Workshop focused on imparting knowledge about the fundamental legal rights and remedies for women-related harassments. Numerous legal authorities and service providers working on these issues participated and shared their experiences.

About 65 Participants from Dhan’s and WSI’s EMPOWER: WomenStrong Madurai project met in sub-groups and discussed issues of women’s empowerment, the root causes of domestic violence and ways of strengthening both the existing legal aid clinic and paralegal volunteer services. Some women pointed out, given that most girls, young mothers and struggling wives will all become mothers-in-law some day, that in addition to becoming fully aware of the legal courses of action available to them, values-building needs to be an essential component of their legal education.

Expert panelists Mrs. Theivakani and Mr. Selvaraj, both Advocates in Madurai District Court, and Mrs. C. Packialakshmi, a Non-Judicial Member in the Madurai District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum, then spoke, sharing real-life examples in making their respective arguments.

Gender Equality

The 5th Sustainable Development Goal says: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

The Self-Help Groups and their networks can play an active role in ensuring that those women faced with domestic violence will receive justice. This requires legal awareness and education regarding the rights and available legal remedies, provisions and support services. Protecting adolescent girls and elderly people, education for all children and eradicating child labour need to be included in implementing the SDG agenda.

Being a Self-Help Group or Kalanjiam member escalates self-confidence and self-esteem, enabling members to envision a peaceful and values-based life apart from economic growth.

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