At WomenStrong International, we believe in the power of bold women and are inspired to share their accomplishments. These powerful changemakers turn challenges into innovations, share our belief in women and girls, and deserve recognition for their achievements. This series spotlights the essential work #WomenStrongWarriors accomplish all over the world. We hope their stories inspire you, as well.
Anusha Raman can remember seeing women beaten in the street when she was a girl. Violence against women was the norm.
“As a child, I saw domestic violence in the street. It was common to beat a woman outside where everyone could see. Now it is mostly indoors,” says Raman, Director of the Micro-Justice Clinic in Madurai, India, run by WomenStrong International through Consortium Member DHAN Foundation.
Raman’s work today helps guide women to the resources available to victims of gender-based violence, but much of the Clinic’s work is focused on educating women on their rights and untangling bureaucratic knots that bind women to lives of poverty.
Birth certificates are one such problem. In India, a birth certificate is required to open a bank account, purchase insurance, apply for a passport, and much more. Yet, up until 10 years ago, birth registrations occurred not at birth, but only when a child registered for school, meaning that only educated women received birth certificates.
The Indian government instituted compulsory registration of births and deaths in 1969, but it was 1984 before the government required that birth certificates include an individual child’s name. Even then, these government mandates were not enforced.
Today, births must be registered within one year with local government. But that is little comfort to the thousands of middle-aged and older women who don’t have a birth certificate and so must go to court to get one and pay a lawyer 10,000 – 20,000 rupees ($150 – $300) to handle the registration. Acquiring a birth certificate is well beyond the reach of women living in poverty.
Three years ago, WomenStrong brought in Raman to help solve the problem. She began by coordinating trainings in women’s rights, women’s property rights, and domestic violence. With the help of the Madurai District Legal Service Authority, the Clinic taught basic legal rights to more than 65 paralegal volunteers and female members of DHAN’s microfinance Self-Help Groups.
Paralegals now help women obtain birth certificates at no cost, opening the door to participation in the formal economy. They help older women access old-age pensions, advise parents regarding a government program that can help pay 25 percent of their children’s private school fees, and connect women to other government services.
They also help women secure their inheritances. Under Indian law, women are entitled to inherit and own the property of a father upon his death. But in practice, this property usually goes only to sons. Teaching women their rights and helping them secure the birth and death certificates needed for the legal transfer of property are among the Legal Clinics’ most common tasks.
Raman says resolving issues relating to domestic violence has been a more difficult challenge. Despite more women speaking out against violence, abuse, and harassment throughout India, domestic violence generally remains hidden and stigmatized. Women often feel guilty and ashamed and are hesitant to tell one another or to seek help.
In an environment where abuse and violence are commonplace, women have not been educated as to their rights. Workshops conducted by the Legal Clinic teach them that they are entitled to be and feel safe, and teach them as well about different forms of violence, ranging from verbal and psychological to economic, physical, and sexual.
Another workshop, “Protections Offered Under the Law,” features a Madurai district judge who helps women understand Indian law. Women suffering violence and abuse are encouraged to come forward, so that they may be linked to existing government programs for help.
“Protection Officers” embedded within India’s social welfare department offer trainings and support, including access to a government-appointed lawyer, counseling, and protection. In the state of Tamil Nadu, where Madurai is located, the government has set up an unusual, all-women’s police station to handle family issues, and Raman helps women connect to these female officers. Despite these services, many women still fail to take advantage of the available help, so the Clinic still has much to do.
Finally, in a country where half of all marriages are arranged, a variety of other rights are abused. The Micro-Justice Clinic offers trainings in laws requiring financial support to their spouse following divorce, dowry prohibition, and child marriage.
“It used to be that every week, newspapers carried stories of women dying because of ‘kitchen burns’ from a stove blowing up,” Raman said. “Everyone knew this was really dowry stealing, with the family of girls and the girls themselves being harassed and sometimes killed for failure to pay the dowry. Or the dowry was paid and then the young brides were killed,” she added. “Nowadays this is much less common, so we are seeing progress.”
Similarly, the incidence of female infanticide and girl child marriage are in decline. And while positive evolution in the law and in social norms has accelerated the change, Raman believes the real answer lies elsewhere.
“When a girl is not just married, but also well educated, everything changes.”