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A jail, not a shelter: women’s refuges in India

On the tenth anniversary of a major law dealing with domestic violence in India, we explore how the poor quality of refuge provision impacts on women’s choices. (Part 2 of a three-part series.)

See Part 1 of the series: "Is the Indian law on domestic violence fit for purpose?"

A sign hung at an Indian national conference on women's shelters reads 'Respect, not violence, is our human right.'

The women’s movement has long recognised that shelters and counselling  are crucial to enable women to leave violent relationships and rebuild their shattered self-esteem, to imagine a new life and new self, free from the shackles of patriarchal demands, control and violence.

In line with all modern legislative frameworks targeting violence, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) mandates that states must provide shelters, counselling services and legal aid to survivors. Given that research  reveals that that  over 90 per cent of domestic violence incidents are never reported to any formal agency (such as police, social workers, lawyers) it is imperative that women suffering violence in their homes have a viable alternative that they can easily and voluntarily access to give them space to think about their future options in a warm, nurturing space. 

The chasm between warm, nurturing, safe spaces and the real spaces inside shelters could not be greater. “Preytna”, one of the cases of the NGO, Peace and Equality Cell, who ran away to save her life after years of physical violence and psychological warfare by her violent, alcoholic partner was shocked beyond belief by the unhygienic conditions inside the women’s shelter in Ahmedabad. She filed evidence about her horrendous experience of staying in jail-like conditions to as party to a legal challenge to the way shelters were functioning in Gujarat.

She would recall years after leaving that the shelter was a punishing and exploitative space where she and other residents felt deeply unsafe and unhappy. She was required to give baths to mentally disabled residents, clean up after those who did not have control of their bowel movements and, worst of all, she had to live in complete isolation, cut off from friends and family. Residents’  valuables, including phones,  were taken away from “inmates” as part of admission procedures. The only person she could see was her lawyer and social worker and the only time she left the “ jail” was to attend court hearings. 

Unlike the West, where women’s refuges grew out of the feminist movement and women’s  autonomy and right to make decisions about their lives, even in conflict with their families or community, are widely accepted, in Indian society this is largely not the case. Girls and women who go against their family or community  find themselves abandoned in extremely difficult and vulnerable situations. Shelters were first established to ‘protect’ vulnerable women from prostitution and trafficking rackets under the Immoral Traffic and Prevention Act 1956. The language and existing practices of shelters reflect the deeply troubling reality of jail-like conditions in shelters: ‘Superintendents’ are in charge of ‘inmates’ in institutions  where no one is very concerned about the emotional wellbeing and recovery of survivors – there are no individual case files and certainly no long or short-term planning  with survivors about their future options. 

The Nari Gruhs (women’s homes) staff don’t exactly welcome the women with open arms. The moral framework of society penetrates that of shelters, where such women are seen as “immoral” or “ deviants” who transgressed social and community boundaries, thus deserving of the punishment of living inside a shelter. In one case, a 14-year-old girl “Pooja” was sent to the main state shelter in Ahmedabad after she and the man she ran away with were found by the police. Her grandmother explained that she was sent there basically to ensure that she could not run away, given the jail-like security of state shelters, to teach her a lesson so that she would never run away again and, last but by no means least, to coerce Pooja to agree to a  marriage quickly so that the family honour could be restored. 

These conditions drove a number of residents of Odhav Nari Gruh shelter to escape from their prisons. The resulting media coverage was used by Peace and Equality Cell in collaboration with the late fearless socialist and feminist Trupti Shah and activist Afroz Jahan (deceased) to initiate Public Interest Litigation(PIL), a unique tool that was actually developed by the Indian judiciary to ensure that those who were most vulnerable could access the courts directly especially where their fundamental rights to live with dignity were being violated. The court proceedings were initiated in September 2014 and have resulted in the court taking some substantive steps to ameliorate conditions in shelters. 

The PIL drew the court’s attention to the inhuman living conditions inside Odhav Nari Gruh, lack of medical facilities, hygiene, freedom of movement, exploitation of residents and absence of rehabilitation plans for them. There was no evidence of any admission or exit procedure or policy. There were serious allegations of misconduct and misuse of residents by the government servants running the institutions. There was also a lack of transparency in the running of the institutions.

The High Court eventually delegated a committee of citizens, including a judicial officer and  women leaders ofprominent NGOs, to visit eight shelters and report to  the court. The report documents the deep unhappiness of residents with the manner in which they were treated by staff and their lack of contact and communication with the external world. The court has appointed a committee to reframe the rules for all state shelters in Gujarat, recognising that the rules framed more than 30 years ago do not fit with the  expectations and demands of modern society.

It is impossible to present a coherent, uniform picture on operation of shelters at state and national levels, given the acute shortage of data capturing not just the facilities available but the experiences of women residents in state and NGO-run shelters. There are efforts underway by feminist groups to collect data in their respective states in order to bring about the required changes in the running of shelters that do exist and to demand shelters where they don’t. It is clear from the multiplicity of issues and diverse needs of survivors  that bringing about institutional change is going to take a very long time indeed. Shelters in Gujarat, are dealing with a  heterogeneous group of women, including Bangladeshi trafficked women, women from other states who speak languages not understood by staff, women with physical and mental disabilities, survivors of domestic violence and women who have been  abandoned by their families.

The quality of counselling services provided is poor; its availability is patchy. LCRWI (Lawyers Collective Women's Rights Initiative) reported that on paper there are a number of service providers providing counselling services; many police stations and courts also have a counsellor, however there is little information on the nature of counselling, whether it is provided by professionals, what are the circumstances and stages at which counselling is provided, the objective of such counselling and whether it is at the request of the woman and respects her wishes.

There is a need for a pool of senior qualified counsellors, psychiatrists and mental health experts to assess the mental health needs of survivors to ensure that they are given the appropriate level of support and to prioritise cases where there are risks of serious self-harm or suicide. Particularly, there is a need for counsellors to support survivors and families who have taken on the long-term stress of engaging with the justice system. The biggest obstacle to securing justice is the systemic problem of delay confronting the Indian judicial system. 

The provision of counselling services as mandated by PWDVA envisions empowering the survivor to choose a future without facing coercion to reconcile with the perpetrators of violence. Certainly my interactions with counsellors revealed that most counsellors and advocates are overwhelmingly committed to reconciliation and saving the marriage and family. Given the lack of infrastructure, economic and housing support  and absence of reliable social security schemes for women fleeing violence, it is not surprising that many women “choose” to go for the reconciliation option.

Part three is here: "The Indian judiciary are paper tigers."

About the author

Prita Jha is a legal activist, researcher and trainer working with issues of justice for survivors of communal, gender and sexual violence.  She is the co-editor of a book, On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, Examining the Record, with Surabhi Chopra.  She has also taught courses on Gender and Criminal justice Administration at Nirma University, Gujarat.


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