The ‘Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Law 2005’ is the latest addition to the list tough assessing it performance would be too premature at this stage. However the informal mechanism of Mahila Panchayat (MPs) designed at the community level to address issues relating the domestic violence and other forms of harassment against women could well prove to be an exception. Mahila Panchayats are informal institutions promoted by the Delhi Commission of Women (DCW) aiming at “crisis intervention and legal aid at community level and help tackle local level legal disputes and assist in reduction and reconciliation of violence against women”.
Sonali, victim of domestic violence, gets relief
Take the case of Ms Sonali Samantray (name changed) of Sangam Vihar colony that is located near the ruins of old city of Tuglakabad in South Delhi. The young lady having one daughter was living a life of hell inside the four walls of her in-law’s house. Being beaten by her husband Hemraj (name changed), snubbed and beaten by ther mother-in-law had been her regular way of life till she desperately knocked doors of Mahila Panchayat in Sangam Vihar for help in September 2011. Why was Sonali tortured? “My husband and the mother-in-law wanted one lakh rupees from my father, which my father could not give.” Says Sonali. The mother-in-law also wanted a male child from Sonali. As she was unable to conceive for the second time, it had become an alibi for physically and mentally torturing her and of course, contemplating for a second marriage for Hemraj. Sonali also alleged of sexual harassment by the husband of her sister-in-law (Hemraj’s sister), who was staying with the family, harassment that was taking place at the knowledge of her mother-in-law.
Going to the police and filing a case against the in-laws was more than a dream for Sonali and her poor parents. Following the report filed by Sonali the Mahila Panchayat summoned Hemraj to appear before it. It may be noted that the Mahila Panchayat does not carry specifically legal power to summon anyone. But it does enjoy a lot of persuasive power. Adamant Hemraj instead brought goons to beat his own wife. Sonali made a panic call to the leaders of Mahila Panchayat who immediately rushed to her house to tackle the situation. Seeing the unity of leaders, determined to take the challenge, the goons literally ran away from the place. Hemraj then appeared before the Mahila Panchayat, which undertook a phase of counselling for the couple. The members explained Hemraj about the provisions of law dealing with women harassment and dowry and the possible consequences. “He realised his folly and understood the powerful influence of the leaders of the women panchayat. He apologised and signed a written agreement not to repeat any form of cruelty on Sonali” narrates Anwari, a paralegal worker who guides the leaders on legal matter. “In follow up visits to Sonali’s house, we found her leading a happy life” informs Sakuntala Gupta, an elderly lady who is a leader of Panchayat from its inception before three years.
In another case, Ms Kamlesh had rented a portion of her house to a family. Kamlesh is a poor woman with seven children and an ailing husband, who managed her family with running a laundry and from the rent. The tenant, Ms Bimlesh, denied giving rent just after two months of stay, neither did she leave the house. When Kamlesh wanted her to vacate the house, she was threatened by the goons came at the behest of tenant’s father. “They threatened to kill my only son who is of four years old. I was very frightened” says Kamlesh. The police also could not be of much help to Kamlesh.
The aggrieved Kamlesh with her children got justice from Mahila Panchayat
Finally she approached the Mahila Panchayat. The leaders visited her house to assess the situation. They persuaded Bimlesh to pay rent or leave the house. Infuriated by the development, the father of Bimlesh threatened the leaders over telephone of dire consequence if they continue to muddle in the matter. The threat only strengthened the determination of the women leaders who warned the father and daughter duo not to take law onto their hands. Sensing that the situation would actually go out of control as the community has come together with Kamlesh, tenant Bimlesh quietly vacated the house in night. In fact the daughter and father had past record of forcefully occupying residential premises after staying as tenant. It may be noted that Sangam Vihar is an unauthorised colony, where proper legal document of ownership of immovable property are not availabe, leaving the scope for mafias to grab land and houses by intimidating common people.
Composition and functioning
Mahila Panchayats are run by DCW in partnership with NGOs. There are about 44 Mahila Panchayats run by 22 NGOs working in the National Capital. The working of Sangam Vihar Mahila Panchayat is facilitated by YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association). Some other NGOs which run Mahila Panchayats are Action India, Delhi Brotherhood Society and similar. The Sangam Vihar Mahila Panchayat has 25 members, all of whom are from the local community. The leaders hold regular weekly meetings not just to resolve disputes but also to discuss the laws on protection of women, government schemes and other laws like right to information act etc.
A member of DCW, Kiranvati Tank, says “in slum areas where most people are illiterate and are unaware about various laws and schemes, Mahila Panchayats have been established to help the women and spread awareness on the same. Several family disputes are resolved by the Panchayats.” Awareness camps are organised by the concerned NGOs for the leaders on legal issues, dispute redressal mechanism, laws relevant to crimes against women. They are given exposure on the existing legal position regarding property, maintenance, marriage, custody, etc. They are trained in counselling, FIR writing etc.
Meeting of Mahila Panchayat.