Questions of gender

Questions of gender FOR the lone woman crusader in a far-flung rural area, the fight for justice can be horrendously daunting in the face of an incomprehensible Indian Penal Code and male-dominated panchayats. In city courts, the course of justice is often longwinded.

The Bhanwari Devi case is a pointer. A potter and sathin (woman activist) from Rajasthan's Bhateri village, she was raped and ostracised because she dared to raise her voice against child marriage. The case has been in the Supreme Court for almost 2 years now, with a Delhi-based NGO, Jagori, taking up cudgels on Bhanwari's behalf.

Maharashtra took a step towards giving equal rights to women when chief minister Sharad Pawar unveiled, on June 21, a policy aimed at empowering women through education and economic independence. A series of legal changes -- from the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 to the Rent Control Act -- will give women equal rights in property and as parents and employees.

Pawar's policy has been lauded by women's groups but the implementation of even existing laws remains a problem. Says Primla Loomba, honorary member of Delhi's National Federation of Indian Women, "Legal awareness is abysmal." The federation strives to improve the situation through its literacy programmes. Legal advice and help are provided free. The federation also lobbies for changes in the legal system. Says Loomba, "Child rape is treated at par with adult rape. This is wrong and the law should be changed."

An organisation working in close tandem with law and enforcement agencies is the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), which has 500 branches all over the country and a membership of 100,000. AIWC's Bapnu Ghar is a short-stay home for women in distress; it provides family counselling and disseminates legal awareness. Says Vimla Vohra, member in charge of Bapnu Ghar, "We network with other voluntary groups to organise seminars, specifically in colleges, to educate girls on their legal rights. We also work in rural areas. Legal cases are referred to the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board."

This legal cell provides help free of cost. "Almost 85 per cent of the people who come here in search of justice are women," says Manju Goel, additional district and sessions judge. A pre-litigation centre sifts through the cases and tries to settle disputes by calling the parties concerned. "This saves women from unnecessary harassment by the police and courts," says Goel. The Legal Aid Cell also provides services to women undertrials in Delhi's Tihar jail.

The Mahila Dakshata Samiti campaigns against atrocities on women and helps legislation reach the grassroots level through 16 branches across the country. Says its vice-president Kailash Rekhi, "The Samiti fights for women, not just in the court but outside too. We need to change legislation concerning women's right to property."

Pennuramai Iyakkam in Madras organises campaigns aimed at raising legal awareness and provides legal aid. Idara in Jaipur works among rural women, provides information on women's rights and has branches in Ajmer, Udaipur and Jodhpur.

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