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Jayashree Satpute Among the 'World's Top 100 Inspirational Women'

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As a young school-going girl in the small town of Chandrapur, a three-hour drive from Nagpur, Maharashtra, Jayashree Satpute would never have imagined that one day she would be declared an inspiration for women around the world. But this has happened. Recently, Satpute, 31, who is a New Delhi-based human rights lawyer and an activist, learnt that her name figured among the five Indians who had been selected to be part of the 'World's Top 100 Inspirational Women' by 'The Guardian', a prestigious UK-based newspaper.

Of course, Satpute, who is an advocate in the Delhi High Court as well as the Supreme Court, believes that with this distinction, a greater responsibility now rests on her young shoulders. "I will have to be very careful in raising important legal and social issues at national and international forums. However, as I see it, I am now a representative of women who have no voice and my aim will be to see that the State delivers a woman's entitlements, be it vis-a-vis health rights, domestic violence, or sexual harassment at the work place," she says emphatically.

In her capacity as the head of litigation with the NGO Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Satpute is also the guiding force behind the organisation's initiatives in areas as diverse as the rights of the disabled, juveniles, the HIV/AIDS afflicted, housing rights, criminal justice and the right to information. Lately, she has even turned her attention to environmental justice and the reproductive rights of women.

Several of the lawsuits she has spearheaded have led to landmark judgements in both the Delhi High Court and the Apex court. Notable among them is a Supreme Court judgement that has upheld the right to employment of people with cerebral palsy, calling for sensitive handling of cases of the disabled.

More recently, Satpute has worked closely with the HRLN's Reproductive Rights Unit in the case of Laxmi, a destitute woman who died in August 2010 on a pavement in the crowded locality of Connaught Place in central Delhi, after giving birth to a baby girl. For four days before her death, Laxmi lay on the ground as hundreds of apathetic passersby stepped over her until she eventually succumbed to septicaemia.

The Delhi High Court took the petition suo motu and appointed the HRLN lawyers as amicus curiae a few days after Laxmi's death. Later, the Delhi High Court, in a first of its kind judgment in the world, held maternal mortality as a human rights violation. The court went on to pronounce that the government of NCT of Delhi must demarcate or hire or create at least two shelter centres for destitute pregnant women and lactating mothers so that no "destitute woman is compelled to give birth to a child on the footpath".

While presenting her arguments, Sutpute says that she questioned the implementation of India's commendable government schemes for poor pregnant women and children, which were formulated to prevent the high incidence of maternal mortality. As she says, "There are good schemes such as Janani Suraksha Yojana, National Maternity Benefit Scheme and Integrated Child Development Services that are clear about poor pregnant women's entitlements. However, women are dying because they are denied access to these schemes though they are in place."

Satpute has played a crucial role in ensuring the accountability of the government in Laxmi's death and many other women like her. As she says, "In Laxmi's ongoing case, I appear before the High Court, do fact findings and also give suggestions to the government on the issue of homeless pregnant women and lactating mothers." She has also been instructed by the court to inspect the two shelter homes that have been established and give a status report on the homes that are to provide medical and nutritional support to impoverished women like Laxmi. In the long term, she adds, the High Court has directed the government to set up five shelter homes, out of which two have already been set up, while decisions still need to be taken about the location of other three. "These historic judgements are definitely victories for the petitioners, but also for all poor, marginalised and vulnerable families in India," asserts the activist.

For Satpute, it's been a long journey from Chandrapur to Delhi. She did her schooling from Vidya Niketan in Chandrapur and then, encouraged by her father, Purshottam Satpute, a senior advocate in the Chandrapur district court, she went on to study at the Babasaheb Ambedkar University College of Law in Nagpur. Spreading her wings further, she did her LLM in International Law from City University, London, going on to do an internship with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Finally, four years ago she came to Delhi to work as an advocate.

While she has had the unflinching support of her father every step of the way, Satpute says that early in her career he had suggested that she would be better off practicing in the Napgur High Court rather than working on a meagre salary in Delhi. "For a few months, he kept trying to persuade me to go to Nagpur, but when he understood my dedication he came around. Today, my parents are really proud of me," she says happily.

Besides fighting for women's rights, Satpute is a juvenile justice lawyer as well. In addition, she provides legal aid to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)-recognised refugees (this programme is part of HRLN). "I deal with cases relating to refugees that come to India from countries as diverse as Somalia, Myanmar, Sudan and Afghanistan, who may have a protection problem. It could be problems with landlords, threats from locals or any other kind of legal trouble," she says.

Incidentally, apart from the recent honour, last year Satpute was selected as one of the seven young advocates from developing countries to attend the prestigious Women: Inspiration & Enterprise Symposium in New York, USA. "At the symposium, leading women from diverse spheres came together to raise their voices about the high prevalence of maternal mortality around the world," she says.

But the fight for justice has not been easy. There have been many frustrating hurdles. "The male judges - they are a majority - fail to understand how important it is for a woman to get Rs 3,000 (US$1=Rs 44) as maintenance after a divorce and why a woman files multiple cases. In many cases, she doesn't even have food or money to pay her house rent. When it comes to women's issues, many judges completely lack sensitivity and perspective," she says.

But then for every lawyer who does not want to stand up for what is right, there are those like Satpute who make it their life's mission to give voice and might to the powerless.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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