Afsana Bibi, a resident of Rajarhat, a slum on the outskirts of Kolkata, had been a silent victim of domestic violence for many years. The beatings began immediately after marriage but it was nearly six months before the 20-year-old could even tell her parents about it. Her husband stopped the abuse for a couple of months when Afsana’s parents intervened, but it all started again soon enough.
Afsana is not the only one in her locality who has faced such extreme abuse without seeking any help. The Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal has 60 government-authorised slums where domestic violence is common.
Points out Madhupurna Ghosh, an advocate, “The usual causes for domestic violence are alcoholism, unemployment and illicit relationships with other women. The wives have no recourse to any form of support in such cases. Their parents are usually extremely poor. So the women just have to bear the violence and the torture.”
The West Bengal Crime Records Bureau registers the highest number of cases under cruelty by husband or relatives of husband in the crimes against women category. The latest figures available are for 2008, during which 13,947 cases were registered.
Fortunately, legal help and support is available today to such victims through a legal literacy programme being run by the NGO, Sutanatir Sakhya, in different localities in and around Kolkata.
“Staying Alive” began in 2009 and initially reached out to 35 wards in the Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality area. It is is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID). It aims to empower women with legal knowledge and provide legal support to victims, besides creating awareness of the legal system of India among schoolchildren, sensitising protection officers appointed under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA), and disseminating information regarding various provisions of welfare legislation in the regional language.
To reach out to women in the slums, Sutanatir Sakhya banks on those who are part of the Community Development Society (CDS), which monitors all the development work in these localities. These women are trained as volunteers because they are already in regular touch with the locals and can get through to them easily.
The volunteers in turn go into the localities to educate women on the whole spectrum of gender-centric laws, including the Anti-dowry Act, property laws, the law against sex selection, laws on rape and sexual harassment, as well as the Hindu and Muslim divorce and marriage laws. They also talk to women about the help available to them.
Confidence building among victims of domestic violence forms a large part of what Sutanatir Sakhya and its volunteers do. The women who went to them were often sent back without even so much as a complaint being registered, which only leads to more violence and threats from the perpetrators. To address this, a dialogue was initiated with the authorities. Now, after many meetings, the police recognise the CDS volunteers and at least any victim accompanied by them is not turned back. Complaints are being registered and cases are going to court.
“When we go in a group, we have the power to make the police listen. We have lodged 20 FIRs (First Information Reports) in the last few months on domestic violence and matrimonial divorce-related cases.”-Sobha Mondal, a CDS volunteer
The legal aid cell in Rajarhat alone has helped file 156 cases in the last two years. Legal aid programmes are clearly very important. Although they were started for poor women, even upper class victims are seeking help.
“Girls come to us even in the middle of the night asking for help. Earlier, our own husbands and in-laws were skeptical, but now they support our work.”- Amita Nath, another volunteer
Although Sutanatir Sakhya operates from centres in Rajarhat, Madhyamgram and Shovabazar, thanks to word of mouth publicity, women from far flung areas are approaching the organisation either through the telephone or by visiting the centres. On an average 65-80 women either visit or call each centre on a daily basis.
Though the lawyers fighting cases on behalf of the victims do so mostly on a pro-bono basis, those who can afford it are encouraged to pay some legal fees, even if it is nominal.
Today, while around 400 CDS women have directly benefited through this project, they are BPL, who were given free training in legal matters, enabling them to recognise abuse, their own as well of others. It has made the lives of many more better. Sutanatir Sakhya now plans to introduce vocational training for the victimised women to help them achieve economic independence.
Awareness of their rights is definitely helping victimised women fight the violence. However, legal action is not regarded as an end in itself. Economic independence is regarded as essential for these women to truly free themselves from the shackles of abuse or neglect.
(Names of victims have been changed.)