Flavia Agnes is indirectly accepting that women are misusing laws !! But can’t say that openly !!

Years of battling for women’s rights have left Flavia Agnes embittered, but she’s still looking for ways forward
The pile-up of cases in the Bombay High Court opposing first information reports on rape, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, according to Flavia Agnes, co-founder of Majlis, a forum for women’s rights discourse and legal initiatives, have something in common: women oppressed by the system don’t come forward to file cases, while those who do are often not the real victims.

In popular perception, then, it’s women misusing the law, and for many, it’s about women being scared to move court, the law not working as it was intended to. “We’re constantly struggling with this dichotomy in every field of women’s rights,” she says.

The pile-up of cases in the Bombay High Court opposing first information reports on rape, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, according to Flavia Agnes, co-founder of Majlis, a forum for women’s rights discourse and legal initiatives, have something in common: women oppressed by the system don’t come forward to file cases, while those who do are often not the real victims.

In popular perception, then, it’s women misusing the law, and for many, it’s about women being scared to move court, the law not working as it was intended to. “We’re constantly struggling with this dichotomy in every field of women’s rights,” she says.

Use and misuse of law

Majlis Legal Centre has won The Martha Farrell Awards under the ‘Best Organisation for Gender Equality’ category. The centre provides legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and conducts legal awareness training. Reflecting on Majlis’s work and her own journey so far, Ms. Agnes says that the political environment is not divorced from women’s rights. She’s also weary of the shrillness of public discourse, the polarisation of viewpoints. “God knows what I’m saying, what you will write,” she says during the conversation, in a moment of despair. “After so many years, I’m questioning what we have done.”

There are stringent laws protecting women, Ms. Agnes says, but without an enabling environment, how are they expected to use them?

For instance, everyone needs a lawyer. But in the family court, for a simple mutual-consent divorce — “Just a three-page application, where both the parties agree” — a lawyer would charge ₹1 lakh. Next, when people do find a lawyer, there’s no saying how long the case will be in court. There is Legal Aid, but “It is dysfunctional, at least in Mumbai. [Judges and lawyers] do not know the law, they do not know the legal strategy, the new law that has come in. So when you see an acquittal, it’s because even the judges don’t know the law.”

And then she says, sardonically, “The women’s movement has done a great service to the lawyers’ community. Because they asked for new laws, and every law is beneficial to lawyers.” Women, she says, are “allowed to misuse the law” because it is “advantageous to the police and the lawyers.”

Majlis’ work, she says, is not even a drop in the ocean. NGOs typically don’t handle litigation; they themselves are afraid to go to court. Instead, “The buzzword is counselling. Because you sit pretty, call the husband and wife, counsel and send them back. And you think it’s a success story. Then why ask for a law on domestic violence and say it will help them go to court?”

It isn’t just fear of the legal process; there are also benefits for NGOs to not going to court. “As soon as the law comes, training of so-and-so begins. On topics like gender sensitisation. We’re not teaching them what to do with the law, what it mandates them to do and how it makes them accountable. That’s why we get stuck, why we’re tearing our hair, why laws are not working, why women are not using the law.”

Making the law work

How can the law work for everyone? “There has to be a helping system. A woman who is a victim needs the confidence that the people around her will help her. This is the way you go, and this system will not oppress you again.”

That’s how it is elsewhere in the world, she says. Singapore’s family court has booklets, easily accessible forms. In the UK, if a woman is thrown out, there is a half-way home, she gets legal advice, all as part of state service. Judges pass custody and maintenance orders quickly, too, and ensure orders are enforced.

What is the change she would like to see? “I don’t want everybody to be a lawyer. I want everybody to understand the law.”

In the 1980s and 90s, Ms Agnes says, the media only focussed on dowry deaths.

After that, attention shifted to domestic violence. Then, it was all about rape. And now, “everywhere you read, there is only one issue for women in India today: triple talaq.” “And we as Hindu women, as Parliament, as NGOs,” she says, sarcasm dripping, “will join together and rescue these Muslim women from their oppressive religious or community leadership.”

Sadly, she says, no one is using the options already available, or talking about failings in other communities. “What you need is awareness, legal support.” Ms. Agnes has gone on record to say it is better to reform personal laws and ensure that laws of all communities are gender-just rather than enacting a uniform law.

On talaq, she says, “Each of these women who have gone to the SC are victims of domestic violence.” So while none of the women challenging triple talaqwant to go back to their husbands, they don’t want to initiate divorce proceedings either. “I am so tired of shouting hoarse. Because everybody’s entered this bandwagon. Because everybody wants their piece of publicity.”

“Everybody — right wing, women’s groups, Muslim women — is in it together, and no one wants to step back and examine the real issues. That’s when it becomes a low-hanging fruit for everybody to write about.”

Political space is constrained today, she says. “I can talk about women’s rights but not about secularism. That’s the sad part. Nobody wants to go into the nuances and shades.”

Women’s issues and secularism are linked, she thinks, and it’s all about how we can make progress from there. “What we’re doing is not devoid of politics. Everything from dowry to domestic violence is linked to certain value systems. But we’re just into rhetoric.”

This is where she feels, all the work that her organisation has done in the Mumbai and Gujarat riots may have come to nought. “Somewhere, I feel, did I go wrong, should I have done something different? Where are we in the end?”

Majlis’s milestones

The bright spots for her are Majlis’s work with grassroots NGOs helping women understand the law, and its courses in Mumbai colleges on women and social work, women and law.

She says she has also seen judges’ attitudes shift. “There are problems at the trial court, but problems in the higher courts are more serious. We can’t do anything there; they’re supposed to know everything.”

At the trial court level, “while there are black sheep and insensitive judges, you can see some positive change.” Majlis conducts training for judges and magistrates in Maharashtra..

Majlis compiles “positive judgements” in areas like domestic violence and gives them to the judges. “We’re aiming to achieve deep-level change.”

It also does targeted training for the police. For instance, how to record an FIR in child abuse cases, by demonstrating what a badly-recorded one is, and how it can ruin chances of conviction.

The way ahead

Majlis hopes to soon run courses for mediapersons too, “so that there’s a multiplier effect.”

It also plans to re-start a programme it ran from 2003-2011, wherein women taking up other women’s cases were supported with stipends and training.

Supporting campaign groups is not enough. “We need people on the ground; grassroot activists. The whole challenge is to make them feminists, make them understand. Only then can we move forward.”

Majlis itself has grown a lot, she says. “Earlier, we used to only criticise the judiciary and government but now we see where change is possible and work very closely with them.”

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/the-weary-warrior/article17895625.ece

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