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The supportive role of women’s organisations

By Rukmini Sen

In most situations, in spite of legal provisions being in place, women cannot access the courts by themselves. They need the help of support groups. Women’s organisations become that support, helping the victim become a survivor

Access to justice is a phrase specifically used with reference to the judiciary and the manner in which a proactive judiciary has increased access to the justice system for vulnerable communities. This paper will talk about how women’s organisations have been liaising with the courts and women who come to them for help.

Access to justice is not a one-time phenomenon of going to the courts; it is continuous and lengthy. It is attempted access to the justice delivery system: the access itself entails various hurdles and women’s organisations become an agent of support and comfort to women who want to attain justice through the courts. In the process, the organisation makes a survivor out of the victim.

This article comes from my engagement with an activist women’s group in Kolkata between 2001 and 2009. It elaborates on the various practices and debates that the organisation has been engaged in while handling various ‘cases’.

The supportive role of women’s organisations

Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha (Forum Against Oppression of Women, hereinafter NNPM) is an autonomous women’s organisation that’s been in existence since the early-1980s in Kolkata. It was and remains a non-funded, voluntary organisation running mostly through donations from members and friends. It originated at a time when activist women’s groups and individual women activists were common, but NGOs for women were not. With members from radical left political parties and independent women’s libraries and study circles (patha chakra), the group, from the start, took an oppositional stand against the left-ruled West Bengal government. The main strategies employed were campaigns, demonstrations, leafleting and pamphleteering, street corner activities, and handling what they called ‘cases’. The idea was to challenge and pressurise the government into ensuring justice to all its citizens. It was primarily in following up cases that the organisation came into direct contact with the dispensers of justice -- the police and the courts.

Certain steps were followed when a woman came to NNPM to present her ‘case’. But first let me explain the word ‘case’. Members of NNPM would often casually refer to ‘so-and-so’s case’, or ‘this didi’s case’. Then when NGOs became a common platform for women’s issues to be discussed, they had to write out ‘case studies’ or ‘case diaries’ as well as success stories from the wide range of cases they handled. There is a case study method in social science research where the researcher takes a representative case (a village, a piece of literature, a hospital) to carry out an in-depth cultural and historical study, and also make certain generalisations out of it within the main argument. Students in law schools are expected to study law through the case law approach, where important judicial decisions become cases for them to analyse and interpret. The common element among all these cases is that it is about a singular person/event. However, there may be connections between cases. A case that may start out at a women’s organisation may eventually become the case that a law student reads in her/his classroom, because it went to court and justice was either delivered or denied. Thus, the word ‘case’ has a connection with access to justice, both for the organisation as well as for legal pedagogy. It is the case which seeks justice, and it can become a part of the legal curriculum if justice is provided or denied.

A woman coming to NNPM with her problems is usually dealt with in the following way:

  • She is first asked whether she is comfortable talking to the group or to a single/couple of individuals from the group.
  • While listening to her story, the NNPM member takes down notes (this is what becomes a ‘case diary’). Listening is a very important component since the woman is usually hesitant, undecided about what to say and what not to. So it is about both listening as well as trying to gather more information (which might be seemingly irrelevant) from the woman, in a supportive environment, never once being intimidating towards the woman.
  • The next most important part is to ask the woman narrating her life story, usually a story of violence and discrimination, why she has come to NNPM and what it is she wants both individually and from the organisation. Over the years I have found this the most crucial question because often women are confused about what they really want -- some want the organisation to only talk to the husband (in most cases, the perpetrator of the violence); some want the organisation to accompany them to the police station because their individual efforts at going to the police station to lodge a complaint have failed; some want information about lawyers; some want to fight their case in court; some may even want the organisation to provide them economic help. When a woman wants to go to court, there is always a word of caution that she must be mentally strong and prepared for a difficult long-drawn-out struggle. Not dissuading her, but laying bare the realities of the courts and inevitable delays in accessing justice. Many women ask for economic support, sometimes jobs or a shelter at which to stay. We acknowledge our helplessness in such situations and also the limitations of a strictly legal understanding of access to justice.
  • When we take the woman to the police station, the attitude of the sub-inspector is usually one of cooperation rather than indifference. One has to understand the interplay of class, caste and gender in this attitude and the importance of the collective against a single, marginalised woman trying to access justice.
  • If the woman does go to court finally, members of the organisation, by turn, try and be present on the case dates. One has to remember that all NNPM members have their own employment (formal or informal) and it has always been an area of deliberation as to which member shall accompany the ‘case’ to the court, and on what date.
  • On some occasions, the ‘case’ did not remain a single, individual case. NNPM tried to mobilise other women’s organisations to generate a larger campaign around the one case, making a paradigm shift of what Peter Berger would call ‘personal trouble’ to a ‘public issue’. Of course the ‘merit’ of the case is an important criterion in making this leap and making the case a matter of collective concern beyond NNPM.  

There are certain benefits of having and running cases within an organisational framework. A lot of human interaction happens between various sets of stakeholders -- the woman who has come to the organisation with members of the organisation, at times with members of the woman’s family and family members and friends of NNPM members (I would discuss, keeping confidentiality and anonymity, cases with my friends, or use examples in my classroom teaching, so they became ‘live’ persons in my everyday life) and finally interaction between state agencies (police, lawyers, doctors) that have the power to deliver justice within the constitutional framework.

The woman and her troubles would become part of our daily lives -- we would be concerned if she did not visit the NNPM office on Friday (the one day of the week when members would meet). The ‘human’ in us gets shaken when we are faced with stories of suffering. The justice system, however, does not have much space for ‘emotional’ suffering; it is concerned with ‘rational’ evidence, truth and witnesses. There is a sense of trust and faith that is developed as a result of all these interactions. For the woman in search of justice, the organisation and its members become her friends and a place that she wants to come to; at times, a sense of dependence is created.

It is only through handling and working with these cases that members of NNPM are made aware of the functionings of the police and the courts. That there is a wide gap between what is written in law and how the law is enforced is witnessed as the case proceeds. In court, one also gets to understand the various provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code and how maintenance laws work. Experience is gathered about the kind of questions that the defence counsel can ask; sometimes the woman fighting for justice is counselled along these lines. In such cases, the lawyers fighting for the woman will either be from the Legal Services Authority or empanelled lawyers of other NGOs working on women’s rights. There are various occasions on which the woman who has come as a ‘case’ to the organisation ends up becoming a member of the organisation, subsequently fighting for other similarly placed women.

The search for justice necessarily transforms a woman from a victim into a survivor; she survives the police station (where she is often stereotyped as a ‘bad woman’ because she has complained against her significant other[s]), she survives the trial (which is also a fight of the weak and vulnerable against the more powerful patriarchy -- husband, defence counsel, judge), she survives the everyday negotiation with her family and community (her defiance makes her ‘deviant’), she survives her friends in the organisation who support her, and she survives in order to live life different from what she is used to. She also survives knowing that she is not alone and her situation is not unique; there are many other women trying to access justice just like her.

Although these are the positives, there are several limitations to an organisation being largely dependent on ‘cases’. In an activist group, where members have other regular jobs, the resources factor is often a reason for the discontinuation of cases. A lot of time and energy is required to follow-up cases, and sustained effort is mandatory in order to see results. On many occasions, case follow up can be stressful, draining and also depressing because it is long and does not yield immediate results. Emotional stress is common with members involved in cases; to see the everyday harassment of the powerless within the court premises can be daunting.

There used to be a well-intentioned tendency for everyone to take up the role of counsellor when a woman came to the organisation for help. As a result, counselling was popular in the initial years of NNPM’s handling of cases. But this need to help, to reach out, to support, to tell the woman what to do is often very different from professional counselling, and there are specific methods to handle it. At NNPM, we debated the need for a professional counsellor in the 2000s, because by that time the counselling profession had been well established and there were younger members who thought it necessary to get specialised help rather than a friendly didi (sister) who would lend a sensitive ear to the person’s traumatic situation. There were debates within the organisation that at a time when there were few women’s groups the judiciary or the legal system had not become proactive as a result of sustained campaigns by women’s movements; the need for organisations like NNPM to deal with cases was relevant. But with more and more funded NGOs emerging, with a dedicated workforce to deal with cases, NNPM debated whether it should become a referral centre and channelise its energies into other campaigns and research-related activities. Moreover, a case-specific understanding could develop where members do not perceive feminist politics beyond cases. There is therefore lack of holistic comprehension of substantive issues concerning the women’s movement and people’s movements in general. The much-needed link between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ may not best be established through the case method. Teaching of the law through this method could have similar limitations in that the pedagogy becomes limited to understanding one case, without analysing the context in which the case originated, the politics and the philosophy of the case, how judgment was reached, who the key players in the judgment were, etc.

Saheli, a group based in New Delhi with similar origins to NNPM, has comparable views on case work. “Some of us in Saheli felt that the very nature of case work is inherently curative, rather than preventive. Unless it is accompanied by active efforts to organise for social and structural change, case work can only provide symptomatic relief to a few individual women. Yet case work, by becoming a primary activity of Saheli, consumed the energies of volunteers so completely that campaigns on issues emerging from the case work did not receive enough attention.” (https://sites.google.com/site/saheliorgsite/other-activities/the-casework-debate-in-saheli, last visited on July 2, 2012)

Women’s groups and activists in India have since the early-1980s fought and campaigned vigorously for legal rights -- from dowry-related torture, to cruelty within marriage, to domestic violence within marriage or in the parental home, to the demand to broaden the definition of rape and sexual harassment. It’s been a long journey. The legal rights that have been acquired need to be exercised by ordinary citizens. It is unfortunate that, in most situations, in spite of legal provisions being in place, women cannot access the courts by themselves, they need the help of support groups. Women’s organisations become that support. Indeed, today it is legally legitimised: the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act has a section on service-providers (NGOs that will take in women and get them justice). Although not all women supported by women’s groups manage to get justice, these groups often are the first step towards access to justice for many women in India who are tentative about going to court.  

(Rukmini Sen is Assistant Professor, Sociology and Gender Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, March 2013