Nearly 150 organisation from across the country have urged the National Commission for Women to intervene to ensure that women’s access to justice is not obstructed.
New Delhi: In light of the recent Supreme Court judgement on the alleged misuse of Section 498A of the IPC – which deals with a husband or his relative subjecting a woman to cruelty – nearly 150 women’s rights organisations have stepped forward and urged the National Commission for Women (NCW) to intervene and take all steps necessary to ensure that women’s access to justice is not diluted or obstructed.
The commission has also been asked to conduct a study taking into account the lived experiences of women to counter the allegation of widespread misuse of the law.
On July 27, the apex court, with a view to address the mammoth number of cases that are being filed alleging harassment of married women, ruled that no immediate arrests should be made in these cases. It has asked for the setting up of at least one Family Welfare Committee in every district, which would investigate and submit its report on the cases referred to it. Till then, “no arrest should normally be made.”
The petitioners have said that the apex court judgement – based on “certain studies” – states that the law is being widely misused by women. But the court has failed to make any mention of what studies it has relied upon or provide any on-ground data to back the claim of misuse.
The petition, addressed to Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the chairperson of the NCW, states that women’s organisations across the country “have documentation and studies that show the real lived experiences and problems suffered by women using Section 498A IPC.”
According to the petitioners – representing leading networks and organisations – the recent judgement completely disregards the fact that women in India face a far greater degree of vulnerability. Countless are subjected to marital violence which impacts their physical and mental health, often even leading to death – as evidenced by National Crime Records Bureau data revealing that 24,771 dowry deaths have been reported in the country in past three years. The reform in the law rather than providing protection to women argues that men are equally vulnerable.
“Judicial decisions regarding women’s right to life of dignity and free of violence, both physical and mental, in the matrimonial home, cannot be premised on hearsay, and anecdotes echoing embedded prejudice,” the statement reads.
On the judgement stating that complaints are filed over “trivial issues” and “in the heat of the moment,” the petitioners pointed out that in reality, it was the contrary and that women endured violence for years and rarely filed a complaint. The shame and stigma attached to marital violence, apart from financial dependence on abusive husbands and the lack of family support, often acted as deterrents. An All India Network of Sex Workers representative has pointed out that large section of women find it difficult to raise their voice within the family, let alone go to the police or any law enforcement official.
The jugement has relied on low conviction rate data in support of its claim of rampant misuse of the law. But according to the petition, the apex court has failed to identify the reasons behind the low conviction rate. Marital violence occurs inside a home, seldom without witnesses present. “The police too is reluctant to accept general diary/written complaint from the women against the in-laws and husband and advises her to try to adjust in the matrimonial family.” Women thus are without any documentary evidence to back their claim of violence.
The delays in the legal system and the widespread attitude of women being expected to ‘compromise’ largely results in out-of-court settlements or cases being disposed – which is reflected as an acquittal in statistical terms. Hence, the petition points out, “it is highly erroneous to interpret all acquittals as false cases.”
Petitioners further pointed out that though there was false reporting under all IPC offences in general, it was only in the case of Section 498A, “which is a provision to protect women against marital violence, that the legal provision itself, is being questioned and diluted.”
“It is of concern that no other legal provision has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny and watering down.”
On the matter of setting up of a committee to investigate the complaints and file a report within a span of the month, the petition points out that the lag between a women complaining about marital violence and any action being taken to protect her or remedy the situation will “render the woman even more vulnerable to physical and mental cruelty.”
Petitioners have alleged that vague identities of members of the committee – para legal volunteers/social workers/retired persons/wives of working officers/other citizens who may be found suitable and willing – goes to show that the work of courts and investigative agencies is being given to those who are “not competent to verify and report on cognizable offences.”
“This decision will leave women at the mercy of people who are not conversant with the law, and whose decisions will be completely arbitrary.”
The Supreme Court judgement is also unclear on what the evidentiary value of the report would be.
Expressing concern over the Ministry of Women and Child Development directive to NCW to establish an online complaints system for men who claim to have been falsely implicated in cases of domestic violence, dowry and rape, the petitioners point out that “the NCW was set up to attend to cases of violation of women’s rights … It is not the mandate of the NCW to attend to men’s complaints.”
The chairperson of the NCW, Kumaramangalam, has said “it is necessary to delink the emotional issues being raised on misuse of Section 498A and argue for its effective use on purely legal logic and rationale.”