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Indian Women Pioneer Informal Justice Courts

Thursday, November 30, 2000

Some pioneering women jurists in remote Indian villages are barely literate, but they know the law often ignores women. Sitting in a circle on the floor, they dispense justice in cases of divorce, abandonment, violence, rape and dowry demands.

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Some pioneering women jurists in remote Indian villages are barely literate, but they know the law often ignores women. Sitting in a circle on the floor, they dispense justice in cases of divorce, abandonment, violence, rape and dowry demands.
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Indian women

RAJKOT, India (WOMENSENEWS)--A white-haired woman dressed in a bright yellow sari stands up on a veranda and shouts, "Quiet. This 'nari adalat' is about to begin."

Women's court is in session in a dusty village in India's far western state of Gujarat, and it is beginning to influence how justice is perceived and dispensed to those who need it most: poor women.

The women sit in a circle on the red oxide floor. A woman hangs up a board announcing that court is in session. The street sellers of vegetables and peanuts move on in the sultry afternoon. A young man and a woman carrying a child step forward and join the circle.

So begins a hearing by an informal women's court, part of an extraordinary alternative judicial system by and for poor women that has been quietly functioning in some parts of the western state of Gujarat for the last five years.

The price of justice: a little over $1 for those who can afford it.

Five nari adalat, or women's courts, have been holding regular sessions one day a week in five villages. At a time when the formal judicial system seems to have become increasingly remote and inaccessible to poor people, the women of Gujarat have pioneered a unique form of rendering justice--through a process of social censure, cajoling, argument and persuasion.

Women's Courts Mediate and Adjudicate on Behalf of Women

Many of these court officers are barely literate, but they have learned about the law, its implications and limitations. Their dockets are crowded with cases from women seeking help and justice and from some men. They find the formal courts inaccessible, costly and often unwilling to hear cases of intimidated women living in poverty.

They hear, mediate and adjudicate cases of divorce, fights between women and their mothers-in-law, complaints about drunkenness, domestic violence, rape, dowry extortion, maintenance for abandoned or divorced women, inheritance, and treatment of widows and of the elderly. The courts' successes depend upon the respect of the parties and the parties' willingness to accept its authority.

In this session in Pavi Jethpur village, the adalat meets on the verandah of the panchayat, or village government, office. The court was offered space indoors, but the women preferred to sit outside, visible and accessible.

Gangaba, the impressive elderly woman in the bright yellow sari, announces the start of the proceedings. A young man and a woman carrying a young girl step forward. They sit in the circle, facing Gangaba and Leelaben, a facilitator from the Mahila Samakhya, or women's empowerment program. They are joined by women from different sanghas, or women's collectives.

Court Says Husband Must Pay for Support, Daughter's Schooling

The man wants a divorce. He has complained that his wife left him two years ago and went to live in her parents' house. He does not want her back. When the women ask why, he says nothing. "Women are not toys that you can just discard them," says Gangaba. The man sulks, but still says nothing. "Think of your child," she says.

"If you really want a divorce," says Leelaben, "let us calculate maintenance," or alimony. They suggest that he pay his wife 500 rupees (about $10.50) a month for seven years and an additional 8,000 rupees ($170) for the daughter's education--a total of 50,000 rupees, the equivalent of $1,063. If he is willing to pay this amount, he can get a divorce, they tell him. He is given until the next hearing to think over the proposition. Case adjourned.

The next case involves the harassment of a young bride by her in-laws in an effort to force her and her family to pay more dowry--the money and gifts given by the bride's family to the bridegroom's family.

The wife, a beautiful young woman in a mustard-colored sari, says her husband and in-laws have been harassing her, trying to force her and her family to buy an electric fan for their house. She maintains that she already took a considerable dowry into the marital home and shouldn't have to pay more.

"Don't look at other people's palaces and in the process destroy your own house," Gangaba says to the young man. "Why don't you earn enough to buy yourself a fan?"

In-laws Agree to Stop Hurting Wife to Get New Electric Fan

For over half an hour there is a lively discussion about the issue of dowry and the demand for a fan. Finally, the young man's family agrees to give the girl an assurance, on legal stamped paper, that they will not harass her anymore. The challenge: Will the decision stick?

And so the cases continue through the hot and sultry afternoon.

In Padra village, the adalat is held under a large neem tree on the grounds of the government offices. Here, some of the stories are different. The day begins with young Gangaben complaining that her husband, Jeetubhai, has thrown her out of her house and now wants a divorce. He first had an affair with her sister-in-law, then with her 14-year-old sister. She demands justice.

The husband sits among this impressive group of women, completely unmoved. "These women came after me," he says. "What could I do?" All the women scream back at him, refusing to accept his statement.

"You are taking the side of the woman," shouts Jeetubhai. "Why don't you shoot me with a gun?" So saying, he stomps off.

Angry Adulterer-Husband: "You're Taking the Woman's Side!"

After a few minutes, once tempers cool, Jeetubhai goes back. He says he has changed his mind. He does not want a divorce because he cannot pay maintenance to an ex-spouse. The women tell him that Gangaben will only go back if he asks her forgiveness.

"I will apologize," he says, but he demands that the women from a collective go to his village and see for themselves how little he has. They agree. After he leaves, they plan how the visit and assessment will be carried out.

All day, such cases come before the nari adalats that meet in a different place each day.

"Women are tired of courts. Lawyers do not work properly," explains one of the older women, Madhuben. "Here women work sincerely. We have told women that we are working for them."

Apart from the system of persuasion and reasoning, these informal courts are remarkable for the extent of judicial knowledge that these women have acquired. Many of them are barely literate. Yet they have understood the law and its limitations.

Initial Focus Was on Caste-Based Rape and Violence

This unique institution of people's justice is an offshoot of the "Mahila Samakhya" program which aims at women's empowerment by letting women set their own agenda. Initially, lower-caste women trained under the program were focused on broader social problems such as caste-based offenses, like rape and destruction of property by upper castes.

But before long, they expressed the desire to deal with more specific personal problems and a separate legal committee was established. Almost instantly, it was inundated with cases. Being available just once a month was not enough. So the women decided on a weekly session. Thus, the first nari adalat was born five years ago.

Since then the idea has caught on and spread to other parts of the state and to Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka states. The women's courts demonstrate that justice for women can be achieved outside the formal court system.

Kalpana Sharma is deputy editor of The Hindu, a prominent English-language newspaper.