Building Partnerships: Collaborative Approaches for a Coordinated Response to Gender Based Violence

Session Report
Aasthaba Jadeja

The Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi conducted a four week Online National Spring School Program on ‘Ending Gender-based Violence – Cohort 2: Awareness of Policies & Governance’ from March 5th, 2024 to March 27th 2024.

On day 7, our first speaker of the day Adv. Audrey D’Mello delivered a presentation on Building Partnerships: Collaborative Approaches for a Coordinated Response to Gender Based Violence.

In her discussion, Adv. Audrey D’Mello sheds light on the evolving nature of collaboration within the Indian women’s rights movement. She uses Majlis, a legal aid organization she works with, as a prime example. Established in 1991 by women who were pioneers in the early movement, Majlis embodies a strategic shift in focus. With a growing body of women’s rights legislation enacted, Majlis addresses the crucial gap between legal protections existing on paper and their practical application in women’s lives.

Adv. D’Mello acknowledges the initial significance of collaboration. A multitude of NGOs joined forces to champion these legislative changes. Over time, however, the emphasis strategically shifted towards ensuring the effectiveness of the existing legal framework. This realization spurred the rise of specialized organizations like Majlis. Unlike the earlier focus on legal advocacy, Majlis exemplifies a new approach –  utilizing the established legal framework to empower women. Their work ensures these laws are accessible and have a tangible impact on the ground, creating real change for women.

Majlis, like many other organizations, faced a significant challenge: ensuring access to justice for women.  This is particularly difficult because of three major hurdles. First, the legal system itself is complex and intimidating. Second, patriarchal attitudes often discourage women from seeking justice, creating a social barrier. Finally, even within families, women may encounter resistance to claiming their rights.

Given these challenges, Majlis works to hold the entire system accountable. They navigate the legal complexities while also addressing societal biases and family pressures. Their strategy involves using the law itself to persuade stakeholders, even those who might be resistant to women’s rights. This requires a deep understanding of legal procedures and a strong foundation in feminist principles. By combining legal knowledge with their feminist perspective, Majlis pushes the system to ensure women can at least file their cases and pursue justice.

Adv. Audrey D’Mello recounted a powerful story highlighting the importance of collaboration within the women’s movement. The incident involved Flavia Agnes, a prominent women’s rights lawyer. Family courts, a major achievement of the women’s movement, were established to provide a more accessible and supportive environment for women’s legal cases. Soon after their establishment in Mumbai, however, a disturbing incident occurred in 1991. During this initial case, a judge verbally abused a woman and dismissed her case. Notably, Adv. Agnes was among the first lawyers registered at this very court. However, her experience within the women’s movement empowered her with a unique approach.

Unlike traditional legal strategies, Adv. Agnes mobilized the support of NGOs affiliated with the women’s movement. This established network, unlike individual lawyers, possessed the capacity to bring significant public attention to the incident. A substantial protest, a “morcha,” was organized outside the family court. This unprecedented action demonstrably shocked the judicial system, accustomed to operating in isolation, were confronted by the collective power of the women’s movement. The protest held the judge accountable and highlighted the need for improved judicial conduct.

This case exemplifies the potency of combining legal expertise with the collective strength of the women’s movement. Majlis, the organization Adv. D’Mello is a part of, continues this practice of fostering connections between women’s rights organizations and the courts. These connections ensure that the highest levels of the judiciary are aware of the realities in lower courts and that women have a stronger support system to navigate the legal process.

Christian Women’s Divorce Rights

Adv. D’Mello highlights a successful example of collaboration within the women’s rights movement, specifically focusing on Christian women’s divorce rights. Until 2005, Christian women in India required proof of both adultery and cruelty to obtain a divorce. This presented a significant hurdle, as many abusive husbands wouldn’t be adulterous. Recognizing this difficulty, a campaign was launched to amend the law.

The key to success involved a multi-pronged approach. The women’s movement played a crucial role in advocacy and public awareness. Simultaneously, Adv. D’Mello and her colleagues engaged with the Christian clergy, including the archdiocesan board and the Archbishop. They presented arguments based on fairness and international examples, ultimately persuading the clergy to support the change.

Media outreach was another important tactic. By explaining the complexities of the law to the public, they countered potential resistance from the Christian community. Having the clergy advocate alongside them helped prevent a defensive reaction from the community, who might otherwise have seen the movement as meddling in their internal affairs. 

The combined efforts of women’s rights groups, the media, and Christian clergy culminated in a significant legislative victory. Through a well-coordinated campaign, they successfully lobbied the Indian Parliament to amend the divorce law for Christian women. In 2005, the law was changed to allow divorce based solely on cruelty, removing the prior requirement of proving adultery as well.

This change was crucial for Christian women facing abuse in their marriages. It empowered them to seek divorce without feeling ostracized by their community. The dramatic increase in divorce filings by Christian women after 2005 speaks volumes about the impact of this legal reform. By engaging various stakeholders and addressing potential concerns, they were able to achieve legal change without triggering community backlash. It serves as a powerful example of how collaboration can be a powerful tool in dismantling gender-based violence.

Collaborative Implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act

Adv. D’Mello describes another significant experience, this time focusing on the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) in Maharashtra. Enacted in 2005, this law was a landmark achievement, offering a comprehensive support system for women facing domestic violence. It included access to shelter, medical care, job assistance, and legal aid – a vast array of resources beyond what most legal protections provide. Notably, the Act also involved a broader range of stakeholders than usual. In addition to the courts and the victim, police, medical professionals, shelter homes, and NGOs all played crucial roles in ensuring the woman’s safety and well-being.

Five years after the law’s enactment (around 2010), there had been minimal progress in Maharashtra. The designated “protection officers,” supposed to be the lynchpin for implementing the Act’s provisions, were Tehsildars – revenue officials already burdened with numerous other responsibilities. This lack of dedicated personnel and proper training rendered the Act largely ineffective. Recognizing this critical gap, Adv. D’Mello and her colleagues at Majlis knew they had to take action.

Here, Adv D’Mello again highlights the power of strategic collaboration.  Understanding the challenges, the Women and Child Department reached out to Majlis and other NGOs, their expertise invaluable in navigating the roadblocks. Together, they embarked on a collaborative effort to get the implementation process rolling. This involved training relevant stakeholders – police, medical personnel, shelter homes, and NGOs. Through these training initiatives, everyone involved gained a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities under the Act. 

Adv. D’Mello elaborates on the demanding yet rewarding process of ensuring the effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act in Maharashtra. She recounts the three years she dedicated to this initiative, emphasizing the complexities involved. Understanding the intricacies of various bureaucracies – public health systems, police procedures, and departmental interactions – was crucial. Adv. D’Mello highlights the challenge of bridging departmental silos and fostering communication across different stakeholders.

Their efforts culminated in the creation of a “standard operating procedure” (SOP) document. This document’s significance lies in its comprehensive nature. Endorsed by the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and key government departments (WCD and Home), it served as a guiding manual for all stakeholders. The SOP outlined best practices and clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of each department under the Act.  This, according to Adv. D’Mello, was a significant achievement – for the first time, various stakeholders were brought together to understand the Act through the lens of gender and domestic violence. Each department was equipped to address issues specific to their domain while adhering to the Act’s provisions.

However, the work wasn’t over. The reliance on Tehsildars as protection officers remained a hurdle.  These revenue officials, already overburdened, lacked the capacity to effectively fulfill the role envisioned by the Act. To address this, Adv. D’Mello and her colleagues took the legal route, filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the High Court. Their petition challenged the feasibility of Tehsildars carrying out the duties of protection officers as outlined in the Act. This tactic aimed to push for a more suitable designation for this critical role.

Adv. D’Mello emphasizes that successful collaboration necessitates a nuanced approach. While advocating for accountability is essential, it must be balanced with the ability to work constructively with stakeholders. Collaboration thrives on the ability to both partner and push back strategically, ensuring all parties work towards a common goal. This highlights the importance of fostering open communication and a willingness to navigate disagreements productively.

Views on Counselling for Women

Adv. D’Mello expresses strong reservations about the counseling offered by police, the judiciary, and the state in domestic violence cases. She argues that under the Domestic Violence Act, designated stakeholders cannot perform “samjauta” (mediation or reconciliation efforts). Additionally, the Act clearly stipulates court-ordered counseling as a path towards seeking specific reliefs, including settlements.

However, Adv. D’Mello reveals a disagreement within the women’s movement on this issue. Some believe counseling offers the most accessible option for women, given the challenges of navigating the court system. They advocate for allowing settlements and counseling through various channels, including the police. They believe this aligns with what women want.

Adv. D’Mello finds this perspective disheartening.  She has witnessed firsthand how such counseling, often conducted under the guise of “saving the family,” pressures women back into abusive situations. These sessions can be demeaning, offer no real protection, and leave women’s safety precarious. She fears for their well-being, unsure if they return only to be further harmed or even killed. This approach, according to Adv. D’Mello, perpetuates the view of women as second-class citizens who must accept subpar solutions due to limited options.  She argues for a system that prioritizes women’s rights and safety over the preservation of the family unit at all costs.

Ms. D’Mello concludes by emphasizing the crucial role of community connection and outreach in social justice work. Remaining grounded in the realities faced by the communities you serve is essential. It ensures you never lose sight of the ultimate purpose – empowering women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and children. This work cannot become solely about running an organization or achieving personal goals. It must be a constant reminder of the fight for justice and the impact on the lives you are striving to improve.

Adv Audrey D’Mello is Director, Majlis Legal Centre, Mumbai and Visiting Senior Fellow, IMPRI.

Read more at IMPRI:

Inclusive justice in the Indian Courts

Harassment Against Women: A Pervasive and Multidimensional Issue

Acknowledgment: Aasthaba Jadeja is a Visiting Researcher at IMPRI.