Reports of the violation of women’s fundamental rights through physical, mental, emotional, and sexual violence against women are commonplace in India. Violence against women has taken particularly acute forms in circumstances where populations are already marginalized, such as in areas affected by armed conflict, and areas undergoing mass displacement. Women in the Tribal belts and amongst Dalit populations are vulnerable, and become even more so in areas affected by conflict. There is therefore a pressing need for the judiciary to recognize and address the particular forms of violence levied against women who are ‘doubly marginalised’ by caste, class, religion, or in situations of conflict. A number of laws that protect women from discrimination are also either inadequate or have not been implemented properly. HRLN has been closely associated with the women’s movement for over two decades. The Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI) is its national network of lawyers and social activists, that uses the law to oppose all forms of gender-based discrimination and violence against women and to increase women’s access to the justice system as a vital means to their empowerment.
What HRLN Does
The framework of ‘women’s justice’ involves not only the prevention of specific forms of violence and discrimination against women, but also encompasses all other human rights, including the right to food and health, disability, housing labour rights; dalit/tribal/adivasi rights, environmental justice, criminal justice, etc. With this holistic vision of equality and gender justice, WJI works directly with poor and marginalized women as well as through legal education, advocacy and policy analysis to continue the struggle for women’s rights.
To achieve its objectives, the WJI adopts a multi-pronged strategy in dealing with various facets of women’s rights violations. The WJI engages in strategic litigation through PILs in High Courts and the Supreme Court for systematic changes as well as the implementation of policy and women’s rights laws. Through legal aid and counseling, it provides women with representation in cases of divorce, domestic violence, matrimonial remedies, guardianship, custody, adoption, property rights, sexual harassment, etc. The WJI is also active in opposing bail of the accused in cases of violence against women, particularly in cases of rape, dowry harassment, domestic violence, and acid-attacks. Lawyers working with the WJI provide legal counseling to women at various women’s crime cells, and to women prisoners. We provide legal expertise as member of several committees, including as members of several sexual harassment complaint committees across the country. The WJI also runs a number of helplines throughout the country that provide legal counseling as well as psycho-social support to women.
WJI responds to situations of crisis through emergency dispatches of legal teams to crisis-affected zones, through investigative missions and through legal fact-findings, which often become the basis for further litigation to address severe women’s rights violations. It also consistently monitors and reviews the implementation of laws and policies related to women.
Through legal education and training of social activists, mahila panchayats, police personnel, lawyers, law students, and paralegals, it works to integrate women’s issues into the general discourse on justice and human rights. Judicial colloquia and legal consultations is a crucial aspect of its work — sensitizing judges and strategizing for the development of women’s rights law in India. The WJI also supports campaigns to influence public opinion, policies and legislation in support of a violence-free society for women. A core operational element of the WJI is the degree to which the team works in solidarity with other organizations. To this end, WJI has nurtured deep partnerships with grassroots women’s NGOs, supporting them in the collective struggle to address the public denial of women’s rights.
• Rape and sexual assault
• Domestic violence
• Sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational institutions
• Matrimonial disputes, custody, divorce
• Women’s property and inheritance rights
• Reproductive and sexual health rights of women/ adolescent girls
• Pre-birth sex-selection and elimination of female foetuses
• Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, domestic work, marriage, etc.
• Child marriage
• Child sexual abuse
• Acid attacks
• ‘Honour’-based crimes against women/‘honour killings’
• Equal employment opportunities for women and labour rights.
• Rights of doubly marginalized sections of women like HIV+ women, dalit and tribal women, women
prisoners, lesbians, bisexuals, disabled women.
• Any other gender based discrimination/exploitation
The WJI is combating the various facets of violence against women through the legal system. In a precedent-setting verdict on a case of an acid-attack, brought by WJI lawyers to the Karnataka High Court, the court created legal history by treating the throwing of acid as an attempt to murder (rather than an attempt to cause grievous injury) and imposed a life sentence on the perpetrator, ensuring that cases of acid-throwing attract stricter punishment without bail. In a remarkable judgment, Somaru Patel vs. State, for the first time in judicial history, the court awarded a life sentence under Section 6 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 for the forceful detention of women for prostitution. In another historic case filed in the Delhi High Court, Shramjivi Mahila Samittee vs. State and Others, the court directed the petitioner to form guidelines for placement agencies for domestic workers, which were drafted by the WJI and submitted to the court for implementation.
HRLN leads litigation on women’s issues across the country, playing a pivotal role in implementing the guidelines given by the Supreme Court on sexual harassment. The case of Shivani Thakur Vs. State of Punjab, filed by HRLN’s unit in Chandigarh, received an order that resulted in the State of Punjab instituting sexual harassment grievance committees in all its departments. HRLN’s landmark PIL in the Supreme Court, in the case of Medha Kotwal Lele Vs. Union of India received orders mandating only a single enquiry in cases of sexual harassment to curb the victimization of the complainant. The WJI has also made history by bringing reproductive rights into the ambit of legally enforceable rights through a number of landmark cases and PILs.
The WJI is particularly active in circumstances of extreme violation of women and has used the legal system to ensure rights and provide substantive reliefs in such cases. For example, in a writ petition filed in West Bengal against a shelter home where a woman was refused entry due to her HIV positive status, XY Vs Union Of India, the court directed the directorate of Social Welfare to clarify what steps have been taken to establish more shelter homes for positive woman.