March 25, 2009

Lawyer Tracks Development of Domestic Violence Act in India

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Asmita Basu, a guest speaker from New Delhi, addressed a crowd of mostly graduate students at Myron Taylor Hall about the obstacles and successes in implementing India’s Domestic Violence Act at a midday lecture yesterday.
Basu is a fundamental contributor in the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act in 2005 as a project coordinator of the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative, a top legal, non-government organization dedicated to empowering women through law. She spoke in a filled lecture room of around 50 people about her experience in India drafting the law, lobbying members of Parliament to form consensus over the content of the domestic violence law, and monitoring its implementation.
Basu first described the pre-existing void of effective domestic violence legal actions — which only pertained to married women — and the serious need to empower the women of India who face gender inequalities arising from traditional cultural stigmas.
Basu also noted the shortcomings of previous laws regarding cruelty within marriage and dowry as a precondition to marriage. Criminal law would provide “penalization without any scope for reliefs,” she said. Under civil law, Basu explained that victims faced difficulty in proving cruelty, and she emphasized that it took a long time for a husband and wife to reach any sort of agreement.
“It is hard to get a fair settlement,” Basu added, especially as “religious law is discriminatory towards women.”

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The Domestic Violence Act, brought into force by the Indian government in 2006, would include all women in domestic relations, give them the right to reside in a shared household regardless of who held the title to the house, enlist the services of protection officers to assist the abused and prevent any form of forced reconciliation. Furthermore, the Act, meant to work in conjunction with the existing laws, would allow more domestic violence cases to be tried as criminal cases, thereby expediting court procedures.
While Basu humbly remarked that the passing of the Act was “just one small step towards equality,” she also emphasized that the key aspect of the Act is that it enabled more immediate action.
“Sometimes non-implementation is written into the law,” Basu said. “The idea was to get the reliefs fast.”
Basu pointed out that the Act helped to prevent forced marriages and assist recent widows from being evicted.
The Parliament passed 90 percent of the proposal, but it declined to implement a system that would monitor the implementation of the Act. As a result, Basu and a group of lawyers performed the follow-up work themselves.
“Collecting data was a major obstacle,” she said.
The main difficulty, Basu explained, was the lack of records for when the Domestic Violence Act was used in courts. She also noted that as lawyers they did not have the methodology of data collecting that social scientists might have had.
“It was hard to identify conclusive trends,” Basu admitted.
Despite these hardships, Basu and her team observed an increase in the number of cases for domestic violence. In some cities, such as New Dehli, the number of filings rose by three times.
While Basu acknowledged the inability to draw a direct link from their findings to the newly implemented Act, she suggested that it indicates a higher level of awareness for domestic violence.
In the future Basu hopes that the government will play a larger role in monitoring the law.
“It’s the state responsibility to review the law … we can’t let the government off the hook,” she said.
Ameya Balsekar grad said that he enjoyed the lecture.
“It was really good and I think it’s an important topic … You hear a lot about domestic violence on a daily basis. so it’s really great to hear that there are people working on issues like this.”
Arrangements for Basu’s presentation at Cornell were made by the Berger International Legal Studies Speaker Series in conjunction with the International Human Rights Clinic.