Violence against women is not unique to India, but India’s continuing belief in cultural practices that undermine women’s roles in its society sets the nation apart. Traditional practices, such as the preference for male children, create gender inequalities and make Indian women increasingly vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Sons are more important to the family legacy and hold more authority and legitimacy in Indian culture. The preference for males has far-reaching implications for female children’s health, education, economic opportunities, as well as on their right to choose their partners. Although the political will to decrease violence against women in India is low, recent legislative and judicial measures are now addressing the issue, in large part due to demands for change from feminist groups. Beginning in the 1980s, concern about increasing violence against women led 35 women’s organizations, student activist groups, and trade unions to form a coalition called the Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch (DVCM, Anti-Dowry Awareness Raising Forum) to advocate changes to India’s then-existing dowry laws. Their efforts helped pass the Dowry Prohibition Amendment Act in 1984, which broadened the meaning of dowry and increased punishments for those requesting a dowry. Demanding cash or values from the bride’s family in consideration of marriage is now punishable by at least six months imprisonment and a fine.
India further amended the Act in 1986, which shifted the burden of proof to the accused, increased imprisonment to at least five years, made the offense non-bailable, and appointed dowry prohibition officers. In 1986, India introduced the crime of “dowry death” into the Indian Penal Code to address societal concerns about the dowry-related death of newly married women. The newly defined crime ensured that a husband or his family inflict torture or cruelty on a married woman resulting in her death would be punishable by a minimum of seven years imprisonment, with the possibility of a life sentence. Though these efforts intend to reduce dowry deaths, a lack of effective enforcement and judicial apathy has resulted in the continued rise of the killings of newly-wed women.
In 2005, to address concerns about the effectiveness of its amendments, India passed the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), which provides civil remedies and access to justice for victims of domestic violence. Unlike previous legislation, civil remedies now included monetary compensation for the aggrieved person and her children. The PWDVA also offered a comprehensive definition of domestic violence, recognizes marital rape, requires the appointment of protection officers to assist victims, and further acknowledges the importance of collaboration between the government and external organizations in protecting women.
Significantly, the PWDVA created a new procedure in which victims are not required to go to a court or hire a lawyer; instead, victims complete a domestic violence complaint with the assistance of a protection officer or service provider. Although the PWDVA simplified the justice process for victims, Indian women still lack awareness of the Act and often meet delays in case depositions due to a lack of adequate, affordable legal services. The PWDVA mandates depositions within 60 days, but courts have reported processing delays of up to two years due to a lack of case monitoring by the same protection officers made available by PWDVA. In one 2008 case, a woman filed a complaint against her husband, accusing him of cruelty and sexual harassment. Despite the case being heard by the District Court, the Court did not inform her of any developments and called her to appear in court 24 times. This case exemplifies the common apathy of some judges, who often fail to grasp the gravity and emotional consequences of domestic violence.
In order to fight for effective implementation of PWDVA provisions, the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative (LCWRI) trained criminal justice professionals, raised awareness among Indian women, and offered legal aid to those facing domestic violence. The United Nations Women’s Organization recently reviewed the PWDVA and concluded that as a result of LCWRI’s efforts, married women increasingly utilize legal routes to justice and are more aware of various forms of domestic violence, including emotional, psychological, verbal, and sexual violence. However, the U.N. report also found judicial prejudice against female victims, with many victims still not receiving needed relief and protection orders.
In July 2015, one court ordered a 22-year-old woman to reconcile with her rapist. After several court battles and raising the child born from the rape, she decided to marry her rapist. The appellate court judge cited a religious emphasis on reconciliation as reasons for his decision. Judges often use personal religious bias to intervene in family matters, as many personal laws in India regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption are founded on religious arguments.
The woman’s decision to withdraw her case further indicates the judicial system’s failure to effectively address cases of violence against women, confirming the U.N. Women’s Organization and the LCWRI report’s findings. These organizations continue to monitor and evaluate the extent of protection against violence for women, review court orders nationwide, and provide recommendations to improve the judicial system. The criminal justice system is slow to bring effective reforms, but these groups’ work has expanded public awareness of violence against women.
Indian women’s groups have also demanded a review of Indian women’s legal protections. In response, India established the National Commission for Women (NCW) in 1992 to examine the provisions protecting women’s rights in the Constitution and existing laws, and to provide recommendations to address gaps in these statutes. In keeping with its mandate, the NCW reviewed complaints and acted on cases to ensure speedy justice. In one successful case, a woman filed a complaint alleging that her husband and in-laws subjected her to mental and physical torture. After several meetings facilitated by the NCW, both sides agreed to a divorce, and the husband returned the dowry to the complainant.
The NCW also organized and funded Parivarik Mahila Lok Adalat (People’s Courts for Women), an alternative justice delivery system. Local NGOs or government organizations use the Adalats to facilitate quick resolution of family dispute cases. These organizations bring pending court cases, which would otherwise sit for months in the district courts, to the Adalats, which know the involved parties more intimately than regular courts and therefore settle family dispute cases more quickly and justly. The LCWRI reports a settlement rate of over fifty percent in some of the Lok Adalats, indicative of both the quick delivery of justice and of the satisfactory relief provided to victims.
Initiatives addressing violence against Indian women have not come solely from the government, though. One of the most successful grassroots efforts to address domestic violence is the village-level collectives, called Nari Adalats and Mahila Panchs. These women’s courts, established in selected districts in over ten states, function outside the formal legal system and use conflict resolution, community pressure, counseling, and statutes to bring perpetrators to justice and restore women’s equal status in their society. The courts emerged as a social justice forum “largely of women, for women, and by women.” By providing marginalized women and girls access to justice in a country where such access is usually limited to privileged populations, Nari Adalats has succeeded in combating violence against women.
With the progress being made, one might reasonably expect that India now faces lower rates of violence against women. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Between 2010 and 2014, rape, kidnapping and abduction, dowry death, assaults, and cruelty against women by a husband or his relatives rose by 58%. Police unwillingness to implement legal measures to protect women, India’s patriarchal attitudes, women’s lack of economic power, and an absence of legal and judicial knowledge continue to impede efforts to stem violence against women.
India must address its failure to protect women from violence. The National Human Rights Commission and the NCW should coordinate efforts to address women’s rights violations. Both national and local governments must strengthen policies that promote equal opportunity for women in education and employment and initiate measures to increase women’s political participation. Comprehensive healthcare, which identifies abuse early and offers victims necessary resources, is a step in the right direction. Law enforcement and the judiciary should be trained to address violence against women effectively, and India should periodically reevaluate these measures and allocate funding to its most promising programs, such as Nari Adalats, to create lasting change.
Finally, Indian men’s traditional attitudes have not kept pace with judicial reforms and increasing opportunities for women in the workforce. Although many men are aware of laws about violence against women, knowledge of legislation has not yet succeeded in changing deep-rooted cultural values and sexist norms. Indian society must reshape women’s roles by passing laws that ensure women’s property rights and increase their economic opportunities in the private and public sector alike. Only then will Indian women justly regain full control over their own lives.
References  Singh, K. (2004). Violence against women and the Indian law. In S. Goonesekere (Ed.), Violence, law and women’s rights in South Asia (pp. 77–147). New Delhi, India. Sage.