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There are 54 Mahila Panchayats in Delhi run by 34 NGOs. These panchayats offer legal assistance at a community level. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
There are 54 Mahila Panchayats in Delhi run by 34 NGOs. These panchayats offer legal assistance at a community level. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

A day in the life of a Mahila Panchayat

Every Wednesday at 1.30pm, Mahila Panchayats across Delhi meet with victims of domestic violence, listen to their stories, suggest possible solutions to disputes and educate women about their legal rights

New Delhi: Twenty-five years into her abusive marriage with a man who tried to set her ablaze and threw her out of the house a month ago, the destitute woman from Delhi’s Dakshinpuri just wants to be treated with dignity. Nothing more.

Today, the 38-year-old, who says she still bears burn marks on her arm, and 18 other women are huddled in a small room. Some have come to tell their stories, others to hear them.

This is the second time Gaurwal, who prefers not to reveal her full name, is visiting a Mahila Panchayat, or women’s council, one of the 54 such councils in Delhi. At 1:30pm every Wednesday, Mahila Panchayats across Delhi meet with victims of domestic violence, listen to their stories, suggest possible solutions to disputes and educate women about their legal rights.

A few years into the marriage, Gaurwal’s husband started beating her up. At that time, she thought if she got a divorce her two unmarried sisters would never get married due to the stigma around a sibling’s divorce. Then she had children. The beatings continued, but who would take care of her children if she left her husband? A few years ago, he tried to set her ablaze. She dialled 100. When the police came, instead of registering a first information report (FIR), they told her about how difficult life will be without the husband. She decided to stay.

Years passed and nothing has changed. Today, her two sons are 22 and 18, and her husband has thrown her out of the house, asking her not to return. What she wants is reconciliation, and somehow miraculously, have her husband’s mind change.

“Why should I go to a court? I don’t want a divorce now. I have already spent 25 years of my life in this marriage. I want him to treat me like his wife, not a servant," says Gaurwal.

Covering their heads with the end of their bright, colourful saris, the women squat on a mat spread on the floor. There is a certain comfort in the way the conversations are held, made easier by the manner in which both Mahila Panchayat members and the victims are seated. Here, everyone is an equal.

For Gaurwal and others, Mahila Panchayat is a space where they can speak fearlessly when they want help in resolving disputes within a family. It is also a place where they are told why they should speak and what legal rights they have.

To be sure, the Mahila Panchayats do not replace the judicial system. The difference is that in this room, cases are resolved using conversations and social pressure, while in the court, procedural law is used. These panchayats offer legal aid at a community level, mostly on cases pertaining to bigamy, maintenance, domestic violence, alcoholism, and for women belonging to the lower economic strata. If the only option is divorce, the panchayat sends the case to the courts.

According to the book Urban Women in Contemporary India: A Reader edited by Rehana Ghadially, “Providing women with intangible resources such as social and emotional support represents a large portion of the (work of) Mahila Panchayat. The NGO staff and the Mahila Panchayat often replace a woman’s own family if parental support is not forthcoming."

It’s nearly three decades since Delhi’s Mahila Panchayats came into being on a model launched by NGO Action India and later adopted by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW). Recently, DCW decided to revive Mahila Panchayats, and in March this year said they would be set up in all 70 assembly constituencies of the city state.

Overall, there are 54 Mahila Panchayats in Delhi, run by 34 non-government organizations, including the six run by Action India.

Gouri Choudhury, director of Action India, the face behind the first Mahila Panchayat, says how much importance is given to a panchayat depends on who is in power, “The current DCW is very dynamic. But their idea of a Mahila Panchayat is very different from ours. They want to expand it to every district and keep one MP (Mahila Panchayat) under every MLA. Professionals, educated counsellors, will be involved. What I believe is that I, or any educated woman, don’t understand the problems of a woman living in such settings, as much as Omwati does. From outside, looking at such cases, I may decide for her to just walk out. But Omwati knows Rampyari has nowhere to go. It is important to involve people from within the community to help women within the community."

A typical Mahila Panchayat consists of 20 members and two paralegals. After an initial assessment, community leaders are identified and motivated to volunteer as members. The 20 members are trained in legal issues, dispute redressal and in laws relevant to crimes against women, property and maintenance rights, marriage, and custody. They are also trained in counselling, FIR writing, pursuing cases with police stations, and how to proceed for legal recourse.

“Why would one prefer Mahila Panchayat over courts? We work in poor communities. Everybody knows that there is no justice for poor and even more so if you are a woman. It is so much easier to come to the panchayat and not spend money or waste time or lose your wage going to courts," says Choudhury.

Typically, a victim approaches the panchayat—in many cases pretending she is representing a friend or relative. She discusses her case, and lodges a complaint. After receiving the complaint, the Mahila Panchayat sends a notice to the husband on its letterhead. “Most people think it is a government order because of a formal letterhead. Some, who are educated, ask us who we are and decline to cooperate. Technically, we don’t have the right to do anything. Nobody has given us the authority to make men listen to us... but we give this authority to ourselves," says Choudhury.

The husband who responds must pay fees of Rs50 and attend the Panchayat to defend his case. “Men come and sit in a room full of women, but mostly, they don’t come alone. They come with other men," says Choudhury.

Today, as the panchayat hears Gaurwal, Sunita Devi, the paralegal, keeps checking her watch. At 2 PM, she picks up the phone and dials Gaurwal’s husband. “He is saying we are going after the wrong party... that it is the wife’s mistake. What we have to constantly reiterate is that just because it is a Mahila Panchayat doesn’t mean we wouldn’t listen to men. What we want is resolution of a conflict. We want a happy house. We are here to help," says Sunita.

In the last six years, Action India, with its Mahila Panchayats, claims to have resolved 12,000 domestic violence cases. Choudhury says the aim is not just to reduce violence against women. “We wanted and still are trying to create this space—a woman’s space. We might not want to claim that we have decreased violence. But what we have achieved is that women are openly talking about violence now. We want to change the attitude men have towards women."

Despite criticism on the efficiency of Mahila Panchayats, Ritu Dewan, head of Centre for Gender Economics, department of economics, University of Mumbai, says, “As of now, it might not have teeth, but neither does the National Commission for Women. Politics is everywhere... including the male panchayats. It is a good experiment and instead of criticizing, like we do with any new idea, we need to see how to make it work."

In India, where marriage is considered sacrosanct, attempts are always made to safeguard the institution, mostly with compromise, even by courts. But Mahila Panchayats claim their approach is different.

“We stop a home from breaking but we also ensure the woman is treated well after we put the case as resolved. Follow-up is an important part of what we do," says Gita Dubey, 45, a Mahila Panchayat member.

For someone who has lived with domestic abuse for long, Gaurwal is unusually articulate about her mental distress. She says there were dreams she entered with when she first stepped into her husband’s house, but now she only worries about the practical necessities of life.

“Why wouldn’t he listen to the Mahila Panchayat? These are all wise women who will be fair. Let him say what I have done wrong. I did everything he asked me to do. All I want is a life of dignity."

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