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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 111-122

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Laws Against Domestic Violence:
Underused or Abused? From Manushi, A Journal About Women and Society, No. 120, September-October 2000, 17-24, New Delhi, India

Madhu Kishwar

The birth of Manushi in 1978 coincided with the unfortunate rise in reported cases of domestic violence and murder. Some of these appeared to be linked to dowry demands. When we organized one of our first demonstrations, in early 1979, to protest against police collaboration with the murderer's family by registering the death of the newly married Tarvinder Kaur as a case of suicide, nearly 1500 people of the neighbor-hood joined us in calling for a social boycott of the family. This protest received widespread publicity in the media. As a result, Manushi and other organizations who joined in that protest were flooded with cases of married women seeking redress against abusive and violent husbands and also parents whose daughters had been murdered by their in-laws, seeking our help in getting justice from the police and courts. However, the experience of approaching the police and law courts turned out to be a very disappointing one for most women's organizations.

To begin with, the police would put all manner of hurdles in even registering cases of domestic violence, even when the victims feared for their very lives. In cases where wives had been murdered, the police were found to play an active role in destroying evidence and passing off these cases as suicides or accidental deaths--simply because they had been suitably bribed. The story in the law courts was not very different. Husbands and in-laws got away with torture and even murder, because the women and [End Page 111] their families found it difficult to "prove beyond a doubt" that they were victims of violence and extortion.

From that experience many concluded that what we needed were stringent laws. By comparison, far less importance was given to figuring out ways of making our law enforcement machinery behave lawfully. But most important of all, domestic violence and abuse came to be seen as a one-way affair, largely because most of those whose cases reached women's organizations, police stations, and law courts, happened to be wives who had complained against their husbands. Our laws do not recognize the possibility of daughters-in-law maltreating old in-laws or other vulnerable members of their husband's family.

Demand for Stringent Laws

As a result of determined campaigning and lobbying by women's organizations, significant amendments were made to the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Indian Evidence Act, and the Dowry Prohibition Act, with the intention of protecting wives from marital violence, abuse, and extortionist dowry demands. The most notable ones are sections 304B, 406, and 498A of the IPC, and Section 113A of the Indian Evidence Act. However, the actual implementation of these laws has left a bitter trail of disappointment, anger, and resentment in its wake, among the affected families.

On the one hand, many victims of domestic violence, as well as many women's organizations, feel that despite the existence of supposedly stringent laws that enshrine the dual objective of helping the woman gain control over her stridhan1 and punishing abusive husbands and in-laws, in reality most victims fail to receive necessary relief. This is due to the unsympathetic attitude of the police, magnified by their propensity to protect the wrongdoers, once they are adequately bribed.

A survey of cases in which wives had been murdered or had committed suicide, carried out by Vimochana, a Bangalore-based women's organization, also indicates that the police and other law-enforcing agencies are willfully avoiding use of the stringent laws against domestic violence. In most cases, even where the circumstantial evidence clearly indicates that the wife was killed, the police seemed to go out of their way to convert her death into a case of suicide. In many instances, families of victims found it difficult...


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