New Delhi, June 23: Women now have protection from domestic violence, with the cabinet today clearing a bill to end abuse at home.
The bill covers women in marriages, in live-in relationships and those living in a shared household related by “consanguinity (blood ties) or adoption”.
“Even women who are sisters, widows, mothers, single women or living with the abuser are entitled to legal protection under the proposed legislation,” it says.
The bill has not come a day too soon. A study on domestic violence by the World Health Organisation recently found that a woman is assaulted every five minutes in India.
Domestic violence was first recognised as a criminal offence in 1983 with the introduction of Section 498 A in the Indian Penal Code.
But the section has a limited brief, dealing only with cruelty by a husband and his family towards a married woman.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Bill was introduced in Parliament three years ago, but women’s organisations allege that the HRD ministry under Murli Manohar Joshi left it “incredibly vague”.
The bill targeted only “habitual offenders” and gave men the right to resort to violence not only to protect their own persons but also their possessions in case they were being damaged by the victim.
“It was a highly objectionable bill and was sent to a parliamentary select committee headed by Arjun Singh,” says Asmita Basu of the Lawyers’ Collective which has been closely linked with the drafting.
Almost all the substantive suggestions of women’s groups have now been incorporated, she adds. “It is a new bill ' a civil bill meant for giving women relief from a cycle of domestic violence.”
The bill brings within its ambit “actual abuse or the threat of abuse that could be physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic”.
It also gives the woman the right to continue to reside in her matrimonial home or shared household even if she does not have property rights. “This right is secured by a residence order which is passed by a magistrate,” says Basu.
Unlike section 498 A in the IPC, the domestic violence bill is a civil legislation, she points out. Civil law deals with the rights of people and the need for protection while criminal law deals with criminal offences and punishment.
Activists say battered women so far had no legal protection. “The police did not bother to register a case under IPC. It gave the women no protection against violence,” says Basu.
“The law so far was only interested in putting people behinds bars'. A lot of times women do not want to leave home or put their partners behinds bars. They just want the violence to stop.”
Besides, many of the battered women are not financially independent and do not have the option of living separately.
The focus of the new law is on protection. It empowers a magistrate to stop the offender from “aiding or committing” violence at the workplace of the woman or any place she frequents and to bar him from communicating with the woman, taking away her assets or intimidating her family and those assisting her against the violence. The magistrate will appoint protection officers to ensure the safety of the woman.
The offender will have to pay for the woman’s medical expenses and damages.
Breach of the magistrate’s protection order is punishable with a one-year imprisonment or a fine of Rs 20,000 or both.