NEVER SAY NO: Swarup Maity (centre) in police custody after he stabbed a girl who spurned him
When Sarita Singh, a 17-year-old girl from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, ran away from home with her boyfriend, little did she realise the consequences of her action. Singh wanted to study further and later marry her childhood sweetheart. But her parents wanted her to put a stop to her studies and marry according to their wishes. Furious that she had eloped, they went ahead and filed kidnapping charges against her boyfriend.
A distraught Singh sought the help of Jagori, a women’s training, documentation, communication and resource centre based in Delhi. Jagori took the matter up. “We approached the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and got an order in Sarita’s favour. The boy was released and the false charges were dropped. Though Sarita was a minor, the CWC paid heed to her choice and asked her parents to allow her to study,” says Nilanju Dutta, manager, violence intervention team, Jagori.
Not everyone, however, is as lucky as Sarita. Hundreds of cases of violence against women who try to exercise their choice in relationships are reported all over the country every year.
Last month, the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (Aali), a Lucknow-based legal advocacy group, released a compendium of judgments highlighting a woman’s Right to Choice and Decision Making in a Relationship. “These judgments were compiled in an effort to remind our authorities of their responsibility to protect women who exercise their right to sexual autonomy,” says Renu Mishra of Aali.
The compendium is a compilation of about 80 judgments of the Supreme Court and high courts, which have upheld women’s right to choice in relationships and punished those who have tried to force a choice on them. In spite of so many judgments upholding women’s sexual autonomy and right to take their own decision, every year Aali intervenes in about 50 cases of women being denied their right to choice.
The provisions laid down in Chapter III of the Indian Constitution — right to equality, right to non-discrimination, right to form an association, right to life and personal liberty — also safeguard a woman’s right to choose a relationship. Yet, in the past one year, in Uttar Pradesh alone, there were 139 cases of violence against women for exercising their right to choice in relationships. Out of these, in 103 cases either the woman or her partner or both were killed.
“The perpetrators were family members or rejected suitors. This scenario is not unique to UP but is reflective of the situation in the entire country,” says Mishra. “Despite their fundamental right to lead a life of dignity, women are not allowed to exercise their choice,” she adds.
The cases of crimes against women for exercising their choice need to be taken seriously, demand activists. “India has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and a woman’s right to choice is part of this convention. So we need to ensure that this right isn’t flouted,” says Dutta.
Ironically, the laws to protect a woman’s right to choice are already in place. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, states that forcing a woman to marry or not to marry a person of her own choice is an act of domestic violence by the family, against which the woman could take legal action.
“Yet this right has proved to be one of the most difficult to put into practice because of resistance from the family and the community,” says lawyer Seema Mishra.
In 2006, in a landmark judgment in the Lata Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh case, the Supreme Court had directed the police and the administration not to harass any couple entering into an inter-caste or inter-religious marriage after having attained the legal age to do so. The court further directed the authorities to take action against those who subject them to threats or acts of violence. “But in practice little is done,” says Dutta.
Experts say that when it comes to protecting an individual’s, specially a woman’s, right to choose a partner, even the law enforcement agencies suffer from bias. “Who is going to pay heed to this right as a lot of people from the lower judiciary and law enforcement agency have the mindset that a woman should not be allowed to exercise her choice,” says Mishra. In the Lata Singh case, her brothers had her husband’s entire family imprisoned declaring them to be absconders. Of course, the Supreme Court quashed the case later.
Astitva, a women’s and children’s rights organisation in Uttar Pradesh, receives as many as 10 to 20 such cases a month. “The majority of the cases where we intervene are those where a couple of marriageable age has eloped and the girl’s parents have filed kidnapping charges against the boy,” says Rehana Adeeb, director, Astitva.
According to Geeta Ramaseshan, an advocate at the Madras High Court and a human rights activist, kidnapping charges are the easiest way for a girl’s family to get hold of the couple. “Often a criminal law is misused to deny a woman her right to choose,” she says. Ramaseshan recently came out with a publication titled Control and Freedom: Women and the Age of Sexual Decisions, in which she analyses the constitutional provisions and different laws impacting the age of consent to sexual relationships.
Experts also opine that the main reason for passing the Special Marriage Act, 1954, was to provide a special form of marriage to Indians, irrespective of the religion or faith followed by either party. “The State gives this important right to marry even if parents do not give their consent,” points out Manisha Gupte, co-convener, Masum, a Pune-based women’s organisation. “Despite that, there is a lot of violence against people who exercise their choice under the Special Marriage Act,” she adds.
Women’s organisations also find it an uphill task to prove that a girl who has eloped is of a legally marriageable age. “The biggest problem is lack of evidence. Since most of these girls do not have birth certificates, it is tough to get the authorities to believe them,” says Gupte. “Even the bone density test done to determine age can vary by two or three years,” she adds.
So, do we need new, more streamlined laws to protect women’s right to choose? Most activists don’t think so. “Creating a new law is not the solution. We need to change the mindset of our patriarchal society,” says Dutta. Adds Adeeb, “We need to learn to respect our laws. And the law enforcement agencies need to execute rather than flout the law,” pointing out the host of false cases filed in police stations.
Until that happens, girls like Sarita will continue to fight hostile families who want to stamp out a woman’s right to choose the way she wants to conduct her life.