In the last two years, there have been many conversations on the legal rights of women in India. The Supreme Court in 2018 scrapped the obnoxious colonial-era adultery law that, in the words of the Supreme Court, reduced them "chattel". The #MeToo movement gave rise to an intense discussion about laws that protect women from sexual harassment at home and workplace. The controversial Bill banning 'triple talaq' was also passed in 2019.
And yet, large masses of Indian women continue to remain oblivious to their legal and constitutional rights. The problem is especially in focus among rural women or women belonging to less-developed socio-economic backgrounds. However, as academics and studies, as well as the lived experiences of women across the world, have proved, not every woman who has access to money and property may have the agency to pursue legal action for wrongs done unto her. Survivors of sexual assault who were denied justice when they spoke about during the #MeToo movement are more than proof that no matter the socio-economic background, women often find it difficult to raise their voice and seek their legal rights in a male-dominated and patriarchal system.
"The problem is that as girls, we are always told that our education or our progress is of no use. We are told to get married and carry on the functions that women were MEANT to perform," Ilma Afroz, IPS officer says to a room full of women at an event organised by ITC Vivel in Delhi on Monday.
Afroz belongs to a small town called Kundarki in Uttar Pradesh. Growing up, Afroz had to endure the jibes of her neighbours and relatives for going to school. Even when she had achieved a degree from Oxford on scholarship, she was dismissed at home. For what good would a world-acclaimed degree do to a girl of marriageable age? "Today, they come to me with their young daughters and say, "inhe bhi IPS bana do (make them IPS too)."
It is to facilitate this change in mentalities such as the one exhibited by Afroz's neighbours and family that ITC Vivel has launched the 'Ab Samjhauta Nahin' campaign. The company has worked with prominent Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy who has lent her support and expertise to the campaign. Together, the team at Vivel and Nundy have created a module consisting of role-playing exercises, videos and flowcharts to help internalise basic laws and procedures that defend women against domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment at work, cybercrime, trafficking and more.
Together, the team at Vivel and Nundy have created a module consisting of workshops that include role-playing exercises, videos and other innovative tools to explain basic laws that defend women against domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment at work, cybercrime, trafficking and more.
"When women know their rights and the legal provisions that protect them, all their interpersonal dynamics at home and work change," Nundy explains. She gives the example of a boy and girl who are in a relationship and both the partners are aware of each other's legal rights. The chances of one taking advantage of the other's bodily integrity are greatly reduced. Nundy also stresses that knowing one's rights helps increase the autonomy and agency of women.
In this regard, the "Ab Samjhauta Nahin" campaign comes with a handbook of laws in the Indian Penal Code as well as other acts such as the Information Technology Act that may come in handy for women. Nundy and a team of educators trained by her have been conducting workshops in colleges where they have been talking about the campaign to youngsters.
Bharatiya Janta Party leader and stout supporter of the Triple Talaq Bill Shazia Ilmi feels that such initiatives provide a breather from the toxic and misogynistic content that has for years influenced Indian films, books, songs, serials and almost every form of entertainment. "There is so much objectification of women everywhere, it is hard to imagine how anyone can manage to not be sexist," she says as she hums some popular lyrics of Bollywood songs. "Maybe it's time to say 'that's enough', to resist all the labels that society puts on us and to fight for equal treatment," she adds.
Ilmi also rues the fact that women today continue to face the stigma of police stations and courts and many are conditioned to choose not pursuing action against a violator (could be a boyfriend, husband, boss or family member) in order to protect the family's or her own reputation.
According to Gender Justice Campaigner Gopika Bashi, who was also present at the event, the only way to rid the world of such conditioning was through "unconditioning".
However, an important aspect of the rights of married women remains unanswered. The question of marital rape is one that has been raised time and again by women's rights activists and members of civil society including Nundy herself, who is leading arguments in court to criminalise màrital rape.
According to a National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 5 per cent of married women in the ages of 15-49 have been forced at some point or other to have sex with their husbands even when they did not give their consent to it. Earlier this year, a petition in the Supreme Court sought guidelines from the government for framing laws on marital rape to increase protection of women and accountability of perpetrators. The court refused to entertain it. In most cases, it is not accepted as a ground for divorce either. When asked, Ilmi said, "Marital rape should not happen," but refused to comment further. As of now, Section 375 of the IPC that deals with rape does not accept marital rape as a criminal offence.