International Museum of Women - IMOW
INDIA - MAHILA PANCHAYATS CREATE JUSTICE FOR GRASSROOTS WOMEN
Originally established in 1994 by the non-profit organization Action India, Mahila Panchayats are voluntary women's courts that settle disputes between individuals.
A woman comes to the offices of the Mahila Panchayat seeking protection and help.
She tells, through tears, the women of the Mahila Panchayat that her husband has been physically abusing her.
The woman (in a pink sari) returns next Wednesday for an official hearing with the entire Mahila Panchayat. Two paralegals are present during the hearing.
Two Mahila Panchayat paralegals and two members visit the woman's home planning to speak with the husband.
The four woman and his wife encircle and confront the abusive husband.
The following Wednesday, the husband comes to the Mahila Panchayat and signs an agreement that states that he will no longer abuse his wife.
At first impression, the Mahila Panchayats do not appear to have the legal teeth needed to bring justice: The accused parties do not have to show up when summoned, and the women members have few ways of enforcing their decisions. But time and again, their courage and persistence have proven to move their communities closer to justice.
"Mahila" means woman
in Hindi, whereas "panchayat" literally stands for an assembly
(yat) of five (panch) respected village elders. Panchayats already
And although they are voluntary,
experience has shown that both men and women respond to their calls, and heed
their decisions. Only last year, the thirty eight Mahila Panchayats across
The main reason for Mahila Panchayats' success is their use of social pressure to their advantage. Mahila Panchayats use the power and influence of community to publicly shame people into appearing and complying with their final judgments. People who decide to ignore their decisions face possible embarrassment and ostracism.
The Mahila Panchayats comprise of women panchayat members and two women paralegals trained by Action India. The paralegals are trained in women's rights, gender-based violence and in the ways of effectively holding hearings, following up on their cases and working with the police.
The paralegals organize a Mahila
Panchayat by first building relationships with the community and identifying
female members in that community that could strengthen, with their authority
and personality, the panchayat. Once an assembly is created, cases begin to be
heard. Mahila Panchayat cases across
Once a case has been concluded, follow-up is crucial. The paralegals visits the family in question as many times as necessary to determine that the family is upholding its responsibility to the compromise made in the panchayat.
What follows are summaries of two successful Mahila Panchayat cases that dealt with sexual harassment and domestic violence. The hand-drawn representations of one Mahila Panchayat case depicts the Indian women's collective power in making their voices heard and resolving domestic violence. The images show how women, staging a public hearing and baring their proverbial "dirty laundry" to the public are challenging face-to-face their husbands and other men and making their rights known. The images also show the power of women's collective bodies and wills in intimidating and forcing men to comply. In the fifth image you can see four Mahila Panchayat women surrounding a single man and convincing him, with their sheer numbers and determination, of his wrongdoings.
Case: Sexual Harassment
Plaintiff: Geeta Rani
Sixteen-year-old Geeta Rani was
constantly followed and pursued by her neighbor Niranjan. She could not step
out of her home (in an urban slum in
Afraid for her safety (there are
It took two hearings to resolve the case. During the first hearing, Niranjan appeared with his mother. He denied all charges and the case was not resolved. During the second hearing, a long discussion with the boy opened doors for counseling. Niranjan acknowledged his mistakes and agreed not to bother Geeta again. The Mahila Panchayat members asked him to give his word in writing, but he refused to do so. As a result, Mahila Panchayat members lodged a complaint at the local police station seeking protection for Geeta in order to pre-empt any future incident.
Follow-up by the Mahila Panchayat members was successful. They found that Geeta was happy and free to move out of her home without being followed or teased. Geeta has since become an active member of the Mahila Panchayat. She has shown great courage in voicing her protest in doing so she has asserted her right to live free of fear of violence and live life with dignity.
Case: Domestic Violence
Munesh came to the Mahila
Panchayat office in her community in an urban slum in
After Munesh logged a complaint with the Mahila Panchayat, the members and a paralegal worker visited Munesh's home to witness first-hand the situation. They found the husband at home and persuaded him to allow Munesh to get a job as a domestic worker as well as to make an effort to find work himself. Faced with so many determined women in his own home, Kanwar Pal realized he could not beat up his wife to vent his frustrations. After a few counseling sessions he stopped abusing his wife.
Follow-up by the Mahila Panchayat was successful. They found out that both Munesh and Kanwarpal have started working and together were managing to provide for their children.