NEW DELHI, India – Every Wednesday at half-past one, in the narrow lanes of the southern Delhi slum of Dakshinpuri, a group of local women congregate in a windowless room. They are members of the “Mahila Panchayat,” or “female village council.” They are bound by a common cause – justice for women who suffer violence and harassment in their homes.
“My husband tried to strangle me with his bare hands,” 35-year-old Nirmala tells the two women presiding over her hearing. “I could have died if my sister-in-law had not rescued me.”
Sitting next to her on the floor is her husband. This isn’t the first time the couple has been here – three years ago Nirmala accused him of beating her, after he’d been out drinking. She moved out after the most recent attack.
The council has no legal powers. But for more than two decades, thousands of women of all ages have approached the council to seek intervention in cases of verbal and physical abuse by their partners or in-laws, instead of filing a complaint with the police or a local magistrate.
Shoba Varma, 52, has been volunteering with the group for 15 years. “Women who come here don’t have the resources to go to court, where a case can drag on for years,” she says.
“Here we listen to women’s problems patiently, educate them about their rights and help them find a resolution as quickly as possible,” she says. “They feel they are not alone.”
On average, the panchayat receives 30 new cases every month. About 90 percent of those are resolved through a series of hearings where each party is asked to present their side of the story, and eventually a settlement is mediated between them.
A paper file is maintained to track the progress of each case. It includes the initial complaint along with the complainant’s passport-size photo, contact details, hand-written summary of each hearing, and a record of the summons sent out to the alleged culprit. It also serves as a reference point for the council in deciding the case of a repeat offender.
Varma says women frequently speak of thrashings for unmet dowry demands or beatings by their drunk husbands. Young women also complain their husbands walk out on them when they get pregnant or when their children are young.
A small percentage of the cases are filed by men, mostly relating to marital discord: when a wife is accused of leaving her husband or is refusing to have sex with him. Such couples are offered counseling after their grievances are heard.
In disputes related to property or divorce, where legal recourse is the only resort, the council assists women with legal paperwork and arranges pro-bono lawyers.
It does not adjudicate rape cases: The council does not have any constitutional powers and it does not want a run-in with the law, so it steers clear of cases that are prima facie criminal cases. If a rape victim or their family contacts the council, they ensure that a medical examination is conducted and a police complaint is registered.
There are about 25 unpaid volunteers in the council at any given time, most of whom are housewives or domestic workers. The only paid positions are the paralegal who heads the council and her two assistants. Over the years, they have become intimately familiar with the legal and social rights of women.
“Women often don’t want to walk out of an abusive marriage because they have nowhere else to go. There are not enough shelter homes for them,” says Gouri Choudhury, the chairperson of Action India, a Delhi-based NGO. Action India was instrumental in setting up the councils in the Indian capital almost 25 years ago.
“In cases where women have been burnt or killed [by their husbands or in-laws] they are known to have [previously] said: ‘Take me back to my parents.’ Though traditionally in India, once parents give their girl in marriage, they do not want to take her back,” Choudhury says, adding that this attitude is slowly changing.
“Women running the panchayats are found to be fair. They have been very smart in using social pressure in resolving discord,” she says. Delhi now has 52 government-supported women’s councils.
But some critics say the panchayats are not enough. Women’s rights lawyers like Monika, who only uses her first name, feel the government should be doing more to protect women’s rights. “Mahila Panchayats do not have any legality; the state should safeguard the rights of everyone,” she says.
But in the absence of government action, they do help. “They have a strong follow-up system and offer a lot of support to women, which at the moment is lacking in the Indian legal system,” Monika says.
Back in the windowless room in Dakshinpuri, the council helps Nirmala reach an agreement with her husband. She will move back in with him on the condition that the beatings stop, and that he agrees to pay her 2,000 rupees a month.
The women also tell Nirmala, who has decided not to press charges, that they will inform the police station near her husband’s house about his abusive ways. They explain that if he abuses her again, the police response time will be faster than the council’s.
“It’s just because of your wife and mother-in-law that you aren’t in jail today. You were lucky this time,” Varma, the volunteer, tells Nirmala’s husband.
“You will not get another chance.”