Bravo! Rural women solving cases faster than judiciary

By Prashant K. Nanda, IANS

New Delhi : They have never been to a law school or sported the lawyer’s black robes but many women in rural India are dispensing justice in tough cases like rape, child marriage and even divorce – mostly in just two weeks – at ‘Nari Adalats’.

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A concept devised by women for women, these Nari Adalats, or women’s courts, are not constitutional bodies but are like a para-legal authority.

Like learned solicitors, the women running Nari Adalats record case profiles and history, the names of errant in-laws and husbands and the details of proceedings. Like the police, they conduct in-depth inquiry, talk to both the parties and like courts they summon both for a hearing.

“We started with the idea of solving minor problems of women like husband-wife fights, but today cases like rape, molestation, divorce and domestic violence are pouring in,” said Jasodha Vashava, a founding member of the Nari Adalat in Vadodara, Gujarat.

“In most cases, we solve them within two weeks. Initially, the men were not taking our rulings seriously, but things have changed. Now everyone is listening to us and abiding by our rulings. The journey was difficult but not impossible,” Vashava, 45, told IANS.

What started as a small gathering of rural women in Gujarat has gained credibility over the years. The first court was set up in 1995 at Vadodara; currently there are 60 such courts across nine states.

Shanti Gohil, another judge from Vadodara, said the State Legal Service Authority and police department have been very supportive and were helping them solve cases.

Recently, these women were in the national capital to interact with their counterparts from other states.

“We have been accepted as a para-legal group. Sometimes district magistrates and public prosecutors come and sit with us to see the proceedings. We now have the backing of the state government and the legal system,” said P. Prasanthi, a woman associated with a Nari Adalat in Andhra Pradesh.

Kameshwari Jandyala, who is overseeing Nari Adalats across India, said these courts have solved over 23,000 cases so far.

“Approachable, willing to listen, fair and swift in their dealings, these women have developed a non-formal dispute resolution mechanism. This certainly speaks of their empowerment,” Jandyala said.

“These courts are helping rural women overcome problems encountered in the normal judicial system. Inaccessibility, cost, time, unfamiliarity with legal procedures, inadequate resources, and a traditional disregard of the needs of women – all these are getting a suitable solution in Nari Adalats.”

These women hear the cases of poor for free but charge up to Rs.51 per case from families who can afford it.

Madhu Lakra, a member of the Nari Adalat in Ranchi, Jharkhand, said stopping the marriage of a 12-year-old girl to an “aged” man who claimed to be a Maoist and putting a wealthy man behind bars after he raped a minor girl were her achievements in life.

“I have been hearing cases for the last two months and have solved at least 15 of them,” said Lakra, a postgraduate in Hindi from Ranchi University.

“Nowadays people from neighbouring districts are also coming with their problems,” said Lakra, 40. “We are starting two more courts in Jharkhand soon.”

As part of their judgement delivery mechanism, the women put their ruling on a stamp paper and get it approved by a notary. However, the women said, if someone refuses to abide, they refer the case to a local court.

“So far, we have not faced much problem but there have been a few instances, when we referred cases to local courts and did not forget to give the rulings of the Nari Adalat written on a stamp paper,” said Sunita Kalra from Gujarat.

In Gujarat, the hearings are conducted every Monday but in other states, they take place twice a month.

“Depending on the need we sit more than once a week as well. Now Muslim women have joined us too,” beamed Rita Patel of Rajkot.

Akhila Shivadas, a renowned women’s right activist, said: “In speed, efficacy, and cost implications the success record of the Nari Adalats is commendable.”

(Prashant. K. Nanda can be contacted at [email protected])