The second half of Moneylife Foundation’s 4th annual Women’s Day event (supported by DSP BlackRock's Winvestor Initiative) began with felicitations to two very important Maharashtra-based activists, Jyothi Mhapsekhar of Stree Mukti Sanghatana and Meena Seshu of SANGRAM. The mementos to both activists were presented by Justice Sujata Manohar, who soon after delivered her keynote address.
In her acceptance speech, Ms Mhapsekhar, who works to empower ragpickers, urged citizens to consider their while doing something as simple as throwing away their garbage. She said, “A simple thing like sorting garbage at source would help thousands of ragpickers who struggle to make a living. These women work in very difficult circumstances. While there was a proposal to fine those who don’t sort their garbage, I would say that offenders should be instead taken to the garbage dump to see what life is like sorting out 10,000 tonnes of garbage.”
Ms Seshu, in her acceptance speech, discussed the mission of SANGRAM, which is working to give equal rights to sex workers. She said, “SANGRAM, after years of working with sex workers, men who have sex with men, and transgender people, have created a bill of rights. The reason we did this is that middle-class and wealthy people of India don’t know how to treat sex workers. What the people of India need to accept is that people can exist how they want to exist.”
After the felicitations to Ms Mhapsekhar and Ms Seshu, Justice Sujata Manohar delivered the keynote address on ‘The Case for Delivering Better Justice to Women: A view from the Judge’s Chair’. Justice Manohar began her speech by discussing what the problems in the justice system are. She said, “The first problem with the Indian justice system is that the laws can’t be properly understood. We need laws that take into account the needs of society. Once this is done, they need to be implemented. There are several other things we need. Just punishing wrongdoers, giving jail-time isn’t enough. We need community service provisions, we need compensatory provisions.”
Justice Manohar also spoke about the differences in the various laws that have been implemented. She said, “Definitions of words in laws in our country vary according to their purpose. This is not done. Take, for example, the age of consent. Sexual relations with a girl below 16 is rape, but under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, a child is defined as a person under 18. Under Juvenile Justice Act and marriage laws, there are still different ages.”
The problem is not always with our laws, Justice Manohar explained, as she criticised sections of society for discriminating against women. She said, “The Constitution promised equality, but forgot about the absence of a tolerant society. Our society is unwilling to accept different viewpoints. Fundamental freedoms, particularly of expression, should include the women’s right to wear what she likes. Yet some say this should not outrage the modesty of a man. We need to realise that we don’t have the right to take the law into our own hands.”
Despite being modern in many respects, most states in our country have a completely unacceptable male to female ratio. Justice Manohar says, “We have several customs that deny equal respect to women. There is such a disparity in the sex ratio in Punjab that people there purchase girls from the north east to service entire families of men. So it’s given rise to slavery. Also, the demand for dowry is growing, not reducing. The law has had no impact. Society does not want the elimination of dowry.”
Dowry has not been eliminated, but Justice Manohar hopes that domestic-violence-related laws have some impact on the current state of things. She said, “We must be careful that domestic violence doesn’t go the same way dowry has. But it doesn’t look as if it will so far. The act is supposed to provide protection officers, but this has not been set up properly. So we just need just laws, we need the machinery to work. We need someone to supervise. Also, our attitude to it needs to change. How often do we tell a woman to suffer in silence when her man beats her?”
Justice Manohar ended her speech discussing the need to update laws. She said, “Laws related to illegal trafficking is badly in need of amendment. It focusses on the women, rather than those controlling the trade. Similarly, marital rape is still not accepted by government. Even Nepal, which has verbatim the same penal code, has interpreted the law to include marital rape. But our government hasn’t done so.”
The session ended with a lively discussion between the members of the audience and Jyoti Mhapsekar, Meena Seshu and Justice Sujata Manohar. Several important topics, including inflexible adoption laws and lack of government initiative in finding missing persons, were discussed.