Men’s rights activists scored a significant victory in India recently when the Supreme Court essentially identified them as the victims in domestic violence cases. The judges weren’t making the law gender neutral, however. They stated that Indian women were filing inaccurate claims of domestic violence.
“Most of such complaints are filed in the heat of the moment over trivial issues,” read the ruling. It went on to state that women were not visualizing the “implications and consequences” of registering a criminal complaint against their abusive husbands. “Uncalled for arrest may ruin the chances of settlement.”
Women’s groups are furious at what they see as a regressive judgment that prioritizes extended families and preserving marriages over the rights of the woman. Sixteen groups have sent a memorandum to the chief justice of India, demanding that the ruling should be reversed.
“We are deeply concerned and dismayed that the entire judgment proceeds on the basis that women are liars and file false cases,” read the statement, quoting data by the National Family Health Survey, which found that 1 in 3 women faces mental, physical and verbal domestic violence. “The judgment is part of a backward trend that ... completely overlooks the fact that women are daily recipients of harassment for dowry and of domestic violence.”
Multiple studies have shown that social stigma and insensitive attitudes of police lead women to avoid filing domestic assault charges. According to a decade of data on 1,675 abused women, which was collected by Dilaasa, a crisis intervention center, only 47 percent of women went to the police. A third of those who did not approach the police had faced violence for three to five years, two-thirds had faced violence during pregnancy, and a third had attempted suicide. A quarter also experienced rape and sexual assault with objects.
Violence against women in India gained international attention when a brutal gang rape in the capital in December 2012 ignited protests across the country. Stronger laws on sexual assault and violence against women were introduced.
However, women in India aren’t afforded the same protections at home.
“If a stranger [rapes] me, then you are willing to hang him,” said Vrinda Grover, a prominent human rights advocate. “But if the perpetrator is a member of my family, why don’t you recognize it as a crime?”
Marital rape is not recognized as a crime in India. Men charged under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act can be subject to a restraining order, but they do not face jail time. The criminal law that the Supreme Court modified in its recent judgment protects a woman from “mental and physical cruelty” and harassment for dowry. It calls for immediate arrest for those accused of violating the law.
This isn’t the first time the law has been questioned by the courts, however. In 2005, a panel of the Supreme Court called women’s misuse of the provision “legal terrorism.” In 2014, the court also diluted the protocol for arrests under the law, stating that it was putting “bedridden grandmothers and grandfathers of the husband” in jail. Because it relates to harassment over dowries, elderly parents of the husband also often face charges.
Many of these rulings also openly accused women of overreacting and disrespecting the sanctity of marriage and family.
“The object behind the [law] is to check and curb the menace of dowry and at the same time, to save the matrimonial homes from destruction,” a ruling by the Madras High Court said in 2008. “Arrest of [the in-laws is often] ... made simply to satisfy the ego and anger of the complainant.”
In last week’s Supreme Court ruling, the judges found that low conviction rates indicated that most complaints were frivolous. India's men’s rights movement has also been using these crime statistics and judicial rulings to assert that the law is an “extortion racket.”
“Seventy-five percent of cases are withdrawn because the women use the charges to extort money,” said Wasif Ali from the Save Family Foundation, a men’s rights group that offers counseling and legal assistance to “distressed men” accused under this law and others. “Even of the 15 percent convicted, many would be innocent.”
Ali did not present any data to support his claim.
Women’s rights groups, on the other hand, are furious about this interpretation of the low conviction rates.
“This is the worst interpretation of statistics I have read,” said Grover, the human rights advocate. “Low convictions could show very poor investigations, and women may be forced to not take the case forward.”
Women’s rights groups also point out that as most of this violence occurs in private spaces, the evidence is difficult to present and convictions even harder to achieve.
“When a woman comes to us, she is very angry — she wants to reclaim her rights and she tells the lawyer to file criminal charges,” said Chaitali Haldar, a coordinator at Jagori, a women’s rights group that challenged the court decision. “But she may have no other options for her sustenance, social status and the care of her children, and this pressure builds up.”
The recent ruling also mandates family welfare committees look into all cruelty complaints. No arrests can be made until the committee files a report in a month.
Women’s rights groups worry that the committees, made up of people with no criminal or legal expertise, will simply serve as another barrier in an already difficult legal process.
“These committees are extrajudicial bodies of questionable competence and cannot take over the functioning of the police,” said the memorandum of the women’s groups, pointing out that preliminary investigations by the police and mediation were already in place to weed out false claims.
Some men’s rights advocates are not thrilled with the family welfare committees either, though for entirely different reasons.
“The committee will just be another layer that extorts men and exerts pressure on them,” said Ali from the Save Indian Family Foundation. “Everyone is afraid of women’s organizations and only a few brave judges have come out with the truth, but this law needs to be scrapped entirely.”
For now, women’s groups and advocates are preparing to challenge the ruling.
“If you commit a traffic violation today, you will be asked to appear before a magistrate. A woman doesn’t even have that right,” said Grover, the human rights advocate. “The judgment says that the preservation of families is important, but do you want your families to be built on the edifice of bruised and battered bodies?”
A previous version of this story misstated the nature of the Indian law prohibiting the harassment of women over dowries.