Victim or Vamp? Amidst MeToo campaign, questions of women protection laws and alleged misuse are on the rise

Amidst the MeToo India campaign, questions about the abuse of women, laws for their protection and their alleged misuse are back in circulation, writes Mallika Iyer

Sangeeta Pawar, who works as a domestic help, laughs bitterly when asked how many women in her neighbourhood in Bhandup, are beaten by their husbands. “Ask me instead about how many women are not beaten!” she says.

“My son is unable to talk about the nightmare he has been put through by our daughter-in-law!” says Mr. Tiwari (name changed upon request). “She used the domestic violence law to file false cases against us.”

Two snapshots of different worlds. Both portray a telling story.

Laws such as Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, have been enacted for the protection of women from violence and abuse. But over the years, voices have risen against these laws, citing their alleged misuse.

In 2017, the Hon’ble Supreme Court, relying on the data of the National Crime Record Bureau, concluded that the low conviction rate in cases under 498A was indicative that most cases registered thereunder were false. The court further put in place welfare committees to scrutinise complaints filed by woman, before the police can take cognisance of it.

Woman’s side of the story

Statistics seem to suggest that one in every three Indian women face domestic violence. But not everyone files a complaint. “Only a small number of women facing domestic violence actually come forward and report it,” says advocate Veena Gowda representing a women’s group. “Large numbers are unreported.”

Gowda points out, “Further, violence is not always physical. There is mental violence too, of which there is little evidence. As most of this takes place behind four walls, it is hard to prove in court. I recently had a client whose husband told her he would hit her in such a place that she couldn’t show the police or the judge! What do you do about such cases?”

Other side of the story

On the other side, men claim that the law has become a tool in the hands of women for harassing them. Amit Despande, who runs an organisation called Vaastav working on issues of men’s rights, says they get dozens of calls daily from men who are victims of such misuse.

“There has been a shift in the traditional role of men and women in society,” explains Deshpande. “Man has traditionally been the protector and provider of the family while the woman has been the care-giver. In modern times, women too have taken on the role of providers and the state has taken on the role of protector. Other than procreation therefore, the role of the man is often seen as redundant.”

This, says Deshpande, is central to the issues that arise. He also points out that at the help-centre he runs, he has noticed a sudden spurt in cases of domestic violence being filed after child-birth, just after repayment of home loans and immediately post-retirement of the husband. Analysing these trends, Deshpande believes a large number of cases are driven by financial motives.

Victim or Vamp? Amidst MeToo campaign, questions of women protection laws and alleged misuse are on the rise

Stacking up the odds

One of the demands of those alleging misuse, is that the law relating to domestic violence and sexual abuse at the workplace ought to be made gender neutral, as it is in some parts of the world. “Gender neutrality will make the law fair and equal,” says Deshpande.

Lawyers like Gowda however, defend the existing framework of the law. “These laws are specifically made to counter gender-specific-violence in a patriarchal society, where even the authorities did not take cognisance of issues like domestic violence. One needs to understand that domestic violence against women is a complex phenomenon undermined by the existing socio-legal structure. Hence a women-centric law is required.”

“Besides,” adds Gowda, “the common provisions of the IPC like Section 323, 324 and so on relating to Assault, Battery and Grievous Hurt are always available to men in case they face violence.”

Countering the point about the low conviction rate, Gowda points to other figures. “In cases of murder, the rate of charge-sheeting is 85% and conviction is 38%. For rioting while 87% are charge-sheeted, conviction is only 15%! So why take this one statistic out of context. Please understand that conviction in cases of domestic violence is low for want of evidence and also because many matters get settled out of court as women want to move on.”

Another demand of men’s groups is that a heavy penalty be prescribed for misuse to deter women from using the law as a harassment tool. This too has another side. As domestic violence and sexual harassment take place behind closed doors, they are hard to prove, making even genuine complainants run the risk of getting slapped with penalties. That, in turn, would act as a deterrent for genuine victims.

“Which law is not misused?” asks advocate Gowda, “Why is it that a hue and cry is always made when the beneficiaries of the law are women?  Do we hear a protest against the misuse of other laws? Clearly that points to the patriarchal mind-set of our society.”

While men claim the judiciary is biased against them, women say the police is heavily biased against them. In a traditionally patriarchal society like India, there is no question that laws for the protection of women ought to be stringent and strong.  While the human stories of the victims of abuse and also the victims of misuse, are both tragic and moving, policy makers need undoubtedly to go with the numbers. However, having spoken to victims, both women and men, it is apparent that each side has a story to tell. And a radically contradictory one, at that.

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