Women, Law, and Social Change: Action India's Mahila Panchayat Network

Competition Finalist

This entry has been selected as a finalist in the
No Private Matter! Ending Abuse in Intimate & Family Relations competition.

Over thirty years, Action India, based in New Delhi, has worked with women to build safe spaces of connectivity that break the silences wrought by oppressive patriarchal systems. Founded in 1976, our work has centered on Delhi’s urban poor, who live in squalid, overcrowded conditions on the periphery of the city. Women in these slums are disproportionately vulnerable to crime and gender-based violence.

Community organization is an essential component of Action India’s multi-pronged approach to stop violence against women. We provide direct support to women experiencing abuse and injustice through our Women, Law and Social Change program, which has trained sixty-four paralegal workers from the community to take on case work; counsel women in need; and provide referrals to the police, lawyers, or the formal judicial system when necessary. Our program includes the following components:

· Organizes Mahila Panchayats at the grassroots level.
· Oversees the investigation, case registration, arbitration, judgment, and follow-up of domestic violence cases.
· Conducts legal literacy workshops for educating grassroots women.
· Builds the capacity of community based paralegal caseworkers.
· Provides legal aid and counseling to women in crisis situations.

The Mahila Panchayats provide an opportunity for women and men to speak openly and fearlessly when seeking interventions and arbitrations to resolve disputes. The panchayats do not replace the judicial system. Instead, they present a cost-effective, intermediary solution that is women-led, gender-sensitive, and in touch with the needs of the community.

Our goals for the coming year include enlisting the support of our panchayat networks toward the implementation of the recently passed Domestic Violence Act. We envision that the panchayats could serve as an intermediary link in the referral of domestic violence cases to ‘protection officers’ -- officials designated by the act for the protection of women.

About You

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Location

Project Street Address

Project City

Project Province/State

Project Postal/Zip Code

Project Country

n/a

Your idea

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Focus of activity

Community Involvement

Year the initiative began

1994

Position your initiative on the mosaic of solutions

Which of these barriers is the primary focus of your work?

Culture Of Acceptance

Which of the insights is the primary focus of your work?

Increase Women’s Power

If you believe some other barrier or insight should be included in the mosaic, please describe it and how it would affect the positioning of your initiative in the mosaic

Name Your Project

Women, Law, and Social Change: Action India's Mahila Panchayat Network

Describe Your Idea

Over thirty years, Action India, based in New Delhi, has worked with women to build safe spaces of connectivity that break the silences wrought by oppressive patriarchal systems. Founded in 1976, our work has centered on Delhi’s urban poor, who live in squalid, overcrowded conditions on the periphery of the city. Women in these slums are disproportionately vulnerable to crime and gender-based violence.
Community organization is an essential component of Action India’s multi-pronged approach to stop violence against women. We provide direct support to women experiencing abuse and injustice through our Women, Law and Social Change program, which has trained sixty-four paralegal workers from the community to take on case work; counsel women in need; and provide referrals to the police, lawyers, or the formal judicial system when necessary. Our program includes the following components:
· Organizes Mahila Panchayats at the grassroots level.
· Oversees the investigation, case registration, arbitration, judgment, and follow-up of domestic violence cases.
· Conducts legal literacy workshops for educating grassroots women.
· Builds the capacity of community based paralegal caseworkers.
· Provides legal aid and counseling to women in crisis situations.
The Mahila Panchayats provide an opportunity for women and men to speak openly and fearlessly when seeking interventions and arbitrations to resolve disputes. The panchayats do not replace the judicial system. Instead, they present a cost-effective, intermediary solution that is women-led, gender-sensitive, and in touch with the needs of the community.
Our goals for the coming year include enlisting the support of our panchayat networks toward the implementation of the recently passed Domestic Violence Act. We envision that the panchayats could serve as an intermediary link in the referral of domestic violence cases to ‘protection officers’ -- officials designated by the act for the protection of women.

Innovation

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Description of Initiative

Over thirty years, Action India, based in New Delhi, has worked with women to build safe spaces of connectivity that break the silences wrought by oppressive patriarchal systems. Founded in 1976, our work has centered on Delhi’s urban poor, who live in squalid, overcrowded conditions on the periphery of the city. Women in these slums are disproportionately vulnerable to crime and gender-based violence.

Community organization is an essential component of Action India’s multi-pronged approach to stop violence against women. We provide direct support to women experiencing abuse and injustice through our Women, Law and Social Change program, which has trained sixty-four paralegal workers from the community to take on case work; counsel women in need; and provide referrals to the police, lawyers, or the formal judicial system when necessary. Our program includes the following components:

· Organizes Mahila Panchayats at the grassroots level.
· Oversees the investigation, case registration, arbitration, judgment, and follow-up of domestic violence cases.
· Conducts legal literacy workshops for educating grassroots women.
· Builds the capacity of community based paralegal caseworkers.
· Provides legal aid and counseling to women in crisis situations.

The Mahila Panchayats provide an opportunity for women and men to speak openly and fearlessly when seeking interventions and arbitrations to resolve disputes. The panchayats do not replace the judicial system. Instead, they present a cost-effective, intermediary solution that is women-led, gender-sensitive, and in touch with the needs of the community.

Our goals for the coming year include enlisting the support of our panchayat networks toward the implementation of the recently passed Domestic Violence Act. We envision that the panchayats could serve as an intermediary link in the referral of domestic violence cases to ‘protection officers’ -- officials designated by the act for the protection of women.

Innovation

Action India believes that any strategy toward systemic change and policy advocacy requires a mass demand from the grassroots. A woman seeking redress for injustice can come to the Mahila Panchayat to express her problems in a safe and welcoming environment. Our Mahila Panchayat network has mobilized women and community leaders to change their subordinate position in the family and move towards building more equal partnerships. As an example of how recognized and integrated the Mahila Panchayats are within their communities, in the year 2006 ten Mahila Panchayats in the four slums of Dakshinpuri, Jahangirpuri, Sundernagri and New Seemapuri saw 450 women.

In September 2000, the Delhi Commission for Women recognized the Mahila Panchayats as a critically important aspect of its Make Delhi Safe for Women campaign. The Commission asked Action India to replicate our program with twenty-nine NGOs and community-based organizations in Delhi. The structure of our Mahila Panchayat system now consists of fifteen partner organizations throughout the NCT Delhi, who collaborate closely with Action India to maintain thirty-eight Mahila Panchayats. Action India directly oversees eight Mahila Panchayats, and additionally supervises the remaining fifteen partner organizations in their oversight of thirty Mahila Panchayats. Each panchayat is equipped with two paralegals, trained by Action India. The remaining panchayat members are volunteers from the community.

The Mahila Panchayat system is unique in that it employs a collective structure to promote women's decision-making power. Social pressure is a powerful motivating force for the community. Both men and women listen to the judgments made by the Mahila Panchayat because to ignore the decisions can mean social embarrassment and ostracism. Women in the panchayat are known for their outspoken actions to bring attention to a case, including publicly shaming men who have abused their wives and demanding action from the police.

Delivery Model

The Mahila Panchayat, including two paralegals, holds hearings every Wednesday. The panchayat meets at a designated time and place to ensure that the communities have a regular mechanism to address violence against women. Parties come with their family or friends and place their arguments in a non-threatening atmosphere.

To develop a panchayat, paralegals must build relationships with the community and identify members who can strengthen their individual panchayats. Once a case is heard, a notice is served to call the other party to the panchayat. Both parties are encouraged to speak face-to-face and resolve conflict on their own terms. A compromise and/or settlement are written on letterhead paper in the presence of witnesses.

Once a case has been concluded, follow-up is crucially important. The paralegals visit the family as many times as necessary to determine that the family is upholding its responsibility to the compromise made in the panchayat.

When panchayat members are not arbitrating cases, Action India facilitates workshops on gender awareness and legal literacy to help sharpen their understanding of the social and political environment. Gender awareness is taught by Action India’s case workers and other grassroots staff. Legal literacy is introduced by legal resource persons from numerous organizations. Action India hosts numerous legal awareness camps, trainings for paralegals and coordinators, and trainings for Mahila Panchayat members.

The Mahila Panchayats also serve as an important mobilization mechanism for the launching of grassroots campaigns on violence against women. The Mahila Panchayat network has taken up the issue of child marriage, India’s declining sex ratio, and the domestic violence act. This year, the network will focus heavily on the implementation of the domestic violence act, the PNDT Act, and the elimination of gender-based violence through our participation in Oxfam’s We Can Campaign.

Key Operational Partnerships

Action India has cultivated important partnerships at every level of the Mahila Panchayat network. Our primary partnerships are our relationships with the fifteen NGOs that we currently partner with to run the network, including Child Survival India, Navrishti, MYRADO, and Indicare. In addition, the Delhi Commission for Women has provided financial support and designated Action India the 'mother NGO' of the network.

The panchayat regularly refers cases to lawyers through a free legal aid cell established by the government, through NGOs that provide legal services, through the Delhi Commission for Women, the National Commission for Women, or to the police. Once or twice a year, Action India facilitates a meeting between the police and the members of the Mahila Panchayat. The police have also been known to refer cases back to the Mahila Panchayats—an example of how established the Mahila Panchayats have become within their communities.

Our trainings of paralegals and Mahila Panchayat volunteers also rely heavily on partnerships that we have developed with local NGOs, government authorities, and our own grassroots workers from other Action India programs. These partnerships ensure sustainability and play a central role in driving our initiatives.

Impact

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Financial Model

Action India's programs are entirely designed to support low-income and marginalized populations. Beneficiaries are not required to pay any money. If they are able to pay, Action India asks that those filing cases pay Rs.20 (approximately US .45). In addition, during the arbitration phase of the proceedings, those filing cases are required to pay Rs.50/day (approximately US$1). This helps move along the arbitration process by ensuring that participants work to resolve the conflict, as opposed to getting mired in the conflict.

Mahila Panchayat members are volunteers from the community who volunteer their time and resource inputs. As a result of their efforts, the entire community benefits in its ability to access Mahila Panchayat courts.

The Mahila Panchayat system itself is an extremely cost-effective mechanism by which women can access justice. Mahila Panchayats allow women to save money and time as India's formal court systems are notoriously backlogged and corrupt. This additionally provides a great service to women who feel that they have no where to turn. The panchayat system provides them most of all with a feeling of community support.

What percentage, if any, of the total operating costs does earned income (from products, services, or other fees) represent?

0

How is the initiative financed? Is it financially self-sustainable or profitable? How much do beneficiaries contribute?

The initiative is currently financed by a grant from the Delhi Commission for Women, which is in its last phase. The project is neither financially self-sustainable or profitable. Beneficiaries contribute only through the services provided. They do not earn monetary compensation.

Effectiveness

Over time, we have seen tremendous success through our Mahila Panchayat network. Fourteen hundred women are accessing the courts, and the courts continue to provide an intermediary mechanism of redress that assists the community. In addition, the Mahila Panchayat is a women’s space to share joys and sorrows, give and get information, and become a concerned and active citizen. We have seen that survivors of domestic violence realize that they are not alone. The feelings of collective strength offered by the support group allow women to move beyond their fears and recognize their struggle in the context of a patriarchal system that oppresses women.

Thus our ultimate success has been the growth of empowered women in the slums. These women learn to articulate their problems without feeling guilt or failure. With counseling, they learn to make decisions and find solutions to their problems. Often, they feel satisfied with the process and the resolution, and all parties work to cooperate following the outcome. This change reflects positively on children and family members, and works to enhance the quality of their lives.

These aspects of personal development come through a process that is not always clear-cut. Though there are setbacks and failures, the encouragement of the support group enables women to continue their struggle to end the violence in their lives. In a supportive environment, the “victims” of violence can come forward to help other women.

How many people have benefited from your program over the last year? Which element of the program proved itself most effective?

The full network of courts deals with approximately 1,400 cases per year. There are approximately 900 grassroots members in the network, all volunteers. In 2006, our 219 legal awareness camps were attended by nearly 10,000 people. These workshops were held for the women in the panchayats, and participating women’s groups, and included information on women’s rights and the opportunities and limitations of the laws. We also held trainings to build the capacity of members of the panchayats, to train women at the grassroots level in the areas of law, gender, leadership and conflict resolution. 1,140 people participated in these trainings last year. These number do not represent the thousands of additional people who benefit from the program second-hand: the families of those women who seek redress in panchayat courts, and the community-members who benefit from access to the panchayat network.

The most effective element of the program has been the strength of the community's participation toward building pressure to prevent violence against women. Women are willing to volunteer their time and energy to be a part of this functioning system.

Scaling up Strategy

Our priority for the coming years is to position the Mahila Panchayat network to act as service providers to facilitate the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. The Mahila Panchayat network has been deeply engaged in advocacy around the PWDV Act, which is far more comprehensive and gender-sensitive than any other recognized legislation on gender-based violence. With the passage of the law in 2005, we must now turn our attention to its implementation—assuring that appropriate protection officers are appointed, and that an appropriate budget is allocated to fulfill the obligations of the bill. The success of this civil law is that it recognizes the widespread prevalence of violence in the home and lays out steps for victims of abuse to take action.

We envision that the Mahila Panchayat network can play an important role in ensuring that proper steps are taken, by working with women at the community level to educate them about the act, and referring victims of abuse to the appropriate authorities. We intend to continue our regular Mahila Panchayat arbitration proceedings, but also serve as a direct conduit in the implementation of the act.

Stage of the Initiative

2

Origin of the Initiative

At the height of the women’s autonomous movement in India in the 1980s, Action India initiated forums that enabled women from the community to articulate discontent and recognize underlying patterns of discrimination in their lives. The forums introduced a safe space to share the reality of domestic violence, dowry burning, rape, and sexual harassment. As these collectives developed, they evolved into Mahila Panchayats in 1994, which formalized the role that women had begun to play in resolving marital disputes and conflict situations within the family. As an outgrowth of this work, we began to train paralegal workers from the community to assist in the arbitration of family disputes.

This Entry is about (Issues)

Sustainability

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How did you hear about this contest and what is your main incentive to participate?

The website was sent to Action India via email through an executive committee member who had heard of the competition.

Main Obstacles to Scaling Up

1. Lack of sustainable financial support.

2. Lack of long-term support. We find ourselves scrambling periodically to renew funding, which severly exhausts our time and existing resources.

Main Financial Challenges

Our main challenges are that we do not have the resources (in the form of staff) to continuously fundraise for this project, and that we are spending an exhorbitant amount of time negotiating our current grant. Each panchayat costs Rs.200,000 to maintain (approximately US$4,500). To scale up from our existing panchayat network, we would need this amount per panchayat.

Main Partnership Challenges

Our biggest challenge with our partners is training them to adhere to our rights-based model, which we have developed over a long period of time. Individual NGOs may attempt to develop their Mahila Panchayats in their own way, and it is the responsibility of Action India to conduct trainings to ensure that the process is systematized and based on a human rights framework.

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