With the passage of the Domestic Violence Act, for the first time in the history of legal ramifications directly linked to women, the state has recognised that violence is not only physical and/or sexual. Equally, violence can be psychological, verbal, and economic and act as warning signs of future physical violence. With this in mind, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, has laid down stringent rules to prosecute men who harass, beat or insult women at home.

The rules, notified on October 25, 2006, classify domestic violence under four categories - physical, sexual, verbal/emotional and economic. Anything remotely resembling abuse by a man of his wife, live in partner or child, can land him in jail for one year or cost him up to Rs.20,000 in fines, or risk being booked under sundry sections of the Indian Penal Code. Physical violence includes beating, pushing, shoving, and inflicting pain. Sexual violence covers offences such as forced sex, forced exposure to pornographic material, any sexual act with minors; emotional violence spans insults, jibes for not having a male child, preventing a woman from taking a job, forcing marriage against a woman's will, threat of suicide, preventing a woman from meeting someone etc.; economic violence includes denial of money, food, cloth and medicines, forcing a woman to quit her job, not allowing her to use her partner's salary, not paying rent, and forcing her out.

The Act empowers the court to pass protection orders preventing an abuser from entering places a woman frequents, communicating with her or isolating any assets they both share. The state governments will have to appoint a women protection officer at each police station. They will also have to appoint service providers and counselors for victims of domestic violence.

Those who are professionally more successful than their husbands or male partners are often forced to tone down their achievements for fear that the relationship might either weaken or break.

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The new law empowers the victim to approach the local magistrate directly with an appeal for protection. The magistrate may then appoint a trained protection officer to help investigate the complaint. If the complaint is found to be genuine, the magistrate will issue a 'protection order' to the offender and he will have to abide by this order. If the offender fails to abide by the order, the victim can complain again either to the magistrate or to the local police station and if this is proved to be true, the offender will be punished under the law. All offences under the new Act are unbailable. Marital rape too falls within the purview of the present Act.

Legal progress, attitudinal regress

All of this is being welcomed widely by women's groups, but a little pause for thought is also warranted. 'Protection' is a two-edged weapon. The very fact that protection is the principal focus of the Act for women within marriage or out-of-marriage relationships only reinforces the view that women, by and large, are vulnerable to all kinds of violence in their relationships with men. This view also recognizes and accepts that women are the weaker sex - physically, emotionally and sexually. This is already an unwarranted stereotype that handicaps many women; those who are professionally more successful than their husbands or male partners are often forced to tone down their achievements for fear that the relationship might either weaken or break because patriarchy has designed men to have egos that could burst with women partners who are more successful.

Besides, if the woman ever needs 'protection' from the man she is living with, would it not be simpler for her just to terminate the relationship? Will her male partner take kindly to her later if she files a complaint against him under whatever ground? The law is also short-sighted in a different sense; it forgets that not all domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women, and targets only the male partner as the perpetrator of violence. Kolkata-based lawyer Joymalya Bagchi states that no woman can file a complaint against another woman or women under this Act.

Practical difficulties

Whether the broad provisions of the Act become protective instruments for women, or merely words in law that have little bearing to reality, remains to be seen. The practical difficulties are countless. How can a woman prove emotional and economic violence in a marriage that has already seen twenty summers? No wife can be expected to move about with a tape recorder around the house. Taped recordings are in any event not always accepted as evidence in a court of law. No neighbour, friend or relative from the in-laws' family will back up the victim as a witness.

The infra-structural requirements that need to be completed are also an uphill task. "The framework of the new law calls for the appointment of protection officers, service providers and counselors," says lawyer Shibsankar Chakrabarty of Kolkata. "This needs facilities to train existing personnel, room for appointing new personnel and thus, a large amount of funds flowing into the legal and judicial channels of the State. Does the State have the necessary funding to support this programme? And the willingness? Or, is the new law an apparently sweet pill designed to satisfy some sections of women in the country?" she asks.

Feminists welcoming the law are ignoring the fact that this will place all man-woman relationships within and without marriage at risk. "How can I go to the magistrate and file a complaint against my husband who does not provide me with medical help at all and does not give me the money to buy medicines myself when he has been a good husband in other ways? He has never abused me verbally, physically or even sexually. After 35 years of marriage and three grown-up children, I am certain that if I approach any magistrate with this complaint, knowing fully well that this is economic violence, my husband may suffer from a heart attack. So, how can this new Act help me?" asks Janaki Roy, 58, wife of a retired government servant.

The law will be closely watched by many, but even before its power has exerted itself, it is apparent that there are many challenges. Lack of resources, lack of political will and entrenched systems of patriarchy challenge the human rights movement's ability to protect the rights of women. Most women are not even aware of their rights and, when they are, they often don't place great stock in what human rights can do to help them. To many women, human rights - leave alone women's human rights - are foreign to their culture, and challenge deeply held notions of individual and community identity. Moreover, women are frequently too preoccupied with their daily struggles to invest much hope in abstract ideals or identify with a complex new law that would be difficult to implement and execute in practical life.