No one speaks of it. Women suffer it in silence. They are schooled to believe that ultimately it is their fault. Behind the closed doors of many a home, women are abused, physically, emotionally, verbally. But these stories rarely make it to the public domain because the victims themselves will not speak. They think there is no option but to keep quiet and accept. Marriages are made in heaven, they say, but for millions of married women, it is a hell on earth.

Not any more. For, even if Indian society has failed its women on many counts, we can now celebrate the fact that India is one of the few countries around the world that recognises that domestic violence is a violation of the human rights of women.

Path-breaking bill

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, which was notified on October 25, 2006, is path breaking in more ways than one. Most significant perhaps is its definition of "domestic violence" as spelt out in Chapter II of the Act. All forms of physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic abuse are defined as "domestic violence" by this law. It offers women victims of such violence civil remedies of a kind not available to them earlier. Till now, women could use Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code to file a complaint against an abusive spouse. But this did not give the woman the right, for instance, to stay on in her matrimonial home or to demand a maintenance if thrown out or seek protection orders from the abusive partner. The law now provides her these civil remedies that are as important as the punishment provided under the law for committing the offence.

The Act lays down clearly what a police officer must do if a woman comes to the police station with a complaint about domestic violence. If this is not done, the policeman is also held accountable under the law.

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In many ways, such remedies are almost more important because the first challenge the woman faces, if she summons up the courage to report domestic violence, is where she will live until the law determines her case. Most women only turn to the police or the courts when they have already been physically thrown out of their homes, or have been so severely abused that they cannot hide their physical wounds from friends and family.

The problem cuts across caste, class and creed. It matters little whether the woman is educated or not, rich or poor. But while one could argue that a poor uneducated woman would be unaware of her rights, or would not know how to turn to the law, why do so many educated middle class women also tolerate abuse? The Lawyers Collective, which was one the groups that was at the heart of the discussions and campaigning for this law, surveyed some of the victims of domestic violence who turned to them for help in Delhi and Mumbai. While the findings are by no means representative as the sample is very small, they are indicative of the reality in our cities. Most of the women who came to them were middle class women in the age group 18 to 35. Significantly, a substantial number of them did not have independent means of income and were thus in an economically dependent situation. So these women suffered the abuse because they believed they had no option.

Since the law came into effect, there has been considerable discussion in the Letters columns of several newspapers, whether such a law can actually make a difference. There are two things that have to be done first before one can even discuss whether the law will work. First, women have to be made aware that such a law exists. I am amazed at the lack of knowledge on women's legal rights even amongst educated young women studying in some of our premier educational institutions. These are the very same middle class women who will get married. Some of these marriages could turn out to be violent. And despite their education, these women could end up like the women surveyed by the Lawyers Collective, believing that they have to tolerate abuse because they have no option. So public information and education, of the kind that has taken place on the Right to Information Act, is essential on this and other such laws.

Making the law effective

Second, and equally important, the police need to be informed and trained to use the law. Already there are instances being reported in the media where women have gone to the local police station to register a complaint about domestic abuse. Instead of using the provisions of the law, the police have advised them to think again and try and reconcile their differences with their husbands. The Act on the other hand lays down clearly what a police officer must do if a woman comes to the police station with a complaint about domestic violence. If this is not done, the policeman is also held accountable under the law.

We know, however, that even the best laws have their limitations. Laws alone cannot bring about a change in societal attitudes. We have reams of progressive laws in this country but crimes against women continue to be perpetrated, virtually unhindered by the criminal justice system. Yet, just because these laws are either not properly implemented, or women fail to use them enough, is not an excuse to allow crimes such as domestic violence to continue unchecked. Every new law of this kind strengthens the hands of those who want to establish that women's rights are truly human rights.