"Time and again, cases of atrocities against women in the small towns and villages of India are reported by the media. Activists initiate a campaign and cases are filed but in most instances, the women victims do not get justice, the accused are acquitted and these incidents slip out of our memory," rues well-known lawyer and women's rights activist Flavia Agnes. Tired of this repetition of history, Agnes, along with colleagues from Majlis, a legal resource organisation in Mumbai, recently launched a training and fellowship project for women lawyers in the district towns of Maharashtra.

The project, which aims to impart skills of litigation and campaigning for the legal rights of women, was launched in April 2003 and its first quarterly meeting is to be held next month, in Aurangabad. While 25 lawyers signed up for the first course in legal training, 10 were selected for fellowships of a year's duration, in various district towns of Maharashtra. The only male lawyer among these 10 is from Pune. Providing a grant of Rs 5000 per month, the fellowship aims to encourage lawyers to take up cases for women and seek legal and other strategies to help the woman litigant. Besides, the lawyers would also have to conduct legal awareness programmes in schools, colleges and in communities. Ten scholarships will be awarded every year.

Lawyers in small districts are isolated, notes Agnes, and they rarely get support of any kind for fighting cases of women. Apart from the fact that they have little access to information, the lawyers need training in initiating a campaign around the case, building up media support and other such strategies. They would also benefit greatly if they networked with other lawyers.

Sexual harassment policy seems to cater only to the organised public or private sectors in urban areas, whereas the Supreme Court judgement on this issue actually emerged from cases related to rural social workers.
There are only a few lawyers - usually those supportive of a local organisation or network - who take up cases related to violence against women. The clients don't pay well and the cases are also frustrating because the odds are heavily stacked against the woman litigant. For instance, police investigations in criminal matters are frequently faulty or inadequate and the lawyer has little with which to aid her client. According to Advocate Veena Gowda of Majlis, the formal structure of the courts and the law intimidates women more than it does men. Also, landmark judgements, or other significant decisions at the High Court and Supreme Court levels do not have any trickle down effect; the gains as it were, do not reach the District Courts.

The experiences of women in far-flung districts, says Gowda, do not get incorporated into the struggle for women's rights, and the changes that occur. For example, the sexual harassment policy seems to cater only to the organised public or private sectors in urban areas, whereas the Vishakha judgement from which the sexual harassment policy actually emerged from cases related to rural social workers.

Majlis has made a concerted effort to build bridges between social organisations and legal systems, between lower and higher courts, and between rural efforts and our work, says Gowda. "As a Majlis lawyer, everyone knows we are appearing for women. Hence we are creating an atmosphere of women's rights in the court itself. We are seen as flag-waving lawyers standing up for women. We are not approaching justice from a neutral point." What needs to be stressed, according to the Majlis team, is that while fighting for women's legal rights, the solutions could be amicable but the stand taken is for women. On the other hand, social organisations that offer family counselling take a very neutral approach. Therefore, it is important that there be link ups between social and legal organisations where women's issues are concerned.

Echoing her standpoint, Apurva Parsekar - who, along with Samina Dalwai, coordinates the district lawyers' project - says it is vital to get lawyers to show a "willingness to conduct litigation from a feminist perspective". While most lawyers are certainly not 'feminist' lawyers, even in urban centres like Mumbai and Delhi, at least sensitivity to women litigants must be encouraged. For the legal awareness programmes, the emphasis is on the girl child and the adolescent girl. We felt that we must create awareness of the rights of women from an early age, says Parsekar. She cited the instances of the girls victimised in the Jalgaon sex scandal (1994), in which the accused were acquitted, and the immolation in broad daylight of teenager Rinku Patil in Ulhasnagar (1990), by a spurned admirer.

Another aspect lawyers need to work on is to be non-judgmental about their clients. If a woman litigant is involved in an 'adulterous' relationship, the lawyer needs to develop strategies to protect the rights of her client. The woman's point of view needs to be protected, Apurva added, stressing that there could be no neutrality in such a matter.

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For Majlis, the task of increasing gender sensitivity amongst lawyers is a crucial one. Over the past 20 years, says Agnes, there have been several legal reforms for women. "But what have been the gains? The numbers of reported crimes against women have increased, and work participation and sex ratio has decreased. This is because development plans have always addressed men, not women. We address the family, but not the women in the family," she says.

When lawyers bring forward more and more issues that affect women, the stereotypical way of thinking will be challenged. Ultimately, says Agnes, it's all about creating new spaces.