First of all, I would like to thank all of you who have been following along and commenting on my blog. I really appreciate your interest and support! Secondly, you have posed wonderful and insightful questions, many of which I have tried to answer in the comments section. I thought it would also be helpful to put together a blog post that answers the most common questions that I have received regarding the Mahila Panch court. I hope this provides some further clarification. Keep the questions coming!
What are the advantages of Vikalp’s Mahila Panch court? What does this court do that the state courts do not?
The legal system in India is very progressive and democratic on paper. For example, the Indian constitution officially grants women the same rights as men, and it prohibits discrimination based on sex, caste, race, religion, place of birth, or the like. It also gives the State the power to take positive measures to ensure that women have access to their rights. However, these laws are not enforced, particularly amongst the poor. In the patriarchal structure, issues faced by women have traditionally been restricted to the private sphere. Women’s issues and experiences are not typically represented in the state courts. One strength of the Mahila Panch court is that it validates the experiences of and discrimination faced by women. The women’s court brings these issues into the public sphere. In addition, having women as the judges of the tribal court works to reverse the power structure and put women into leadership positions within their communities.
The tribal communities do have the right to vote, and many of them exercise that right. However, the state justice system particularly fails the tribal communities because of a) the language barrier, b) the expense involved in state court proceedings (including the wages that the tribal people lose when they attend the court hearings), c) the physical distance, and d) the tribal communities’ lack of familiarity with the urban culture and the state court proceedings. The tribal court provides an inexpensive (there is a nominal fee paid by the complainants) and accessible (in terms of language and physical distance) alternative to the state courts. Click on any of the photos below to link to my AP flickr set!
The entrance to VIKALP’s Tilakwada office, and the location of the Mahila Panch court. The sign reads “VIKALP Women’s Group” in Gujarati.
Does the Mahila Panch court work with the state legal system in any way?
A few people have asked how the state and tribal courts divide the cases up and decide which court hears what cases. That’s not exactly how it works with the tribal court. This court was created as an alternative to the state courts, not as a supplement. The tribal communities are able to take their cases to either court system – state or tribal. However, tribal communities face many problems when taking their cases to the state courts. The courts are expensive, time intensive, far away, and they are not held in the local tribal dialect. Because of this, the complainants are unable to understand the proceedings of their own cases.
To tackle these obstacles, the tribal court system was implemented. If the complainant or the defendant does not agree with the decision of the tribal court, they have the option of going to the state court to have their case heard. [They can also have the settlement appealed by the tribal court. See below for more details on appeals.] So again, the tribal communities technically have access to both systems, but the state court system is not a viable option for many of these individuals.
That being said, the tribal court does work with the state courts in certain ways. Once the tribal court and the complainants reach a decision, the settlement is written up on official legal paper that is signed by the necessary government authorities. So the settlement is then authorized by the state and is legally enforceable. Also, the court uses both Indian and international laws and principles to make a decision on each case. So the state and tribal courts in India are not working together per say. But it is not totally black and white, and there is some overlap.
A view of Narmada, the other district that Mahila Panch and Sakhi Sangathan serve. ‘Narmada’ means ‘river’ in Gujarati and Hindi. Narmada district is home to the Narmada River, which divides northern and southern India. (The river is visible in the background.)
How are the judges of the Mahila Panch court elected?
The judges of the women’s court are leaders from Sakhi Sangathan, a registered nonprofit from which Mahila Panch emerged. They are selected by the members of Sakhi Sangathan based on their level of interest in becoming a judge, and their active participation in Sakhi Sangathan. Those women interested in becoming a judge voice their interest to the members of Sakhi Sangathan. Based on that, and their general participation in the organization, the organization selects the women that they see fit to fill this role. Once elected, the judges receive training in international, national, and human rights law. VIKALP provides this training.
How does the tribal women’s court system address corruption?
Everything in this court system is very open and transparent due to the public nature of this system. Because of that, corruption is not often a problem. If, for example, a case is presented from a certain judge’s village, that judge is often able to help present the facts because she is part of that community. However, if that judge appears to be biased, the other judges are there to address that. That is why there are so many judges (about 15) – to address potential bias and to provide diverse viewpoints. In addition, multiple people are always sent on fact-finding missions to ensure objectivity. Various judges will be sent on fact-finding missions (not only the judge from that village) in addition to the administrators of the court (Priya and Champa in Mahila Panch).
Another thing to note is that being a Mahila Panch judge has become a very respected position. It has raised the social status of the women in this role. If the judges are seen to be corrupt, they will lose this position and this status, which they do not want to do. This also helps to keep corruption in check.
Can the decisions of the Mahila Panch court be appealed?
Yes, these court decisions can be appealed. However, the decisions of the court are settlements that are arrived at by consensus. The court does not impose them on the complainants. So appeals do not often happen. If, once a case has been settled, the complainant feels as though the settlement is not being adhered to or is not working, they can and often will come to the court again to reinforce the settlement or to change the settlement.
Posted By Alicia Evangelides
Posted Jul 9th, 2012