Justice at their doors
Jan sunvais or public hearings are giving many women in Rajasthan hope that their problems will be heard and redressed.
Photo: Sandeep Biswas/UNICEF
At an open hearing: An opportunity to air grievances.
FOR once, Sukhadia Rangmanch (auditorium for performing arts) in Udaipur was transformed into a platform for sharing "real-life injustices". There were no actors only rural women who had suffered in silence.
They came from villages as far away as almost 90 km to participate at a "Jan Sunvai", a public hearing of women's problems. These "open hearings" give women an opportunity to air their views, grievances and seek redressal on the spot.
The Rajasthan State Commission for Women, with back-up support from UNICEF, is providing a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between the government and the civil society as was evident at the two recently held sessions in Udaipur and Jaipur.
Ganga Bai complained that for the past three months the local nurse (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) had not been to the village, so no one had been vaccinated. The Chairperson, Dr. Pawan Surana, called for the Chief Health and Medical Officer and asked him to look into the matter.
"If the ANM is on long leave find someone else to fill in. The PHC (Primary Health Centre) should have an ANM soon," she pronounced a quick verdict with the instructions for a review.
Others present at the hearings were the District Collector, the Superintendent of Police, Deputy Director Social Welfare and other Commission staff.
Senior officers from other social sector departments and representatives of a few banks were also instructed to attend the public hearing, just in case the women had questions pertaining to their area of work.
Champa Bai from Sarli village sought protection, as village elders had declared her a dayan (a witch). She feared for her life and that of her children.
Two Muslim girls wanted child support and maintenance according to the law of the land and not a Shariat decree; in another village the school had been locked for months, yet the teacher had promoted all the students to the next class; a group of girls wanted to continue studying but the local school had only eight classes; there were incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace; medicines being sold to the BPL (below poverty line) section instead of being free as was the policy.
But far exceeding most other representations were those relating to failed matrimony because of violence, alcohol, abuse and dowry. While Manju Joshi's husband chopped off her hands because she could not get more dowry, Lata Jhawar, a first class BA from Jaipur University, was abused and tortured by her husband and his family in Karnataka, and repeatedly sent home to get more presents while being subjected to a hostile atmosphere at home.
The sufferings were endless. This was the darker side of small towns and rural areas. The public hearing provided an opportunity and a faint ray of hope that encouraged women.
The Rajasthan State Commission, an autonomous body set up by the Government of Rajasthan, has the status of a civil court. It has the power to investigate complaints and recommend the line of punishment to the government.
The government is bound to look into the matter and inform the Commission within three months on the action taken.
Dr. Pawan Surana, Chairperson, is partly responsible for the Commission's power and strength. "We hold three types of hearings. One at the district or bloc level, as most rural women find it difficult to travel to the State Capital; two, individuals who don't want to air their problems in public often come direct to the Commission's Office for a personal hearing; and finally, there is also the option of sending a note by hand or through the mail for seeking redressal of the particular problem," she explains.
The Commission is also empowered to call for official records to assist it in its inquiry.
Dr. Surana says, "Once they hear the redressal announced immediately to the aggrieved woman, others watching as audience gain confidence in the process, feeling encouraged that their voices will be heard and steps taken to provide justice."
The public hearing also acts as a forum where people are made aware of the rights of women and children. The District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police reiterate all the government schemes and the process of accessing them to the large gathering.
The platform is also a useful channel to hear the voices from the grassroots, a good feedback on how the system is reaching out to the poorest of the poor.
Somli Bai's experience showed that not only were health services poor and inefficient but also pregnancy monitoring protocols were being flouted.
Somli, a thin, anaemic woman was expecting twins. She reached her neighbourhood PHC late in the evening with labour pains. In spite of repeated requests, the doctor who had been examining her came to the centre the following morning. After examination, he informed the family that this was a risky delivery, it would be better if they took Somli to the City hospital, an almost eight-hour drive by road.
Before they could take a decision, the children were born in the PHC. Only one survived. The second baby too died on the way. All that was now left was to claim Rs. 500 for the delivery.
Said an exhasuted Somli, "I went to the sarpanch; he wanted some money for the form. This had to be filled by the PHC. Here the doctor asked for Rs. 50. I could not pay. I told them that I was from the BPL class. I was asked to prove this. I went to the Collectorate to get my BPL card. I have the card now but still no compensation. We've spent a lot of money travelling and on medicines. In spite of being poor everyone asks for some money for the medicines."
At the "open court" proceedings, Dr. Surana directed the officers to assist the victimised woman. In this case, both the doctor and the sarpanch were summoned to the Commission's office and the DM was asked to seek them out.
The "quiet-force" behind this path-breaking platform bringing justice to the doorsteps of women experiencing unequal opportunities is the Rajasthan Unit of UNICEF. With simple logistical support to the Rajasthan State Commission for Women, the event has become a major empowering endeavour for hundreds of disenfranchised women.
Dr. Satish Kumar, UNICEF State Representative, said that the Women's Commission had become a trustworthy platform to sort out issues on the spot. UNICEF helps in identifying NGOs working at the grassroots who assist and encourage the women to come to the hearings, working closely with the Department of Women and Child Development.
Back up support
UNICEF also provides funds to transport the women, to hire the hall and food for the day. Besides, it provides the Commission with some infrastructural support in terms of funds for a staff person (project coordinator) who provides back-up support, documentation of the cases and recording successful cases.
In just one session of "Jan Sunvai", the information gap that would have otherwise been distorted by the labyrinthine ways of government reporting, is bridged for senior officers. This is another way of taking governance to the doorsteps.
The process has been successfully strengthening the service delivery systems through administrative directions with as little as possible paperwork for implementation.
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