Female Community Court
Mahila Samakhya

A. Problem Analysis

 1. What was the problem before the implementation of the initiative?
In 1989, the Education Department of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India initiated the formation of Mahila Samakhya (MS) as an autonomous organization to address the need for ‘Education for Women’s Equality’. The Sahayoginis (women field worker of MS) mobilized women into sanghas (women collective group), where they started to discuss and work on issues like road, drinking water, health, drainage and so forth. Slowly women began to ask the sahayoginis how they could raise the issue of violence against women in Gram Sabhas. In most of the sanghas, sahayoginis came across cases of domestic violence against women from the very beginning. Many of the sahayoginis and sangha members were themselves experiencing violence, while negotiating their roles with the families. Neither did they know how to deal with such cases nor where to go for redressal. In such an unclear and fragile situation, the basic strategy adopted by the sangha to deal with Violence Against Women (VAW) was limited to talking to both parties, holding village-level meetings, and mobilizing opinion leaders for arriving at mutually acceptable solutions. The initiative gathered momentum as Sangha members and sahayoginis gradually developed confidence in their capacities and experience. But as luck would have it state wide frequent occurrences of such unfortunate incidents proved that this approach of solving conflict was just a work around and more concrete solution was required. One of the Sanghas member, Laxmiben from Devalia village was murder by her husband in 1991 in Vaghodia block of Vadodara District. Laxmiben belonged to a marginalized community and her in- laws were very notorious and influential in the village. Therefore, her parents did not have courage to raise their voice against their daughter’s murder. Members of Sanghas went to the court and tried to fight for justice but due to lack of enough financial strength they could not afford a good lawyer. After managing to fight the case somehow for four long years a biased judgment in favour of the influential in-laws was made. The prime issues faced by women were denial of rights and opportunities majorly related to property, maintenance, custody of children, second marriage, rape, dowry harassment etc. most of which were accompanied by violence. Similar was the condition in most of the villages where women were subjected to torture, confinement and violence and yet the ill doers went unpunished. Such frequent unfortunate incidents and mobilization of victims into MS painted the requirement for a well planned government intervention in curbing this injustice and empowering women.

B. Strategic Approach

 2. What was the solution?
The Nari Adalat, an innovation from the Mahila Samakhya (MS) programme emerged as a grassroots response to the rising incidence of violence against women that only a decentralized gender sensitive forum could address. The Nari Adalat is a women’s collective formed across age, caste, marital status, religion, region and occupation whose main objective is to addresses issues of violence against women (VAW), and helps them access their rights as citizens. While the MS program was originally designed to address women’s education, issues of gender justice and violence against women could not be ignored and this resulted in the programme pushing its own boundaries beyond what was originally envisaged. Thus the programme evolved in its journey from gender equality to gender justice as a natural progression where its goal of education for empowerment now encompassed legal literacy. This move was influenced by the realization that equality had to stem from an overall process of socio-political empowerment which could make women agents of their own transformation. Thus in practice, the Nari Adalat emerged as a social justice forum largely of women, for women and by women making it a gender-sensitive court where members use social networks to gather evidence and negotiate agreements. Their priority is to find a pro-woman solution using a wide range of strategies including statutes, negotiation, counselling, pressure group tactics and evidence based decisions. Nari Adalat or women’s court is not constitutional bodies but is like a para-legal authority. Like learned solicitors, the women running Nari Adalats record case profiles and history, the names of errant in-laws and husbands and the details of proceedings. Like police officers they conduct in-depth inquiry, talk to both the parties and like courts they summon both for a hearing. As part of their judgment delivery mechanism, the women put their ruling on a stamp paper and get it approved by a notary. However, if someone refuses to abide, they refer the case to a local court. The Government of Gujarat, further, in its endeavor to meet one of the UNDPs MDGs i.e. Promote Gender Equity and Empower women has initiated the establishment of Female community courts with support from the Mahila Samakhya, Guajrat in 2011 and intend to further spread across all the districts of Gujarat. In the initial stage, the Mahila Samakhya had worked in the educationally backward blocks where the gender gap is higher than the national gender gap and the female literacy rate is lower than the national female literacy rate. Total 35 Nari Adalat were operational in 35 EBBs under the Education department. The remaining Nari Adalat are operational in convergence with the women & child development department specifically the State commission of women. It is understood that the experiences of Mahila Samakhya could lead to better implementation of Nari Adalat.

 3. How did the initiative solve the problem and improve people’s lives?
Approach: Opposite to what happens in traditional justice system in Nari Adalat mutual discussion between the two parties is conducted, negotiations and counseling is done to both concerned people and then a final verdict is passed. As this ruling is with the consent and buy-in of both parties very few cases are further referred to local courts. Timeliness: As Nari Adalat do not gets in detail of traditional hierarchy, workflow or process compliance and focuses on a specific genre of cases it is able to enquire in depth and pass a verdict comparatively very early. Cost Effective: A nominal registration fees ranging from Rs. 100 to Rs. 1000 based on the capability of the complaining party is charged. This is done to keep the whole initiative self sustainable and cater to the operational expenses like travel and food expenses of the Sahayoginis when they visit for enquiring and collecting evidence, documentation and stationary. Gujarat government also provides an honorarium amount of Rs. 75 to each Nari Adalat member for two days in a month. Fair Participation: As there is no participation of police or legal agencies better participation of public is seen in evidence sharing resulting in a better and informative decision taking.

C. Execution and Implementation

 4. In which ways is the initiative creative and innovative?
The Nari Adalat was innovated within the MS programme to create a justice forum for women who could not access justice in either formal or traditional judicial systems. The Nari Adalat is guided by certain principles which make it stand apart from the other judicial mechanisms. The Nari Adalat was aligned to the MS philosophy that “all processes and activities within the program must be based on respect for women’s existing knowledge, experience and skills” • It was ensured that the program creates an environment where women can seek knowledge and information and thereby empower themselves to play a positive role in their own development and development of society. • The Nari Adalat is an institutional structure yet was totally kept informal in nature so that it becomes instrumental in empowering women by creating an environment where women are aware of their rights and have an understanding of laws that can lead to gender equality. • The intensive capacity building program on legal literacy helped in building knowledge base of the Nari Adalat and the legal committees. These institutions at the community level then became empowered to actively shape local institutions and society towards gender equity. • To have a deep understanding of their clients and the community in which they reside, its local customs and traditions. With this knowledge, the Nari Adalat is able to arrive at a “solution” that can be both in the best interest of the woman and also has the legitimacy and ownership of the community. In several cases, the woman may want to return to the community and her family, but without the harassment or abuse, while in other instances, she may not. Either way, the priority and the pace of the decision making process is set by the woman herself. • In Gujarat, basic legal awareness begins in the legal committees. Para legal training was given to selected legal committee members in four phases, who then formed the Nari Adalat. This course covers laws related to women like dowry, female feticide, divorce, and property rights. Later when the Domestic Violence Act and the Right to Information Act was passed, training was imparted on that as well. The Nari Adalat operates with the woman at the centre stage. Even after the enforcement of the Domestic Violence Act, the judicial system, with its patriarchal functioning is not completely in tune with the spirit of the Act. However, when a woman approaches the Nari Adalat for justice, she is confident that this group of women would base their judgement and give weight to the circumstantial evidence, substantiated by the community. Thus, having suffered injustice, the woman is not further burdened with the need to “prove” her point as is often expected in formal systems. Nor is she subjected to further victimisation as in the case of patriarchal traditional caste and Panchayat judicial systems. Unlike all other systems, the Nari Adalat would resolve the case starting first and foremost with a pro-woman perspective. Although the Nari Adalats are trained in legal aspects, their process of resolving cases is not particularly legalistic. For the Nari Adalat, solving a case is about reaching a solution for the woman. Therefore, for an outsider, it might seem that there are cases where the Nari Adalat does not strictly follow the law but their decisions are based on the woman’s need and survival, rather than on the law alone. While the Nari Adalat tries to uphold the framework of family and marriage intact, the most important parameter is what the woman wants. In most cases, it is often seen that the woman seeks resolution to her problem rather than vindication of justice.

 5. Who implemented the initiative and what is the size of the population affected by this initiative?
Government of Gujarat – Govt. of Gujarat played an important role right from conceiving of the idea of MS and then making it an autonomous organization. The government extends its funds to facilitate the creation and establishment of Nari Adalat at block level and it’s their vision to extend Nari Adalat to the entire state. They also provide monitory help to Sahayoginis who invest their time in Nari Adalat and let go their daily wage work. MS Sahayoginis – These are the real enablers, motivators and mentor at the grass root level. They interact with women in village and motivate them to become part of the MS sangha. They also help them break the shackles of silence and come out to claim what is rightfully theirs. MS Sangha – These are women collectives at village level. The Sahayoginis mobilize the women to form this collective so that all the aspects of areas where women are suffering in one form or other is discussed and localized solution can be crafted. They also promote open interaction of women and proactive participation so as to have in-depth information of any prevailing issue or suggestions to improve the lives of women. MS Mahasanga – These are typically formed at the block level and builds on cluster and village levels structures of sanghas and the legal committees within these sanghas. Also known as federations they serve a variety of functions including handling issues which cannot be handled by the sanghas at the village level. The members of the Nari Adalat are chosen from the most capable leaders from the legal committees at the block level. The Nari Adalat is at the block level along with the Federation. Federations and sanghas act as conduits to the Nari Adalat to reach out to women facing injustice as well as to support the Nari Adalat in solving their cases. Other departments – Other government departments like police, transport etc have started extending their help in which ever manner required facilitating effective functioning of Nari Adalat.
 6. How was the strategy implemented and what resources were mobilized?
The government of Gujarat has taken Nari Adalat as a project and handed it to Mahila Samakhya, Gujarat. The government of Gujarat is providing all kind of financial support for Nari Adalat to Mahila Samakhya, Gujarat. The Government of Gujarat in its effort to further promote Women community courts across the State of Gujarat is keenly involved in promoting Nari Adalat by organizing Women conferences across the block level. The respective district officials, the grassroot workers are also involved in making these conferences a success. The Mahila Samakhya has opened up 63 Nari Adalat so far in Gujarat. The government of Gujarat envisages starting Nari Adalat procedure in all blocks of the state. Mahila Samakhya is working in 75 blocks of 12 districts with 87000 women belonging to very –very marginalized groups. Basic requirement for Nari Adalat: • There should be Sanghas in the target villages • Women should be organized at cluster level • There should be a need for a Nari Adalat in the area • Women should be mentally prepared to start Nari Adalats It is important to note that all the Nari Adalat members are themselves women who work as wage laborers and are themselves in an economically marginalized status. Therefore when they come to sit as judges and lawyers in the Nari Adalat they would be giving up their daily wages unless their honorarium is funded by other sources. On an average, it was found that one member would have to contribute two days per month for work related to the Nari Adalat. Besides the cost of documentation and stationary, Nari Adalat members would have to travel and will have food expenses when they have to go on field visits to collect evidence or resolve an issue. In order to minimize these costs, they often plan such that the Nari Adalat members closer to the village, go for the visit, or request the client to make arrangements for their travel and boarding, if they can afford it. In Gujarat, the Gujarat State funds a sitting fee of 75 rupees for each Nari Adalat member for two days in a month. This is an honorarium amount given to them for their services. Beyond this, the Nari Adalat charges a fee ranging from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees, depending on the ability of the client to pay. This amount is used for their operational expenses, like stationary, travel and food expenses during field visits. The registration fee is not charged out of a profit motive but rather to finance the operational expenses. The fee mechanism began when MS started withdrawing from the area and their support is not available. In case a client cannot afford the registration fee, they would also make an exception for her. The registration fee mechanism is not cast in stone which confirms that the original objective of the Nari Adalat to provide affordable justice to women is still intact.

 7. Who were the stakeholders involved in the design of the initiative and in its implementation?
As the Nari Adalat develops credibility in the community in solving women’s cases, the members gain the status of leaders in the community. They experience the recognition of an individual as well as that of a Nari Adalat woman who has the capacity to deal with cases and resolve them. People say that such cases should be taken to the Nari Adalat because it gets solved and make life better rather than at the police station where no solution will come through. In Uttar Pradesh, Sumitra, a Nari Adalat member even had the honor of being one of the Nobel Prize nominees, in 2005 when a group of women were to be nominated for the prize. Empowerment – Through the Nari Adalat, the members have acquired a number of life skills and functional literacy and numeracy skills. In their case dealings, the Nari Adalat members develop skills of record keeping, documentation and arithmetic. The capacities built in the members by MS in situational analysis and critical thinking is further enhanced as they continuously apply their mind to resolve cases. The Nari Adalat members travel across villages and districts to collect evidence, to the block for the hearings and to the state offices for training programs and for other workshops. For women, who had never left their homes, this kind of extensive travel as part of their role in the Nari Adalat is very empowering. Attitude of family towards them – The Nari Adalat members reported a growing respect at home and that their views were considered on important issues. They testified to changes in their own families where the husbands share the household work. Several Nari Adalat members interviewed also reported that insurance titles were now in their names as well. Several Nari Adalat women are also elected as head of village. Impact on State – In 2010, the state government of Gujarat has declared that it will establish a Nari Adalat in every block. This recognition given to the Nari Adalat is testimony to the state’s confidence in this community based women centric judiciary system. Institutionalizing this innovation across the state has meant that a justice system with a woman perspective is slowly finding its space in the mainstream judicial system. Nari Adalats are now slowly but steadily getting support from the police and judiciary system as when required.

 8. What were the most successful outputs and why was the initiative effective?
The mechanism of supervision and monitoring is done two ways: Internal: Three Samata (Equity) committees are formed in each district and each committee has • Twelve to fourteen members from village sangha • Members of Federation (Block level collective form of Sanghas) • Cluster resource persons of Mahila Samakhya (one Cluster resource person looks after programmatic activities of 25 villages and field work) • Saheli (looks after five villages in the Mahila Samakhya) • Members of Kishori (Adolescent) sanghas • Members of Nari Adalat. Members of Samata committee do the cross supervision and monitoring on a quarterly basis. If any problem occurs, the members of committee guide them sanghas and Mahasanghas. If the problem is not in their previews, they approach the officials of the district and state office to find apt solutions. Special MIS tools are developed for the supervision and monitoring with the help of dashboards and reports. The field staff visits Nari Adalat, monitors its activities like agendas, meetings, rulings etc and loads this data for the tool to access. The Samata committee then evaluates at the district office every month. Moreover, the meeting of main members of Nari Adalat is held every month at the district level and quarterly at the state level. External: Mahila Samakhya has National Resource Group consisting of well known academicians and experts on women’s issues at the national level. The members of National Resource Group evaluate performance of Nari Adalat twice in a year and submit the report to the national office. Based on the evaluation, all state teams sit with the experts at the national level and have a discussion on various facets of the evaluation report. The same member/members do/does the follow up too and check the performance of the Nari Adalat (the empowerment process). Best Practices foundation of Bangalore had done evaluation of the Nari Adalat in convergence with the DFID (The Department for International Development, of the UK government) at the national level in 2010 too.

 9. What were the main obstacles encountered and how were they overcome?
The government of Guajrat has given the reorganization by giving the status of project and Mahila Samakhya is working hard to reach to last women of the society. However the women who are victim of domestic violence were not coming forward to share their suffering in a large proportion due to many reasons. It takes lots of time to convince them and is a time consuming process. Furthermore, many women wanted to fight for their right through Nari Adalat, but, their financial insecurity acted as a hurdle for them. Women faced financial difficulties because there is no incentive given for running Nari Adalat because the Nari Adalats is being run by the women who are coming from the deprived classes. In many areas, Caste Panchayat, local leaders opposed Nari Adalat and created problems for Nari Adalat because they believed that a parallel system (Nari Adalat) which would be run by women, would try to rein in their power. Moreover, Nari Adalat are run by women belonging to deprived classes and their status is inferior in the society because of existing very rigid caste structure. Competing organizations were harassing the members of Nari Adalat. Some of the Non Governmental Organizations were duplicating the Mahila Samkahya model of Nari Adalat and their objectives to run Nari Adalat was only to get financial assistant from the various funding agencies. The strategy for the mobilization depends on mainly religious, social and political scenarios. The scenarios changes constantly, therefore, the strategy for the mobilization has be to redesigned constantly and it is areas specific. Therefore, one has to constantly be in touch with grass root level and keep evolving the strategy. It is difficult to do so for all employees who are heading at the districts and blocks level to run the Nari Adalat. When Nari Adalat used to go to get back Streedhan (gifts to broom from brides family) or on child custody cases, they faced economic, physical and mental problems and were threatened. This is one of the major issues where other influential people do not let members of Nari Adalat smoothly. Solution: Training – Localized training material and training design was done with the help of experts. The training procedure is on-going process after 2005-06. Material on various legal aspects and for the members of Nari Adalat was made in such a manner that it can be used by both literate and illiterate members. Developed understanding of voluntary spirit – The concern staffs of the Mahila Samakhya tried to develop their understanding of voluntary participation and spread the spirit of this message by “Nari Adalat is for the women of deprived class, by the women of deprived class and of the women of very deprived class.” Nari Adalat started solving cases which were difficult for the court and the caste Panchayat and therefore got recognition Networked with government and got space. With zeal to serve and connect better and effective interventions from the departments they also started interacting with police station, Sarpanch and community Frequent meetings and trainings with Nari Adalat members developed their feminist perspective and trust.

D. Impact and Sustainability

 10. What were the key benefits resulting from this initiative?
Through the Nari Adalat, women have the option of a judicial system which is affordable, sensitive and approachable. Women report the biggest impact of the Nari Adalat as their access to rights and to gender justice. They also know that the Nari Adalat will not provide a judgment alien to her context, but would rather reach a solution involving all parties. The number of cases registered for violence on women for various reasons have increased more than 3 folds in the past 10 years. The Nari Adalat is an icon which epitomises gender justice which upholds women’s rights. Through its moral integrity it is able to challenge local power structures. Women have approached the Nari Adalat for justice for a variety of issues – rape, abandonment, divorce, sexual abuse, harassment, dowry, and infertility. These cases demonstrate that instead of suffering violence in their lives, the women are now able to confront it. They derive that confidence from the knowledge that the Nari Adalat is accessible to them for justice. For instance, Lakshmiben suffered in silence and took no action against her husband for several years and was finally murdered. However, her daughter, with the help of the Nari Adalat could finally hold her father to account. Women outside the Sanghas have never been educated on their rights and yet the Nari Adalat has influenced them to respond differently to violence and injustice. In their own homes and communities, the Nari Adalat members also try to influence the customs to deliver gender justice Where the woman does not want to stay with her husband the Nari Adalat has used medical evidence in favour of the woman who was falsely accused of infertility to establish his infertility and validate her remarrying. This issue is one of the major ones owing to An in-depth on-going, localized culturally sensitive process of investigation resulted in an outcome where the woman was empowered enough to manage the entire property, her family, maintain a decent standard of living and increase her household status. The awareness on property rights among the Nari Adalat members has a direct impact on women’s access to resources. Women, with the support of the Nari Adalat, now have the choice of getting maintenance and their share of property than only option of suffering within the family or to be abandoned without any support. As the Nari Adalat develops credibility in the community in solving women’s cases, the members gain the status of leaders in the community. They experience the recognition of an individual as well as that of a Nari Adalat woman who has the capacity to deal with cases and resolve them.

 11. Did the initiative improve integrity and/or accountability in public service? (If applicable)
Once the Nari Adalat is formed, the institution itself needs to be built through on-going capacity building, coordination among and between other Nari Adalats and by creating a support structure. Institutional linkages with the Government and non government bodies are a crucial part of the support system of the Nari Adalat. Managing the Nari Adalat: The first step to systematise the functioning of any institution including the Nari Adalat is to regularize its meetings. To ensure these meetings take place, the Nari Adalats decide on a date in a month and meet at a predetermined venue. At these meetings, decisions are taken to obtain support from the Sanghas, legal committees and the federation for obtaining evidence, to mobilize community support and for follow up of cases where agreements have been reached to ensure that they are indeed being implemented. These meetings are distinct from the hearings themselves, while the venue could be common. Building community support The Nari Adalat is a practice which operates with a high level of community support. The judgements of the Nari Adalat do not have legal validity per se and therefore, it is largely social pressure that helps the Nari Adalat executes their decisions. They also depend on the community for circumstantial evidence to base their judgements. The sangha plays an important role in mobilizing the community for the Nari Adalat. The community awareness campaigns conducted by the committees in the villages, is the foundation that builds the visibility of the Nari Adalat as a redressal mechanism where women can take their cases. Beyond that, when the community sees the cases being solved by the Nari Adalat, their credibility increases and they start referring more cases. This initiative is slowly gaining popularity in other states of India and there is a new vibe of social and cultural acceptance of this initiative. Nari Adalat charges a fee ranging from 100 rupees to 300 rupees, depending on the ability of the client to pay. This amount is used for their operational expenses, like stationary, travel and food expenses during field visits. The registration fee is not charged out of a profit motive but rather to finance the operational expenses. The fee mechanism began when MS started withdrawing from various areas. In case a client cannot afford the registration fee, they would also make an exception for her. The registration fee mechanism is not cast in stone which confirms that the original objective of the Nari Adalat to provide affordable justice to women is still intact. In addition the Gujarat State funds a sitting fee of 75 rupees for each Nari Adalat member for two days in a month. This is an honorarium amount given to them for their services.

 12. Were special measures put in place to ensure that the initiative benefits women and girls and improves the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable? (If applicable)
The strength of its reach is based on an active set of institutional mechanisms of the sanghas and the federations. This synergy helps women, even those outside of the sanghas to access the Nari Adalat. These institutions play an active role as pressure groups or to collect evidence for cases and to follow up on cases to ensure execution. Without the linkage, the Nari Adalat would not necessarily perform in ways that are true to its original mission of being accountable to women’s collectives. Although the Nari Adalat members began their journey by solving issues within the sangha, today, they have expanded their scope much beyond what any one collective is capable of. Unlike the sangha, whose reach is primarily the women in collective and at best those in the village, today, the Nari Adalat reach extends to women, men and community at large across the entire block. Capacity building in legal literacy has been a crucial input to create awareness on women’s rights and the laws. It is this combination of legal literacy, gender education and the sense of sisterhood that makes the Nari Adalat a powerful, reliable and woman sensitive justice system. It is precisely this combination that differentiates a Nari Adalat lawyer from any other lawyer, who might be well aware of the law, but may not have a pro woman perspective. The law being an area which is ever evolving, with new amendments, bills, judgments and acts passed it is important that the Nari Adalat be continuously trained on these developments. When new acts like the Domestic Violence Act are implemented these grassroots initiatives could even set precedents on how progressive laws can be most effectively used in favour of women. One of the primary needs of the Nari Adalat at this stage is both in their daily operations and as well as practice by itself is, visibility. Some precedents of visibility and recognition from the state already exist as seen in the identity cards provided by Women and Child Department (WCD). However, as visibility grows there is a danger of opposition from formal legal systems who may not see Nari Adalat as legitimate from a pure legal stand point. The Nari Adalat has to be just and fair in its dealings and has to maintain its autonomy as a judicial system. Therefore, financial sustenance of the Nari Adalat has to be transparent and based on clear principles. Institutionalizing is the eventual point for all innovations to move towards to increase their reach. Loss of quality is an inherent risk in any institutionalization effort especially one that involved scale. It is crucial therefore that this dilution does not result in a mission drift that compromises gender justice for poor women. The Nari Adalat, one of the most robust, well established and widely prevalent practices of MS has the potential to serve the needs of millions of women. It is therefore crucial to design accountability mechanisms to ensure that the intent and spirit of the practice is protected. But, it is critical that the guidelines, non-negotiable principles and pre requisites of implementing this practice even at scale needs to be well laid out and form the basis for negotiations with state or national governments. In states where the facilitating organization has had staff turnover and institutional memory is lost, it becomes critical to have forums for peer learning on the implementation of the practice, to ensure that new staff have a clear understanding of the mission and the process.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   Mahila Samakhya
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Trupti Sheth
Title:   State Program Director  
Telephone/ Fax:   079-26306081/83
Institution's / Project's Website:  
E-mail:   msguj.ahmedabad@gmail.com  
Address:   Government Polytechnic Campus, Ambavadi
Postal Code:   380015
City:   Ahmedabad
State/Province:   Gujarat

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