Justice for Women, By Women: How Women-run Courts Are Changing the Game in India

Sailesh (right) steals a glance at his young daughter as his family’s case is heard by their local Nari Adalat (women’s court). Sailesh and his wife, Jaimini (left), came to the court seeking help working through marital issues. With the court’s assistance, they resolved their problems and left committed to making their marriage work. Photo by Panvi Shah/Majority World

September 21, 2018

By Carolyn Ziv, Fund staff

On a hot and sunny day last July, Jaimini, Sailesh, and their young daughter arrived at the local Nari Adalat—or ‘women’s court’—in their home town of Vadodara, India. The couple was seeking help working through marital issues involving Sailesh’s family, who were harassing Jaimini for not meeting certain expectations as his wife.

Their case was called, and Jaimini and Sailesh took their places in front of the judges—a group of older women from the community. The two sat side-by-side, their daughter seated in Jaimini’s lap. At one point, Sailesh stole a glance at their baby girl and smiled. In the end, the women’s court was able to help them work through their issues, and they left united in their commitment to stay together.

Jaimini and Sailesh’s experience is just one of many success stories from the Nari Adalats. Established to bring justice closer to the ground for women in villages across India, the courts are supported by local women’s rights organization and longtime Fund for Global Human Rights grantee, Vikalp. Founded in 1996, Vikalp works to advance the rights of women and girls in Gujarat state—including by increasing their access to justice.

Seeking to reach those most in need, Vikalp focuses on rural communities off-the-radar of many government and international aid programs. In these remote areas, local laws and entrenched, patriarchal norms and beliefs often combine to prevent women and girls from fully enjoying their rights. But with Vikalp’s help, they are fighting back.

The judges of the Vadodara Nari Adalat. Photo by Panvi Shah/Majority World

The Power of Women

Recognizing Vikalp’s potential to advance the rights of rural women, the Fund began supporting the organization over a decade ago. Since then, Vikalp’s impact on women’s rights in Gujarat has only grown. In a recent interview with the Fund, co-founder Indira Pathak reminisced about the organization’s early days.

“Before Vikalp, I was working for a Netherlands-supported government program focused on gender equality,” she said. “We were working with thousands and thousands of women, and when we used to visit them I would say, ‘My God, what force and strength we have in India!’”

Realizing the power women could wield if they came together in large numbers but held back by the increasing politicization of the government program, Indira and several colleagues decided to strike out on their own and form Vikalp. At first, the group focused on the treatment of women migrant workers, who were facing abuses such as unfair pay and physical violence.

“Many women were dying,” recalled Indira.

After years of research, advocacy, and grassroots campaigning, Vikalp and its civil society allies got the issue of lack of protection for migrant laborers on the government agenda. Since then, authorities have taken steps to uphold the rights of this marginalized population, including policy changes.

“It was a long struggle, but eventually, we secured change,” Indira said.

Bhartiben lives in Shihor, a village touched by Vikalp’s activities—including through the Nari Adalats. With the help of the Vikalp-supported court, Bhartiben was able to push her husband to take steps to address his alcoholism. Notably, Bhartiben’s mother-in-law supported her case. Photo by Panvi Shah/Majority World

An Innovative Approach to a Complex Problem

Having rallied both government and nongovernmental support for migrant workers’ rights, Vikalp decided to broaden its focus to other pressing issues facing women in rural communities. One of the most urgent issues they identified was a lack of access to justice.

“Both the courts and the police force in Gujarat are male-dominated, making it difficult for women to bring their cases there,” explained Indira. “We saw that many women were not reporting their cases or were being ignored or dismissed.”

To end this cycle of impunity, Indira and her colleagues resurrected the Nari Adalats. Initially a government project, the local women’s courts were intended as spaces where women could report their grievances and have their cases heard. The government eventually stopped supporting them, so Vikalp decided to step in.

“The original courts were not really sensitive to the issue of violence against women,” said Indira. “They also didn’t pick the right people to sit as judges, and were not responsive to rural people, who are often less literate. We worked to change all that.”

For Vikalp, the first step in making the Nari Adalats fully responsive to the needs of women was revisiting their structure. Since the courts are intended to mainly support Dalit women, Vikalp decided that the judges should be women from those same backgrounds. And since older women command greater respect culturally, they decided middle-aged and older women with standing in their communities should be selected.

Women judges take notes during a session of the Vadodara Nari Adalat. Photo by Panvi Shah/Majority World

The second step in making the courts women-focused involved adjusting their layout and location. Here, Indira and her colleagues got clever.

“The idea for the courts was based on what we call ‘caste panchayat,’ a traditional system wherein the men in a given community sit in a circle and make decisions on various cases,” said Indira. “In these spaces, the women must stand 100 feet away and don’t get to listen to what is happening, even when the men are discussing their cases. Most of the time, the judgment is not in favor of the women.”

The Nari Adalats flip this dynamic, with one important distinction: while women are the judges in the courts, both women and men are encouraged to sit in the circle. When a man is being accused by a woman of an offense—most often domestic violence or a dispute related to property or child custody—he must join her in the circle for the case to move forward. The idea is to make him feel the way women often feel when they attend a mainstream court, where almost everyone—from the judge, to the prosecutor, to the onlookers—is male.

The location of the Nari Adalat is also strategically chosen. “It is always situated between the community’s police station, court, and government office,” explained Indira. “So when it is in session, not only do community members come; police and lawyers do, too.”

The Importance of Community Buy-In

While the structure of the Nari Adalats contributes to their effectiveness, it doesn’t guarantee it. Their success comes from being backed by the government and, more importantly, the community.

“The Nari Adalats have been given a mandate by the government, so authorities can refer cases there,” said Indira. This empowers the women’s courts to pass down and implement judgments that are binding. But the real key to their effectiveness is broad community engagement.

“We realized that the strength is going to the police and the mainstream courts in big numbers,” Indira said. “If one woman goes to the police station, she can be ignored. But if 50 women from her community go, [the police] have to listen.”

The way the Nari Adalats follow up on individual complaints also involves the community. When a case is referred to the court, a team is sent to investigate. Trained by Vikalp, the team visits the village where the complainant lives and seeks to determine the facts of the case. After interviewing friends, family, and neighbors, the members develop a report to present to the Nari Adalat.

“Throughout the investigation and trial, we keep the women’s choice very up-front,” emphasized Indira.

Anita (right) and her husband Rajesh (left) present their case to the Vadodara Nari Adalat judges. Anita brought complaints that her husband was home late every night and spending very little time with their family. Photo by Panvi Shah/Majority World

A Growing Record of Impact

Perhaps the best proof of impact of the women’s courts lies in the scores of success stories they have amassed over the years. Indira recalled one of her favorite stories during our interview. It centered around a woman with disabilities who had been raped by someone in her village, but was unable to speak and describe her abuse.

“She knew who raped her, but she could not express it,” said Indira. “So a group of women from the Nari Adalat accompanied her to her community, searching for clues.”

After several hours, one woman in the group noticed that the survivor was gesturing in a way reminiscent of hands on a steering wheel. “Maybe the perpetrator is a driver,” she said. The group took the survivor to the bus station, where she pointed out the man who had raped her.

The case then went to the Nari Adalat and was a “big success,” said Indira. The man was convicted, and most importantly, had to return to his village, where everyone knew what he had done. The survivor also received compensation.

“It’s far easier to put someone behind bars, but here he is totally uncovered and has to live through that shame day after day,” Indira explained.

According to Indira, if this case had gone to the mainstream court, nothing would have happened—because the system works against women at every step. But thanks to the collective support women receive at the Nari Adalat, the rape survivor was able to obtain justice.

“The mainstream court is a scary place for women,” said Indira. “That’s why if anything happens to me, I would prefer to go to the women’s courts.”

Jaimini and her young daughter, pictured outside the Vadodara Nari Adalat. Jaimini and her husband Sailesh’s case was successfully resolved by the woman judges. The couple will stay together and is committed to making their marriage work. Photo by Panvi Shah/Majority World