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“A society that is unable to respect, protect and nurture its women and children, loses its moral
moorings and runs adrift” (‘Are women not part of our being?’ by Siddharth Chatterjee, The Hindu)

At the time of the advent of civilization, there was no distinction between man and woman. However,
in the Vedic period, the lawgiver Manu, in his work on social conduct, Manusmriti, stated, “Where
women are honoured, there the Gods are pleased; where they are dishonoured, the sacred rites yield
no fruits.” However, the institution of marriage confined women and limited their role to within the
four walls of the home. The condition of women deteriorated with the passage of time. On the one
hand, they were being projected as goddesses and, on the other, they were expected to be submissive
and dependant wives and daughters. Gradually, women learned to conform to the social norms of
conduct set by the men.

The concept of Mahila Panchayats is based on a traditional form of community organization for
social justice. These women’s courts have radically changed the caste, and gender discrimination
found in the structures of our “Biradari and Gram Panchayats”, with a women’s perspective. The
Mahila Panchayat is not an alternative to the legal system. It is an effective forum for dispute
resolution preventing the need for legal intervention. In the case of divorce or property dispute, legal
aid is needed to legalize the procedures. Started in 1994, the Mahila Panchayat provides a space to
concerned parties to speak openly and negotiate settlements on their own terms. The women speak
without fear knowing they are not alone. The men also respect and comply with the agreement made
mutually in the presence of the Mahila Panchayat. The women’s court is known to be impartial and
fair to both men and women with a firm belief in gender equality.

Legal awareness and formation of Mahila Panchayats is an initiative taken for empowerment of
women. These Mahila Panchayats offer crisis intervention and legal aid at community level and
help tackle local level legal disputes and assist in reduction and reconciliation of violence against
women. The scheme was designed in collaboration with different NGOs. All the concerned NGOs
presented their models and ideas for enabling women for their legal rights. The model presented by
Action India, an NGO, was accepted by all and was accordingly adopted. Later, Action India was
enlisted as Lead NGO for training.

Delhi Commission for Women has promoted the setting up of Mahila Panchayats. Mahila
Panchayats is an innovative collective approach for community participation in dispute
redressal. After need assessment and motivation, community leaders are identified and these women
are then motivated to volunteer as Mahila Panchayat Members. The 20 MPs members are trained
in legal issues, dispute redressal mechanism, trained in the laws relevant to crimes against women,
given exposure about the existing legal position regarding property, maintenance, marriage, custody,
etc. They are also given training in counselling, FIR writing, pursuing with police station, how to
proceed for legal recourse. The Mahila Panchayats itself acts as a "Watch Dog" and its members,
after orientation, and training, can handle delicate and family disputes. They find solutions at the
local level through the workers in the field itself. They link up with lawyers and issues which cannot
be resolved at the Mahila Panchayat level are either resolved by the lawyers or alternative course of
action is determined in consultation with lead NGO, lawyer and Delhi Commission for Women.

An intensive legal awareness programme was finalized to be carried out by each of the NGOs who
have established Mahila Panchayats. Groups of women and men are identified by the Mahila
Panchayats as appropriate for being given legal awareness sessions. Twenty five such sessions are
to be organized in a duration of one year by each Mahila Panchayat.

The evolution of Mahila Panchayat in the form of an Alternative Dispute Resolution System, has
led to the addressing of problems through counselling, conciliation and facilitation and the public
condemning of such acts, imposition of fines, etc. These Panchayats, exclusively dedicated to
women, attempt to balance the scales of justice, by-passing social evils and stigmas. In most cases
Panchayats have been able to resolve the cases at their own level. In some cases, they had to take
joint action to bring pressure on the men concerned so as to obtain redressal for the women


The traditional forms of justice dispensing mechanisms had patriarchal biases. If women ever dared
to raise their voice against the atrocities inflicted on them, they would face criticism and humiliation,
both at home and in society. They were often reviled if they questioned the prejudiced views about
the women in society. Mahila Panchayat stood up for women’s rights and ensured that the social
fabric of the community is preserved, which might otherwise wither away if the formal judiciary
system were to be approached. The program was also directed at creating time and space for women
to reflect, critically analyze their life situations and enhance their capabilities to take charge of their

Mahila Panchayat a community based redressal mechanism initiated by Action India in 1994. Today
there are 9 Mahila Panchayats with Action India in New Seemapuri, Sundernagari, Janta Mazdoor
Colony, Jehangirpuri, Bhalaswa, Dakshinpuri, Madangir and Dwarka. Over 16,000 women
survivors has been helped to resolve domestic conflict by the Mahila Panchayats which have been
sustained through thick and thin proving that women provide effective support structures to women
in crisis and must be acknowledged as service providers, an essential component of the State

The researcher will revisit the cases that are claimed by the Mahila Panchayat to be successfully
resolved and will find out the stories of the success of these cases to walk past the deeply embedded
patriarchy and regressive mindsets. Moreover, the researcher aims to determine whether these cases
continue to be resolved or the story has changed over the time.


Homes are safe havens for families, however, they have also been spaces for maximum incidences
of injustice in terms of discrimination in resources and opportunities (IIM, 2010-11; Kelkar, 2011),
curtailing freedom and choices, and sexual abuse (ICASO, 2007). Though all this comes under the
purview of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDA), 2005, the stakes for
demanding justice against domestic violence can be very high for women.

To maintain control of men over women, genderbased violence has been sanctioned and perceived
as normal conduct in most cultures worldwide (Heise, Ellsberg, & Gottemoeller, 1999). The
combination of high incidence and low visibility in the public’s eye makes it one of the most pressing
social problems within this era. Through grass-roots mobilization, women’s nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) have emerged as dynamic institutions working against deeply ingrained
gender inequities to address violence over the last two decades. Representing a counterforce against
the social norm of violence against women, NGOs represent key agents of citizen initiative and
social reform.

Women’s groups around the country have pioneered a third way to pursue gender justice: extra-legal
mechanisms like the jati panchayats run by local women trained with a women’s rights perspective
on violence against women. These extra-legal mechanisms, which grew out of the rural women’s
movement over twenty years ago, are known by various names around the country, including Mahila
Nyaya Samiti, Nari Adalat, Mahila Panchayat, Shaliahi, and Sahara Sangh. They are a symbol of
the movement to empower rural women and challenge exploitative social and cultural systems. They
simultaneously do the ideological work of social transformation and the urgent work of meeting the
needs of women who experience violent circumstances.

Exploration of contemporary intervention strategies illustrates that among the most effective forces
acting against gender-based violence are profeminist NGOs who are working to slowly change the
power imbalance between men and women at the grass-roots level. The literature on local initiatives
against gender-based violence in India shows that four main types of prevention strategies have been
employed. The first is the anti-dowry campaigns, which, when they began in the early 1980s,
galvanized women to take action around individual cases brought to public attention through the
media (Agnes, 1992; Datar, 1993; Kelkar, 1992).

A second strategy relates to providing aid and support to individual women in crisis (Kumar,1995).
Although many of these organizations engage in street theater, songs, and demonstrations to
influence attitudes among their constituency, much of their energy is consumed with individual
women’s needs (Heise, 1996). Not unlike many women’s groups worldwide, including, for example,
shelters in the United States, less time is available for community-based social change activities
when concerns over the woman’s protection takes precedent.

The third strategy discussed by Omvedt (1990) consists of rural social movements, in which women
assert their rights within larger movements. For example, some dalit (formerly, untouchable caste)
movements assume a feminist perspective as an important organizing principle among their
constituency. Their central objectives are generally related to issues addressing needs of all those
perceived as marginalized, and not solely women.

The fourth relates to legal and criminal justice system reform, initiated by NGOs with a broad policy
orientation. These efforts have brought about advanced dowry-related laws. The Dowry Prohibition
Act, passed in 1961, criminalizes the giving and taking of dowry. Amendments in the early 1980s
recognized abetting to suicide as a special crime, made cruelty to a wife a cognizable, nonbailable
offense, and made mandatory police investigation on cases on which a woman died within 7 years
after marriage. However, the effectiveness of these amendments have been limited in securing
convictions (Agnes, 1992; Heise, 1996; Devi Prasad, & Vijayalakshmi, 1988; Van Willigen &
Channa, 1991). Social and legal norms still support using violence as a means of control in marriage.
It is generally agreed that law-enforcement officers are bribed to collude with perpetrators, thereby
preventing most women from obtaining proper redress (Ahuja, 1998, pp. 231 – 259; Thapalyal, Rani,
& Vanita, 1987). Critics believe that the legal reform focuses on dowry and more recently pro-
women property and inheritance laws (Van Willigen & Channa, 1991) and ignores the need to
change sociocultural beliefs held by the mass of society which supports gender-based violence,
despite certain illegalities. Studies investigating the characteristics and extent of gender-based
violence among the urban poor in Northern India are lacking. Moreover, the relative scarcity of
research on gender-based violence interventions within the subcontinent has made it difficult to
effectively explore strategies towards individual- and community-level social change.

Action India: India’s contemporary violence against women movement began with two major
issues in the late 1970s- rape and dowry. Individual cases were adopted by women advocacy groups,
then subsequently developed and amplified through the national media to mobilize for legal and
social reform. The emphasis on law, and thereby, on the State, disappointed many organisations, as
the laws were rarely enforced. Since the early 1990s, India’s feminist NGOs, like NGOs worldwide,
have been shifting their focus from protest and antiestablishment rhetoric to the lon-term

empowerment of women as a new social force in the human rights framework. This is clear in the
case of Action India.

Influenced by Black American social justice and freedom struggles in during the 1960s in the United
States, Action India began as a civil rights movement in 1976. Like other autonomous women’s
groups of its kind, Action India’s orientation in the late 1970s was inspired by a core group of
volunteer feminists, largely from upper middle class homes, who gathered in loosely structured
fledgling organizations. Their feminist identity was born in the late 1970s, when Action India’s
members began to address the needs of women encountering violence in Delhi. In describing how
their goals were determined, a founding member elaborates: “We began working on rape and dowry.
That’s where we found our true work… with women”. Indeed, since its inception, Action India has
applied its understanding of feminism at the grassroots level through women’s experiences with
violence, and by evolving ways to help women cope with it.


Shalishi is a word of Persian origin that means mediation or arbitration. It implies a method of
dispute settlement that has existed traditionally in villages of West Bengal. Traditionally during a
shalishi , the parties between whom a dispute exists tell a set of people (known as 'shalishidaars')
whom they consider unbiased but powerful, about their dispute. They also bring along witnesses and
proof of events as they occurred. In the end, the shalishidaars give their verdict, which could involve
a punishment or a fine or an understanding between the two parties. In today's West Bengal, Jayati
Gupta (2000) in her study on gram or village shalishis, estimates that almost 95 per cent of all
disputes in rural areas and even in urban areas are settled through shalishi.

The shalishi seems to have certain advantages over the formal legal system as far as dealing with
issues of domestic violence is concerned. According to Jayati Gupta (2000), "there is a greater
understanding of the exact nature of the compulsions that both parties in the dispute have and a
closer view of the complexities through which relationships are established and broken". Several
hearings are possible in which it is possible for the parties to make their representations to the
community; the parties feel freer expressing themselves sitting amongst familiar faces and
surroundings; and it is possible to get a balanced mix between provisions of formal law and the

social reality. A second advantage seems to have been the tendency to arrive at a consensus decision
rather than deliver 'justice' or a judgment.

While a shalishi or a village level dispute resolution system may have inherent advantages in the
processes that it adopts over a formal justice system, while dealing with domestic violence however,
two very vital problems remain. One, what is the concept of 'justice' or fairness that it has within it?
It is clear that those who dispense justice within such a system would be governed by community
norms and values predominant in society. Also, as the sanction or the legitimacy for this system is
drawn from the community itself, its decisions would have to take community sentiments into
account. Where community senti- ments are generally in favour of keeping the family intact at all
costs and where feminist notions are foreign to tradition bound villagers, what kind of justice can
such a system deliver to survivors and to perpetrators of violence against women? How much does
it lend itself to use by an organisation like the Shramajibee Mahila Samity (SMS) that claims to work
for women's freedom? Secondly, and related to the above, who controls the shalishi? Community
mechanisms seems to have traditionally excluded the weaker in society.

The economic context: The majority of the people who take help through the shalishi process are
agricultural labourers, marginal and small peasants and other rural workers. According to the study
data, only 3.8 per cent of the family members of the women surveyed were in regularjobs. The
largest numbers worked as casual labour (31.4 per cent) or self-employed work (23.2 per cent), while
women worked mainly as unpaid household work (41.2 percent).

Caste, Community & Religion: Caste and differences between tribals and non-tribals have not been
treated as important factors in this study, because they are not burning issues in areas where the SMS
works. A long history of the Left movement and Hindu reform movemens have broken down caste
barriers in West Bengal to a large extent. On the other hand, Muslims tend to be a comparatively
socio-economically deprived group in these areas. The laws and community norms that exist
amongst Muslims are also somewhat different from those of Hindus. This makes religion an
important factor. According to the study data, 39.5 per cent of the women surveyed were Muslims.
Many of the women surveyed (43.7 per cent) lived in joint or extended families. Relations of the
woman with other female relatives in the matrimonial family are often tense. The status of women
within the family is low. Studies show that women get married when they are minors. Dowry is a
very big problem and there are a large number of bigamy cases. There is also a tendency for society
to feel that the payment of dowry at marriage means the end of a woman's claims on her natal home.
The para or the neighbourhood is a very important factor in the lives of the rural poor. It is often an
extension of the family, with people from an extended family and members of the same caste group
forming a neighbourhood. The neighbourhood also constitutes a social force that controls women's
behaviour and perpetuates values and customs that create violent situations. At the same time, it can
also be helpful in stopping domestic violence, by becoming a social force that creates pressure on
the perpetrators and controls their violent behaviour.

The Formal Legal System: Figures at both the national and West Bengal show the increas- ing
reportage of crimes against women. It should also be noted that cruelty by the husband and relatives
formed the largest part of crimes against women at 31.5 per cent of the total crimes against women
all over India in 1998. A report placed by the home minister in the West Bengal Bidhan Sabha
showed that though there has been a decline in crimes on the whole, crimes against women have
increased from 3,947 in 1990 to 7,489 in 1998. In 1999-2000, the Bidhan Sabha's estimates
committee for police matters reported that in the preceding eight years, reports of dowry deaths and
cruelty by husband and relatives had increased a great deal, especially in village areas. The
committee felt this was a result of greater awareness of rights amongst women. The districts in which
the SMS does almost 80 per cent of its work against domestic violence are South and North 24
Parganas. These two districts, according to the National Crimes Record Bureau Report of 1998, had
the dubious distinction of being the districts with the second and third highest number of cases of
cruelty by husbands and relatives all over India. In direct contrast to this increasing reportage of
domestic violence is the dismal record of the way in which the legal system disposes off these cases.
In West Bengal, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, convictions were given in only
8.5 per cent of the cases of cruelty by husbands and relatives in 1998. This was well below the
figures for the rest of India and was also less than the conviction rate for other Indian Penal Code
cases. Records from the public prosecutor's office in South 24 Parganas for the years 1995 to 1999
showed that the number of cases of crimes against women pending investigation had been increasing
in every year ( except in 1999), as have the number of cases pending trial. Conviction rates have
been as low as 16 per cent for dowry deaths. Reports from NGOs like Swayam and Jana Sanghati
Kendra and Jayati Gupta's (2000) study show that women litigants complain of expensive and
confusing procedures, exploitation by lawyers and a general feeling of helplessness when dealing
with the legal system. The increasing reportage of crimes against women, combined with the
inefficiency and the problems of the legal system has two consequences for the SMS's work. On the
one hand, people have become much more aware about women's legal rights. On the other hand, the
long delays in the courts and the problems of using the formal system implies that women and their
families also look for other systems and institutions that can deal with their problems. This makes
them turn to processes like the SMS's shalishi in increasing numbers.

Process: The samity organises the shalishi like a public hearing where everyone, starting with the
complainant, is first asked to give a narration of events. This has several advantages. - It boosts the
woman's self-confidence, as this is in contrast to the usual practice where women are not allowed to
say much in public. -Speaking out acts as catharsis for everyone present and helps to clear the air
between the disputants to some extent. - It is very difficult for anyone to justify physical violence in
a meeting where Mahila Samity activists are there. There is therefore condemnation of the
perpetrator's behavior. -Everyone acts as a mirror, with the disputants getting others' reflections on
what they have been doing. - All the facts are collected and verified and versions of events can be
corroborated and areas of difference can also be identified. - Everyone knows the same thing so it is
possible for the activist facilitating the shalishi to associate the entire forum with her/him when the
time comes to take decisions.

Decisions are, however, made as participatory as possible, with the woman's wishes being the most
important factor. At this stage, it is especially important to include the opinions and proposals of
locally influential people and impor tant family members in the discussion, so that they do not feel
left out and so that they do not later create problems. The last part of the shalishi consists of writing
down the decisions that have been taken and getting the signatures of the two disputants and of other
witnesses. A committee is also formed from the people who are present to follow up the case and to
see that decisions are followed. The entire shalishi would take about an hour or two if the problem
is fairly simple, but could last for 5-6 hours if the problem is complicated.

Generally, matters do not end with a single shalishi. Follow-up shalishis are arranged whenever
things get out of hand and when the committee reports or the woman reports that the violence or
problems have not got sorted out. The committee was formed in the case of 62 per cent of the women
surveyed. Their role is to keep in touch with the couple and to also keep the samity informed if any
problem takes place. Members are chosen by the disputants for their accessibility and because they
are likely to play an unbiased role.
The police resorted to at a later stage and only, when both the samity and the panchayat have failed.
The police also first used to call for a shalishi, which is not part of the police's official function (as
they are always telling the samity). They however take this extra-legal step in order to avoid the
filing of a case and all the extra work involved in that for them. They also do it out of consideration
for the Samity and in order to help the woman in distress. The last resort is always the court of law,
as the samity is well aware of the pitfalls, expenses and the huge time gap before a legal solution
can be reached. The threat of legal action is always there, however, in the background when the
samity deals with the perpetrator of violence and is used when, for example, the perpetrator refuses
to come for a shalishi or when he refuses to obey shalishi decisions. In addition, even where legal
action is taken, often the perpetrator comes back to the samity requesting an out of court settlement.
The samity would then organise a shalishi again to clear up matters.

Traditional community/village level dispute resolution systems still coexist with formal processes
ofjustice and administration. The shalishi is one such method of arbitration in West Bengal that has
been used by NGOs to intervene effectively in settling domestic violence cases. Shalishi scores over
the more formal legal avenues of dispute resolution because of its informal set up. But deriving its
legitimacy as it does from the conventional norms and values of the community it works in favour
of keeping the family intact, often compromising feminist notions of empowerment.

The study results show that the men and women in the neighbourhood seem to play a much more
active role than the police, panchayat and political leaders in solving particular woman's immediate
problem. The neighbourhood's role also seems to have an impact on the woman's condition. The
study found that there was a positive association between the condition of the woman and the role
played by the neighbourhood. Women who reported an unchanged or deteriorating condition were
also those amongst whom the largest percentage of women said their neighbourhood women played
no role. Similarly, women who were better off have the largest percentage of women who say their
neighbourhood women helped them

The study found that there had been a distinct change in the woman's condition. A majority of the
women were definitely better off in all aspects of their problem or felt they were better off in some
ways. A small minority reported being in unchanged or worse situations. It was also found from case
studies that the difference between a successful case and a failure often lay in the ability of the
Samity to follow up cases consistently.
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The need for constant evaluation of such local dispute resolution mechanisms is therefore of great
importance, as is the need to exercise caution when drawing conclusions about whether such
interventions are the preferred way of dealing with domestic violence.


The generic objective of this study is to prepare a status report of the selected resolves cases by
the Mahila Panchayat.

The specific objectives are:

1. To understand the methodologies, processes and the strategies of the resolved cases.
2. To assess the effectiveness of the service delivery system.
3. To assess the sustainability of the intervention.
4. To determine any further complications or developments in the resolved cases.

 Hypothesis: In this study it is hypothesized that the Mahila Panchayat run by Action India
has been able to provide solace in the lives of women and continues to positively impact the
family environment of the women.

 Universe: The universe of the study will be the survivors of the domestic violence who were
helped by the Mahila Panchayats run by Action India in Delhi NCR.

 Sampling: The researcher will employ Non probability, purposive sampling. The researcher
will take up 16 cases solved by the Mahila Panchayat of Action India from different
geographical areas across Delhi to conduct the study.

 Research design: Since the study aims to examine the lived realities of women who have
experienced domestic violence and took help from the Mahila Panchayat, particularly the

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way they construct their understanding of how far their conflicts have been resolved by the
Mahila Panchayat. Since data collection in this method is not limited by particular pre-
determined categories of analysis, it allows for a considerable level of depth that quantitative
strategies are unable to provide (Patton, 2002). Moreover, since this is considered as a rather
emotional and highly sensitive topic, the researcher believes that the qualitative research
design is appropriate since it requires the building up of rapport between the researcher and
the respondent. The rapport is very much needed, especially, in encouraging the respondents
to disclose their experiences. The study will be explanatory in nature.

 Tools for data collection: The data will be collected from both primary and secondary
sources. The primary data will be collected by the researcher from the respondent in form of
in-depth interviews from both the NGO staff and the women who seeked help from the NGO
and observations of NGO activities, including Mahila Panchayat hearings and counseling
sessions. The secondary data will be collected from the case records of the agency.

 Inclusion/exclusion criteria: The cases successfully solved by the Mahila Panchayat of

Action India which are at least 3-5 years old will be included for the study and the rest will
be excluded.

DATA ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION: The data collected through the in-depth
interviews will be qualitative in nature and thus, will be analyzed manually and interpreted

CONCLUSION: Although several decentralized, informal judicial and arbitration systems existed
in the country, the Mahila Panchayat stands apart from them with its strong pro-woman perspective.
The Mahila Panchayat, as a non-formal judicial mechanism which is extremely relevant for poor
women, can make a tremendous impact world-wide especially in nations where women’s rights are
severely curtailed by regressive customs, practices and sometimes, even by the law. Thus, building
and sustaining the Mahila Panchayat is critical to create a social establishment where women can
access affordable, speedy and sensitive forums of justice.
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Unlike other prevention strategies, the Mahila Panchayat empowerment strategy addresses the
individual needs of women while also implementing strategies for social change. National-level laws
have inadequate expo- sure and have been unable to regulate policies enhancing women’s rights. By
publicly challenging women’s subordination by the husband and in-laws, women become agents in
developing a new understanding of gender-based violence—that physical and emotional abuse
against women, for any reason, is unacceptable.


 Shramajibee Mahila Samity (2003), "Shalishi" in West Bengal A Community-Based

Response to Domestic Violence, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 17 (Apr.
26 - May 2, 2003), pp. 1665- 1673.
 Agrawal, M. (2005), The World of Adolescent Girls, New Delhi: Books for Change.

 Winddance Twine, France and Blee, Kathleen M. (2001), Feminism and Antiracism:
International Struggles for Justice

 Magar, Veronica (2003), empowerment approaches to gender-based Violence: women’s

courts in delhi slums, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 509 –

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