Will a compassionate chairperson make Kerala SCW effective? Not really

Despite being a quasi-judicial body, the Kerala State Women's Commission does not even perform the duties and functions they are meant to do. The Commission has just become a place to accommodate politicians

The Kerala State Women's Commission has to release a report every year but the website does not display any annual report since 2015. Pic: Kerala State Women's Commission website

Tesna Maria, a native of Thrissur, an M Tech student at Cochin University of Science and Technology was married to Joe Mon, an assistant prison officer at Viyyur Central Jail in 2019.

Maria wrote a letter to the Chief Minister on June 28, explaining what she has been going through in her marriage. She faced dowry-harassment and had been subjected to physical and emotional violence by her husband. Moreover, she wrote in her complaint to the CM that she had wanted to complete her studies but she had to leave her M Tech programme midway and she was forced to have a baby against her will.

Talking to The Federal, Maria said that unable to bear the torture any further, she lodged a complaint at the local police station. But the police did not help her in anyway. “They did nothing. Couple of months ago, I filed complaints addressed to the Commissioner of Police, Jail DGP (since her husband was working in the jail), Central Zone DIG, and the Women’s Cell,” she pointed out.

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Maria then filed a complaint with the Kerala State Women’s Commission against her husband and also against the local police for not initiating any action him. “I sent a detailed representation to the Commission with the copies of the previous complaints. I enclosed all the copies of the receipts of my complaints too”, claimed Maria. But, she did not receive even an acknowledgement from them.

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Many women are wary of approaching the Kerala State Women’s Commission. Surabhi Nambyar, a medical student at Kannur who is fighting a domestic violence and dowry harassment case against her in-laws said that she did not even consider approaching the Commission.

“What is the use? I have no trust and hope in this State Women’s Commission. I have heard enough stories of women who received no help from them,” said Nambyar.

In the backdrop of a spate of dowry deaths, cases of domestic violence and suicides in Kerala on the rise in the past few weeks (the most recent one being the suicide of 22-year-old student Vismaya at her husband’s home in Kollam), many victims are slowly coming out in the open to talk about their experiences of knocking in vain for justice at the door of the State Women’s Commission (SWC).

As a normal course of events, a complaint of domestic violence is often treated as a ‘private family matter’ and the police opt for negotiation rather than registering a crime. The victims who have turned to the SWC after the police fail to discharge their duty, also have no better stories to tell. They are treated with complete lack of empathy, and with arrogance and intolerance.

This callous attitude towards the victims was recently on display on a regional TV channel show. The hue and cry that followed the rough and curt “Then suffer, ok” response to a victim’s domestic violence story by the SWC chairperson M C Josephine led to her unceremonious exit.

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This public incident has now triggered a huge debate on the powers and functions of the SWC, which is often referred to as an ineffectual, “toothless” organisation. It is considered as a place to accommodate politicians and a temporary shelter for government servants who want a deputation in Thiruvananthapuram, said experts.

Women rights activists and lawyers questioned whether the appointment of a more empathetic and compassionate woman as the SWC chairman would bring about a significant change in the organisation? Probably not. Despite being a quasi-judicial body, the Commission does not even perform the duties and functions that they are meant to do, alleged critics.

“The Commission has to make recommendations to the government proposing disciplinary actions against the police officers who fail to discharge their duty. We have not heard of a single case in which any action has been taken on the Commission’s recommendation,” pointed out Sandhya Janardanan Pillai, a gender rights lawyer and a former member of State Child Rights Commission.

According to section 16 of the State Women’s Commission Act of 1990, the Commission has to submit annual reports on ‘the lacunae, inadequacies and shortcomings in the laws in force which affect the constitutional right to equality and fair treatment of women and also on the remedial legislative measures to be taken to meet the situation’.

The Commission’s website however does not display any annual report since 2015. “We have submitted reports every year, but because we do not have sufficient technical staff, we have been unable to create soft copies,” said Sreekanth, the Public Relations Officer of the Commission.

However, no member of the state Legislative Assembly, either from the ruling front or from the Opposition, has raised any question in the Assembly regarding the recommendations or the actions taken by the SWC in the past five years.

“The Commission has turned into a place to accommodate politicians. Hence, the Opposition is also not interested to raise uncomfortable questions,” pointed out Harish Vasudevan, a High Court lawyer. The Commission chairperson or members are empowered to approach the High Court if the government fails to take action on the recommendations submitted by them.

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“The Chairperson and members are the nominees of the ruling party. So, they do not want to approach the court even if the government disregards them because they don’t want to make their bosses unhappy,” alleged Vasudevan.

Clearly, the SWC in Kerala is not performing its basic duties. But, the larger picture here is that the Commission itself seems a powerless body and has no role besides submitting recommendations to the government, pointed out a law officer of the SWC.

“For example, the Commission has the power to summon the witnesses, but not the respondents according to section 15 of the Act. There is a need to enhance and widen the powers of the Commission,” said P Girija, the law officer of the SWC.

In the complaints raised by victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment, the Commission has regularly sent notices to the respondents, but it cannot go any further. The SWC receives many complaints from women on various issues ranging from gender discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and dowry and so on. The Commission conducts Adalaths and usually prefers to go for ‘settlements’ rather than penal actions.

“The larger function of the Commission is not to accept complaints directly from women, but to ensure that remedial systems such as the police function more effectively,” said Harish Vasudevan. According to lawyers and activists, the Commission has not made any significant achievement in this area since its inception in 1996.

There are instances of judicial interventions that clearly defined the limits of the powers of the SWC.

In ‘Sreekumar Vs Kerala Women’s Commission’, the High Court has ruled that the Commission has no authority to order maintenance to be given to the wife. In this case, the Commission had ordered a man to provide maintenance to his wife and he had in turn approached the High Court challenging the order. The Commission had directed that the husband should pay 3/4th of his salary to his wife and two children to meet the expenses for remitting the housing loan instalments and for their livelihood and education.

The High Court ruled that the power to decide issues regarding payment of maintenance lies with sections 125 to 127 of CrPC and also in the respective personal laws. The Commission has no power to issue directions on matters where specific provisions are already made in other statutes.

According to Maya Krishnan, a gender rights activist and lawyer, the Act should be amended to provide more powers to the Commission authorising it to intervene even in matters that has remedies in other laws.

“The Commission is supposed to speed up the delivery of justice. Hence, there is a need to streamline the functions and duties of the Commission and to sufficiently enhance their powers so that they can effectively intervene to tackle grievances of women. If not, nothing is going to change even if a more empathetic or compassionate person takes over as the chairperson of the Commission,” said Maya Krishnan.

Considering that Kerala, as per the state crime records bureau, had recorded 66 dowry-related deaths under the category of crimes against women and 15,140 cases of cruelty by husband/relatives between 2016 and 2020, the women in the state need a voice to back them. Undeniably, the SCW quickly needs to get its act together.

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