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    Volume 10 |Issue 43 | November 18, 2011 |


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The Legal Fight Against Discrimination

Asmita Basu, a women and human rights lawyer, practitioner and activist from India shares with The Star the different facades of ensuring human and women rights through legal reform in South Asia. The young lawyer has 11 years of experience in this field, working for international bodies like UNWOMEN, UNDP, International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW), UNIFEM South Asia, to name a few. As coordinator of Lawyers Collective, Women's Rights Initiative, India, Basu has been involved in the reform of a number of Indian laws. She has also worked as consultant on law reforms campaign in other countries including Bangladesh.

Tamanna Khan

What brings you to Bangladesh?

Asmita Basu

I am here on an ICDDR,B invitation to work on the Safe project, which is being taken on by ICDDR,B, BLAST, Population Council, Weekend Campaign, Nari Moitree and Marie Stopes. It is a research model based on intervention and advocacy. So Population Council and ICDDR,B will be doing the research and the service provision shall be done by Marie Stopes, one of the major partners. They are planning to develop the Marie Stopes community clinics so that they have a one-stop crisis centre in each which will provide medical services as well as legal services. That is where BLAST comes in, to provide that. So there is a huge component of community mobilisation on the issues of violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights of women and adolescent girls as well as the service provision. The Weekend Campaign and Nari Moitree campaign will raise awareness at the community level.

My work here would be to look at the lessons that we learned in India, whether we can use that over here in terms of development protocols for legal services and provisions, taking on advocacy campaigns.

I have done a lot of work in the UN as well at the international level looking at global practices on violence against women. I have worked in India for a very long time. There is an organisation called Lawyers Collective, which has drafted the domestic violence law. So I was part of that movement and the campaign for the law and the subsequent monitoring of the law. Later, I have been working as an independent consultant with various UN bodies looking at practices that states have adopted vis-à-vis violence against women. So that kind of information and that kind of experience, I am giving to this Safe project.

What is the most pressing issue that India faces regarding women's rights?

When you ask me what is the biggest problem that India faces, well, sex selection is one of them. I do not think it is a problem here. But it is a huge problem in India. The sex ratios are adversely skewed towards women in India. The 2011 census shows terrible skewing to the disadvantage of women. One of the ways of sex selection is the misuse of diagnostic and antenatal care services. First they check the sex of the foetus and once the foetus is female they go ahead and abort it. This is one of the many reasons why the sex ratios are so skewed in India.

How do you ensure the evaluation and monitoring of implementation of anti-discriminatory laws?

One of the major research projects I have done which look at the monitoring of laws is the law which regulate diagnostic services. Just having a law is not enough. It is important to write in implementation into the law — to provide for implementation. That was one thing we were very careful about doing when I was with the Lawyers Collective and we drafted the domestic violence law. There we tried to put in implementation guarantees into the law. Mechanisms should be included which will help women get to court, create and facilitate an environment where she can access the service and exercise it.

For example, in domestic violence law in both our countries, you have the concept of a protection officer in India and in Bangladesh you have the enforcement officer. The protection officer is the person who a woman can go to, to file a complaint. This protection officer will then help her go to court which means the protection officer can file the application in court on her behalf, can ensure that she gets legal aid. If she needs shelter home services the protection officer can go and get her to these shelter homes and so on.

Here again, one must understand that the law is not the solution to everything. If you really want to do something about domestic violence then you have to make sure that the status of women everywhere is raised. But those are very long term objectives. What the law can do is provide immediate relief. It is the duty of the protection officer to create that awareness and to ensure that she goes to court.

What do you have to say about the alleged misuse of the domestic violence law?

I don't understand this question because I have never understood what you mean by abuse. In India also they keep saying that there is misuse of the law and I could never figure out what misuse means. What is misuse? Are you saying that every case that is going to court is a correct case? Are you saying that every litigant who files a petition is filing with the correct intentions? Are you saying no other laws get abused or misused? Assuming that you are filing a false case, then it is going before the court. Surely you have that faith on the court to decide whether it is a false case or a true case. And if it is a false case, then you have to leave it to the court to decide and throw that case out.

I am not, on the other hand, discounting what people are saying in the sense that there are people who are being victimised by laws. But I do not think it is a question of victimisation by gender-specific laws. It is the victimisation by the criminal justice system and I think that the issues that India faces are same as the ones that you face over here. There are delays, false arrests, harassment by police which requires immediate attention or notice.

How can lawyers in South Asia work together to bring about a favourable change in women's rights issues?

The lawyers can work together to challenge discriminatory laws. I think that will be something which everybody can work towards together. Nepal is doing a good job in coming up with a new constitution and recognising women's rights. The Sri Lankan model is also a good model to the extent that even though they do have plural system women have the option of choosing whether they want to go to secular civil system or remain within the personal law system, which is something that is not available in Bangladesh and India. So I think there are certain areas where one could work together to take a very strong stance to ask for constitutional equality provisions to be given priority over personal and religious provisions.

To stop violence against women, law is only one area which can make a difference. Additionally, there are a whole lot of things one needs to do — changing mindset, creating advocacy, creating employment opportunities, making women independent. To that extent, it calls for much broader long term reformative steps to be taken. In so far as the laws are concerned, we are moving to a situation where we do have better laws on violence against women – definitely better than what we had ten years ago. Now the question is for the lawyers to be vigilant enough to see that the laws are being implemented in the spirit with which they were brought in.



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