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SARID Staff, October 26, 2006

An historic new law expressly targeting the problem of domestic violence against women came into effect in India on Thursday.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 applies to actual or threatened abuse against women in their homes, including those of a physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic nature.

The new law aims to protect not only wives, but also live-in partners, sisters, mothers and widows, said a statement from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which issued a notification on Wednesday to bring the Act -- passed by Parliament in August 2005 -- into force.

The bill focuses on empowering victims by giving them rights over their abuser's assets, rather than just penalizing offenders. Violators may get up to one year in jail or a fine of up to Rs.20,000 (US$450) or both.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, a crime is committed against a woman in India every three minutes. The National Crime Records Bureau reports 155,553 crimes committed against women in 2005 -- 68,810 of which were considered to be domestic violence. Torture and molestation were the most widespread felonies. The actual figure could be ten times higher as many cases go unreported with victims unwilling to speak out, fearing the shame and stigma associated with being a divorced or separated woman in traditional Indian society.

Under the new rules, marital rape, previously not prosecutable unless the wife was under age 15, could become an offence. The act also covers harassment of a wife or family members by demands for dowry. The persistence of this unlawful practice has been a leading factor in domestic violence. In 2005, 6,787 cases of dowry-related deaths were recorded.

"We have been trying for long to protect women from domestic violence. In India, around 70 per cent of women are victims of these violent acts in one or another form," said Renuka Choudhury, the junior minister for women and child development. In 2005 the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) found that one such violent incident cost an Indian woman an estimated seven working days.

Women's rights activists and civic groups welcomed the new law, saying that it enjoyed an overwhelming support from all sections of society, especially women's organizations that had lobbied for it. But they also stressed the need for its effective implementation so that more women could benefit from it. The government would need to make people aware of the provisions of the new act through the mass media as well as the law enforcement sensitisation.

While attitudes towards women in educated, urbanized areas have improved, those of rural India remain unenlightened. Both men and women see violence as a part of gender relations. The UNPF report found that some 70 percent of Indian women believed that wife-beating was justified under certain circumstance, such as refusal to have sex or for not preparing food on time.

India recognized domestic violence as a criminal offence in 1983, amending the penal code to include cruelty by a husband or his family against a married woman as a crime, and threatening offenders with prison up to three years and fines. Even with these stringent measures, activists say that police are reluctant to register cases, the quality of investigations is poor and conviction rates low. Most women are also financially dependent on their abusers and have nowhere to go if they complain to police about being mistreated, they say.

The Ministry says the new law will change this by providing for a share of the abuser’s property and salary as well as medical damages for physical abuse and in certain cases, he will also have to cover the victim’s legal costs .The law also provides for the appointment of protection officers and private service-providers to help abused women get medical and legal aid and a safe place to stay.

The most empowering clause, however, relates to the women’s right to residence in shared households where the law promises to protect the rights of victims to secure a house or live in her married home.

Activists said that the law, if implemented properly, would be able to address not only issues directly related to domestic violence but also many other problems linked to violence that are faced by women, including trafficking, child marriage, public health and alcohol abuse.

[Sources: Reuters (, Hindustan Times (, UNPF (, National Crime Records Bureau (, Indo-Asian News Service (]


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