Gagged, framed, fined and punished

Laws designed to protect some women (read wives) often bring suffering to other women (read mothers and sisters). That’s why Hyderabad-based Uma Challa set up a forum called All India Forgotten Women (AIFW) in 2005. AIFW, Challa says, was “launched in response to the large-scale arrests of women, falsely accused, under IPC Section 498A”.

Section 498A was made part of the Indian Penal Code in 1983 and it reads: ‘Whoever being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be imprisoned for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.’

Section 498A is non-bailable and cognizable (i.e., the person(s) can be arrested without investigation or a warrant on a report from a woman or her close relative).
AIFW was formally registered in 2008 after Challa saw “how women were being victimised by the very laws that claim to protect them”.

Her forum fights the misuse of  the Domestic Violence Act, adultery laws, laws against rape and sexual harassment, family laws (divorce, maintenance and child custody) and, of course, IPC Section 498A.

AIFW also organises seminars, protests and awareness campaigns to highlight how laws actually meant to empower women sometimes serve as weapons that perpetuate large-scale human rights abuse against men, women and children. It counsels families that have been victimised by the misuse of such laws.

Women like Ashita have approached AIFW for aid and advice very often. Ashita’s former daughter-in-law slapped a case of dowry harassment on her and her son six years ago. The girl claimed that her in-laws had removed her jewellery from her bank locker. Ashita says she has enough evidence to disprove the allegations, but the case has been dragging on in a court in Kerala for the last six years.

In another case, Sushmita, a retired professor, and her 70-year-old husband have been accused of taking dowry from their former daughter-in-law. “My life has become hell after my former daughter-in-law accused us of demanding Rs 5 lakh a day before the wedding,” says Sushmita.

 Sreela’s brother and sister-in-law had a row soon after they got married. Her brother’s in-laws reportedly threatened her mother that they would file false cases against her if she did not give her son and daughter-in-law a share in her property. Sreela’s mother is  a widow and the mental torture she is facing, according to her daughter, is “unbearable”.
Sreela feels disturbed to see her mother suffer, but admits that there is nothing she can do. “Section 498A of the IPC was drafted to protect married women from being subjected to cruelty by their husband and in-laws. But with almost every other marital spat being turned into a dowry harassment case, the law is in constant danger of being misused,” says Challa.

According to Internet reports quoting National Crime Records Bureau figures, more than  1.2 lakh women have been falsely implicated under Section 498A. Challa says it is time the Indian government takes appropriate measures so that nobody is harassed unjustly in the future.

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