How was the idea of Swayam Siddha conceived?
When I was judge at the Family Court in Mumbai, a woman High Court judge asked me to identify a woman who was stuck in the corridors of the Family Court waiting for maintenance, who could work as a housekeeper for her. She had got comfortable quarters in Mumbai and needed help with housekeeping.
I sent a couple of women for the interview and one got a job, free housing and a salary of around ₹15,000. This was at the back of my mind. When I was posted to the Family Court in Pune, I saw that judges are very quick in giving relief to women who are deserted or undergoing divorce, as they should not wander here and there for money or take a risky job. At least their basic needs should be met by their husbands.
But though we give quick orders, often ex-parte if the husband is not present in the court, the woman’s frustration doubles as she gets the order but not the money. Again, another vicious cycle begins… the case comes, the summons is issued, and it goes on. The truth is she gets the order but not the money. So I felt the judiciary needs to get involved to ensure that such orders are executed, and meanwhile the women have some income through their own work. So I thought of a mechanism in which the court partners with NGOs, marriage counsellors, trainers, etc.
What was the women’s response?
Initially the women were reluctant saying why should we get trained and work; if we do so, then even a ₹2,000 maintenance order will not be adhered to by the husband. I want that money from him. So this was a mind block and we had to get them out of it, counselling them that don’t spoil your life for a paltry ₹2,000, which also you might get in instalments of ₹500, if at all, when you could get ₹20,000 by working. Live your life outside the corridors of the court. Don’t sit here for days and spoil your life. For that orientation was necessary, so it was done and they were made to understand that they have all the fundamental and constitutional rights but their own and their children’s lives and future are important. In one such orientation course, one woman asked: Oh, I should work and woh baith ke khayenga (sit and eat)?
We counselled the women: Live your life outside the corridors of the court. Don’t sit here for days and spoil your life.
Oh, is that possible too?
Under the Hindu law, the provision is that any spouse who is economically strong has to give maintenance to the other spouse irrespective of gender. So I pulled out a judgement which said that if a woman deserted by her husband is working to survive, then he can’t claim maintenance from her. I quoted these citations in my judgement and explained to the women that your earnings will remain with you. Finally, they were motivated. The other challenge — there were many — was who will train them. Our counsellors called NGOs for a meeting and the training started, but it was not regulated or standardised… courts don’t have funds, we can only pass orders.
Meanwhile after an article was published on Swayam Siddha, advocate Vaishali Bhagwat approached us saying Rotary will finance the training and that was the best thing that happened; you could see the outcome at the meeting today!
So what kind of transformation do you see in these women?
Oh, tremendous! You should have seen how they looked when they used to sit in the corridors of the court… they have now gained so much strength and confidence, they’ve started dressing up, and when somebody has a low moment, others comfort her. They have lifted themselves. It is not only money, but also strength that empowers women. These 50 women now have the key to open the doors to any difficulty.
How did you become a judge? Was it something planned from early days?
No, I never intended to go into law or become a judge but even from school days, the inclination was always there to help others solve their problems and I got good results.
I did my LLB from Nanded Law College in Maharashtra (1989–90), followed by LLM and M Phil, where the subject was Women and Law. Next I did my Masters in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from Bradford University as a Rotary Peace Scholar (2013–14).
They have gained so much strength and confidence, they’ve started dressing up, and when somebody has a low moment, others comfort her. They have lifted themselves.
How did you learn about this Rotary course?
A police officer in my court who was looking after a very sensitive trafficking case and had got such a scholarship told me about it. But I didn’t apply then. Subsequently, I got an award from the US State Department for my work in anti-trafficking in the special court in Mumbai in 2011, and a Rotary club invited me as a speaker and then I applied through that club.
How did that course influence you or shape or change your thinking in any way?
The basic fabric was there but now I can see things in a different way, think deeper and analyse better and differently.
Did you opt for the Family Court; if yes, why?
(Laughs) I did; why is difficult to say! I had worked for the civil and criminal judicial systems, and also in a special court in human trafficking, and did an assignment as registrar in the State Consumer Commission. We talk of international peace, but the smallest unit of peace starts from the relationship at home and then society. If your relationship is peaceful then the family is peaceful, community is peaceful, city and then the country is peaceful.
You came to Family Court in 2011; what has changed between 2011 and 2018 when it comes to the kind of disputes that turn up in family courts?
It is changing every day; take live-in relationships for instance. Earlier when they came into play, people used to look upon it as something dirty but now nobody raises an eyebrow, it is accepted. People are evolving; their needs, demands and outlook are changing. The definition of relationship is changing and it is no longer only confined to a relationship between a man a woman. So, the entire outlook is changing.
What is the major reason for marriages or relationships breaking down?
The woman has always been tolerant and even today she continues to be tolerant. But today she knows her rights. She is adjusting now also, but there was an era where she had no option but to adjust. I’d say even today she adjusts to a certain level but when it becomes unbearable and intolerable, she is coming out (of a marriage). Earlier the scope didn’t exist for the woman to ask questions and come out of a relationship like marriage. Now women are on par with men, which will of course take some more time for the other gender to accept.
Is it due to better education, awareness among women?
Yes. Education is one of the big reasons that she has confidence, knows what is right and wrong and can take decisions. Till now the man was taking decisions for her.
Has the stigma on divorce gone; are families more understanding when a woman seeks divorce?
Yes, in the larger cities the stigma has gone but in rural areas divorce is still a taboo. In cities and among the elite, it is something very natural and accepted. Like a death in the family, which is very unfortunate but we have no other option than accepting it. We also accept that if the person was grievously ill, it is better that life has ended. Relationships are also like that…. the daily fights, children suffering and being affected by the quarrels.
What happens to children in broken homes?
You saw what happened just now (in her chamber); the man is not interested in visiting the child. Of course not all men are like that, but many men don’t want to take responsibility.
What role does infidelity play in a broken marriage?
After the onslaught of the social media, this role is on the increase.
And they come for divorce after one is caught?
(Laughs) Sometimes, when they come for divorce on mutual consent both are having affairs and both know each other’s affairs and neither wants to wash their dirty linen in public and decide ‘you go your way and I’ll go mine! I forgive you, and you forgive me.’ For younger couples, the break-up is easier; but for the couples in the age group 40–50, or those married for 10 to 20 years, it is very difficult to break the bond. They are still traditional and with the mindset that marriage is for keeps, lifelong. But the younger generation doesn’t think the same way.
If other Rotary clubs form such a partnership, this initiative could spread throughout India. You don’t have to search for needy and marginalised women, you can find them everywhere.
What role does domestic violence play in marriages breaking up? Do you see a lot of it happening?
Yes. One of the biggest misunderstandings about this is that people think the domestic violence legislation was intended for breaking up marriages. But the objective is to save the relationship while stoping the violence behind the walls of the home. And invariably the aggrieved party is the woman, so she goes to court to say just that I want this man as my husband but he should not beat or abuse me. But when a woman files an application under the Domestic Violence Act, the husband thinks: ‘Okay she is now going for a divorce.’ That is the downside. She wants the relationship but says stop the violence. The husband says: ‘You’ve gone to court so get ready for divorce.’
Is yours the first and only family court in the country to do this skilling programme to make these women self-sufficient economically?
Yes, I take pride in saying so. And if other Rotary clubs could come forward for such a partnership this initiative could spread throughout the country. You don’t have to search for needy and marginalised women, you can find them everywhere. You just have to extend your hand to help them in a strategic way.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat