Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gender laws in favour of women?

Gender laws in favour of women?

5 October 2010

nivedita choudhuri

The Union minister of law and justice has been saying on many occasions that laws will be made gender neutral in the next four years. Mr Veerappa Moily, recently replying to a debate in the Rajya Sabha, said male chauvinism and dominance should disappear and that men should never allow women to be degraded and looked down upon. However, the existence of a number of laws that are tilted heavily in favour of women makes the layman wonder if gender neutrality means looking after the interests of women (read wives) only and ignoring totally the welfare of men.

Take for instance the anti-dowry law – Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code – which has reportedly been misused by many women to lodge false or exaggerated complaints against their husbands and in-laws, accusing them of cruel behaviour. Implemented in 1983, Section 498A is a criminal law.

A case filed under this section is non-bailable (one has to appear in court to get bail), non-compoundable (the complaint cannot be withdrawn) and cognisable (the police has to register and investigate the complaint). The law says, “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”

This was meant to be a special law to get more convictions, but the opposite has happened because there are too many false complaints. Many women use the law to blackmail their husbands, allege activists of the Save Indian Family Foundation, a group that fights the misuse of laws targeted at men.

The false complaints can be filed due to many reasons. Sometimes, a wife wants her husband to sever ties with his family or stop giving money to his parents. If he does not comply with her demands, she slaps a false case against him alleging harassment for non-payment of dowry, allege the activists.

Men also find it unfair that their family members are arrested in the event of the wife naming them in the FIR. Anybody named in the FIR is arrested. It can even be the man’s parents, who live in a different town. The frivolity of the complaints was driven home by a recent newspaper article which reported that a wife was ready to slap a dowry harassment case against her father-in-law who had demanded fish curry for dinner. The wife, who was in no mood to cook fish curry, thought it would be easier to punish her ‘errant’ father-in-law by slapping a dowry harassment case on him.

Another law that is allegedly being misused is The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005. This law assumes that all victims of domestic violence are women and it does not give a man a chance to complain or seek justice if he is being harassed or abused by his wife. It also assumes that wives are always honest and truthful. Therefore, proof and evidence to support the allegations of abuse are not required.

Due to the lack of social support and legal protection, many male victims of domestic abuse are taking their lives every day, allege SIFF activists. False cases are severely hampering the personal and professional lives of the most productive section of the Indian population.

Moreover, the so-called “women protection’’ laws are causing more harm than good to women. In every false case, at least two women, a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law, are accused. Minor girls, married and unmarried sisters, ailing mothers and even aged grandmothers have been sent behind bars based on mere allegations and subjected to long-drawn trials before being declared innocent.

Unreasonable and easily misused laws like Section 498A IPC and the Domestic Violence Act are creating a situation of fear and mutual distrust and adversely affecting inter-personal relationships between men and women in society. There is fear psychosis among men, who are increasingly finding it difficult to repose faith in women or marriage.

Despite the public outcry over the misuse of Section 498A IPC and the Domestic Violence Act, the government is not ready to make the proposed Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill gender neutral. It presupposes that women are always victims of harassment in offices and does not take into account the fact that a woman employee can be every bit as abusive and sadistic as a male. Such laws violate the essence of Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against any citizen on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

Of course, the prime motivation in filing false cases is money. There are scores of cases, allege SIFF activists, where the wives threaten to go to the police or courts if they are not given hefty sums of money as “settlement’’. Sometimes, the clinching factor is the property and assets of their in-laws which the wives covet. What better way to usurp it all than foist false cases on one’s in-laws and then demand a king’s ransom. The proposed Bill against sexual harassment, if not made gender neutral, is likely to encourage the extortion “culture’’.

Though the sufferings of men and their families are increasing, the Indian government still thinks that it’s women who need protection. It is continuing to turn a blind eye to these harassed men, who have to spend the best years of their lives running around in courts to proclaim their innocence. But, can anything better be expected in a country which ranks a lowly 84th in the Corruption Perceptions Index?

The writer is a freelance contributor\

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