Towards Mahila Nyaya Panchayats

Inspired by the Courts of Women initiated by AWHRC that seeks to open out spaces for other forms of justice that are rooted in people’s wisdoms, not in the dominant framework of law and jurisprudence and drawing from our work with community based structures of dispute resolution both within the city of Bangalore and in the districts of Kolar, Anekal and Mandya, we are working towards the setting up of Mahila Nyaya Panchayats. Panchayats that will have violence against women at the centre of their search for justice from within the community and from the state.

Vimochana has been working with community based structures of conflict resolution that are rooted both in organic communities in the rural areas and within the more fragmented but yet surviving urban communities, especially within the poorer slum and lower middle class localities. In the rural communities these include the traditional nyaya panchayats, informal groupings of village elders (women and men) to whom the community goes for advice, religious heads as in the local masjid, temple, church etc and also the Social Justice Committees (which are usually non functional) within the formal panchayat system. In the urban communities these include neighbourhood committees comprising of local civic, youth and women’s groups or the local counsellor and other respected members within the locality including religious heads.

In our experience these are the structures and institutions through which a certain level of social and collective conscience is exercised and expressed. While they are not infallible in that they too are also replete with social biases and prejudices apart from being manipulable by dominant political forces, they can also be accountable to a fundamental commitment to notions of nyaya or social justice that prevails within all social systems. 

Building on the women’s support groups that we have already created within some areas of the city as also the panchayats we have been informally holding with other concerned members of the community areas where we are working, we hope to set up a network of Mahila Panchayats starting with the communities where we are at present based. These Panchayats will draw a wider legitimacy through systematically working with local groups and taking the support of some state institutions like the Karnataka State Women’s Commission or the local police. While the panchayats will not replace the existing systems of the police and the courts they will legitimise a point of reference outside them that is more accessible to especially the poorer and more marginalised communities that have little access to the formal avenues of justice. For we believe that the panchayat is a dispute resolution institution whose potential has not been sufficiently explored since it is associated with feudal values rooted in caste and gender discrimination. However it continues to survive in all communities as a very practical institution for dispute resolution rooted in local and native wisdom and knowledge. Additionally the policy of thirty three percent reservation for women in local bodies has brought in large numbers of rural women into the formal bodies of Local Self Governance. Unfortunately these women being new to politics are largely in the clutches of their male relatives, held hostage to local power structures and their party bosses. Through involving the women panchayat members in these processes of nyaya panchayats we hope to enable them to make deeper and more meaningful interventions into the more personal local structures of the communities they come from even while transforming the larger structure of politics through a subversive ethic of care, compassion and justice. 

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