Victims’ verdict is in: Country’s first all-women courts offer hope

Aminur Khatun has made at least 50 trips to the district court in Malda in West Bengal over the last two years in connection with the case against her husband for allegedly torturing her mentally and physically. But for the first time last week, the 20 year-old from the remote village of Ratua shouted and screamed in court as she testified and pleaded her case.

The change was caused by the new surroundings in court, Khatun said. The court has now become the first all-women judicial magistrate's court (JMC) in the country dedicated to deal exclusively with cases of crime against women. And this, Khatun said, gave her the confidence to speak her mind. During the proceedings, the lawyer for her husband tried to question Khatun's character but Khatun fought back.

"This is the first time I have come to a women's court. I could speak freely about what I have been going through since marriage. Starting from the judge to the peon, everyone is a woman like me and I can see they understand my pain," Khatun said as she came out of the court room.

Khatun filed a case of domestic violence and attempt to murder against her husband in 2010. She has alleged that she was married when she was a minor and conceived within three months of the wedding. Her husband wanted her to get Rs 1 lakh from her father if she wanted to have the child. Since her poor father could not afford to pay up, her husband assaulted her physically and sexually and even tried to set her on fire, she alleged.

The additional district and sessions court, which is in the same complex as the JMC and was also converted into an all-women court at the same time, last week began conducting the trial in a case in which a 16-year-old girl from Ratua was abducted and raped in a jute field in June 2009.

"This is the first rape case which will be tried in the first women's court. We have also got a date for the next hearing. The victims will feel more confident and comfortable to speak when everyone in court is a woman. The judge, the other staff in court and we lawyers can feel the trauma of a woman who has undergone such torture," said Kakali Bagchi, the public prosecutor.

The two courts were inaugurated on January 23 but started functioning regularly only last week. They were set up on the directions of of the Chief Justice of India in the aftermath of the national outrage over the Delhi gangrape. Besides judges Mina Sarkar and Keya Sarkar, the courts each have two assistants, two clerks, two stenographers and two policewomen. But since both were general courts earlier, they have a huge backlog of pending cases.

"More than 500 cases of crime against women have been transferred to the court. But the problem is, it is a not a new court. It is an existing court which has been converted to an all-women court. So pending cases are still being tried in this court," said public prosecutor Tirtha Bose.

"The purpose of setting up the court is to have speedy trial for cases of crime against women. That will be possible when the high court orders the transfer of cases that are not related to women to other courts. That will take some time."

Adds Amalendu Banerjee, president of the Malda Bar Council: "Earlier, all cases of crime against women would be spread across 16 courts. But now the cases will be spread in two courts. So the process will be delayed. There are at least 11,000 cases pending in these two courts."

Still, complainants and victims sound optimistic about their chances of getting justice now. "We are feeling a bit relieved now as it seems that our cases will be disposed of soon in these all-women courts. The judges will be more sensitive," said Mousumi Chatterjee, who has been fighting for alimony from her husband for six years now.

Sikha Das, the bench clerk in the additional district and sessions court, echoes that sentiment.

"In the three decades I have worked here, I have seen how a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence hesitates and feels scared to narrate the torture she has undergone in the presence of male court staff and the judge," said Das.

"I have seen how victims break down while responding to the shrill cross-questions of opponent lawyers. But now things are different, the victims feel more comfortable."

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