Podcast Episode 05 - Women's Rights in India with Flavia Agnes
CJ: Hello and welcome to the Feminist Law Podcast. I’m your co-host Courtney Jones.
CT: And I’m your co-host Clara Topiol. We’re both co-founders of the Feminist Law Project and final year law students who are very passionate about feminism and law. Today on the podcast we have Flavia Agnes, an Indian women’s rights lawyer. Would you please like to introduce yourself?
FA: My name is Flavia Agnes, I’m an Indian women’s rights lawyer. I’ve been in this field for nearly over three decades. I’m consistently working on empowering women at ground level as well as at policy level.
CT: Thank you for that. So, what made you choose a career path in law?
FA: It’s my own story. My own past history led me into this field. I was in a very violent marriage for 13 years; I had three children, and my children were in this atmosphere. It seemed that there was no way out. When that happened, one of the main areas was the social support and the legal support. Thereafter, I graduated, I got a degree in law and started practice basically to help women in distress.
CJ: Thank you for that and thank you for sharing your story. So, how did you decide to be an activist for women’s rights in India? Was it because of your own experience or was that always a mission of yours?
FA: I was very unexposed. When I first started, I became an activist. We were working on two issues of violence against women, rape, and domestic violence. Then, I became a lawyer, and it was a natural progress that I started working on women’s rights issues.
CT: Thank you. So, moving on now onto your professional work, it appears that you have heavily contributed to the creation of Indian feminist jurisprudence in the last three decades. Could you talk us through how you achieved this and why this was always so important for you and for women in India please?
FA: I’m not on my own, there are others who work in this field. For me, it’s very very important that I worked at the active level of providing support to women through my NGO and at the policy level of bringing changes in the law. These have been my two major contributions to the women’s movement. And also, I have written extensively on women’s rights issues, and I have taken on more nuanced positions. Going deeper into it and bringing more nuanced approaches into it, that’s been my contribution.
CJ: So, I suppose expanding on what you’ve just said about the nuanced approach, understandings and definitions of women’s rights can vary hugely. So, could you explain what it is you mean by “women’s rights”?
FA: I work at two levels. One is litigation, you actually work in court on behalf of women and my NGO Manjis does this mainly. We actually litigate on behalf of individual women, we go to court, ensure that their rights are protected. That’s at one level and is the main basis of our work. The other level, when I say women’s rights, I mean legal rights. How do we ensure that their rights are protected in courts? What are the policy changes that are required to get this done at the policy level? These are my two important interventions and the main reason that we will be successful in this.
CT: Thank you. Could I now ask that you give us a more background interview in terms of women’s rights in India and how women’s rights differ from rights afforded to men?
FA: We live in a very patriarchal society. Though women’s rights are there on paper, they’re not actually implemented in practice. So, the thing is to change this, to bring this understanding of women’s rights into the practice, practice of law, litigation practices etc… we have plenty of laws, but they don’t work at the ground level. To ensure that implementation happens, the laws work on the ground and protect women, this means our area of work.
CJ: Thank you for that. So, from one of your interviews that you gave in 2020 called “Feminist Lawyering, Violence Against Women and the Politics of Law Reform in India” and other pieces that you written, it appears that a large part of your work is focused on violence against women. Is this something that’s widely spoken about in India?
FA: Yes, it is very much spoken about because there is so much violence that happens in the domestic field. There is so much violence that happens in the public domain as well as in the domestic sphere and this has been our very important intervention. The fact that men abuse women, violate women is taken as the done thing. Women are socialized into thinking like this. To change that, we need to work very hard to change mindsets, women’s mindsets as well as men’s mindsets within a patriarchal society.
CT: That makes a lot of sense. And you previously mentioned that there were a lot of laws in India to set women’s rights. Is that applicable as well for violence against women in terms of laws?
FA: Yes, that is true for violence against women as well. We have the Prevention of Domestic Violence Against Women Act which came into force in 2005 which protects women who are in violent situations. In that Act, there is a right to residence, right to custody of children, right to protection, injunction, etc… many people are not aware of this, so the challenge is to create awareness, to get this right as promised in law to litigation and see that women are protected. We have this domestic violence act, criminal laws as well for punishment of abusing women but the criminal law is not much used: women hesitate to file complaints with the police. Also, in the criminal court, it is very difficult and long to bring justice. The Domestic Violence Act is a more civil law so getting an order of protection is much easier. That’s where our work is situated.
CJ: So, you mentioned that the criminal law is a very difficult process for women and that the Domestic Violence Act is a more civil route. Going on from that, how do you envisage that we can bridge the gap for women’s human rights in India and even more largely across the world in a sustainable way for the future that achieves its goals?
FA: I feel that in India there is a huge gap between women’s human rights and the general human rights. In fact, some years ago, women’s human rights were not considered as human rights or violation of human rights. But now, there is a greater awareness, and a violation of women’s rights is considered as a violation of human rights. That’s the big advance we have made. I think globally the situation is similar even to recognise that violence against women is a human right, that every global campaign around us. Even in India, there have been many campaigns to ensure that women’s’ rights are treated very seriously and treated as human rights violations.
CT: Thank you for that. So, you recently started your own NGO for women’s rights. Would you like to tell us more about that please?
FA: Oh yes. Our NGO provides a group of lawyers and social workers. We try to create a social support to victims or survivors of domestic and sexual violence and mainly through legal interventions. For women, going to court is very daunting, it’s a very scary task. To help them to get there and to have a lawyer who is not exploiting you, that’s the challenge and to give them quality legal services when they come to us. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years and that’s very challenging work because all procedures are very long drawn and very tedious. There’s a lot of back and forth that happens. But to sustain it until you succeed in court is a very difficult task even for the women litigants as well as for their lawyers. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
CJ: It sounds like you’re doing some really important work for women’s rights, and you have a lot of expertise in the area. So, what would be your advice for any feminists involved in law listening today in relation to women’s human rights and feminism more widely?
FA: I think you require dedication to do this work. You have to have a passion to commit yourself to doing this work. There are other ways of doing it: you can do camping, do judgements, write articles but to litigate is very difficult. You need a great level of passion and commitment to do this work. One cannot embark on it. For us, it has been a great challenge to actually carry on this work. Sometimes, you just feel like giving up. But then we have persisted, and the work is going on and I’m very happy to say this.
CT: That is very inspirational, thank you for sharing that. If our listeners would like to learn more about feminism and women’s rights in India, and more particularly about your work, where could they do this?
FA: You can do it is one of my articles which are available. If you google my name, you might get many of them. Also, we have this NGO called Manjis and if you go to the Manjis website, you will get a lot of material over there and a lot of my work is reflected over there. But apart from that, there are also other legal sites one can approach to find out more about women’s rights in India. There are a lot of articles now available on the net and that’s one way of getting to know the work that’s going on in India.
CJ: And if people wanted maybe to get involved with your NGO, how could they do this?
FA: Actually, on our website, there is a place if anyone wants to intern with us or connect with us, they can reach out over there. It’s called Manjis and you can be a part of this process. I’m not very savvy with the internet and the legal side but some of my colleagues are involved in this work. You can write to me directly at email@example.com, raise your questions and I will respond. But apart from that, our Manjis website is a good place where you can connect with us.
CT: Great, thank you so much for joining us today.
CJ: In today’s feminist news roundup, the European Parliament has approved landmark rules in an effort to boost equality on corporate boards. These new rules specify that at least 40% of non-executive positions should go to the underrepresented sex which should boost participation of women on corporate boards.
CT: Also, in today’s feminist news roundup, it has been discovered by researchers at Universite de Quebec that at least 22 indigenous women in Quebec underwent forced sterilisation between 1980 and 2019. However, because there were a number of women who were unable to participate in the study, the number of forced sterilisations could actually be much higher.
CJ: Finally, an independent review established by the London Fire Commissioner has found the London Fire Brigade to be “institutionally misogynist and racist”. The report found several cases where women in ethnic minorities had been targeted with some complaints not being investigated. There were also instances of women being “sexually taunted and men huddling around screens to watch pornography in some fire stations”. If you have any suggestions for this podcast, let us know directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CT: Please also visit our website at feministlaw.org and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn to keep up to date with our latest articles, podcasts, newsletters, and exciting news.
CJ: The music for this podcast was sourced from pixabay.com.
CT: Thanks for listening!
Transcribed by Clara Topiol