Mahila Panchayat serving the cause of distressed women

- March 8, 2024

A visit to the Mahila Panchayat in New Seemapuri shows that women from the lowest economic strata of the society suffer the most

PROBLEMS GALORE: Women from the New Seemapuri come to the Mahila Panchayat with complaints of domestic violence, bigamy, alcoholism and sexual harassment

Looking distraught and battered, 34-year-old Manju was standing outside the office of Mahila Panchayat (women’s council) in New Seemapuri in East Delhi with some papers in a folder. 

Manju was there with her mother-in-law to discuss the unending suffering at the hands of her abusive and alcoholic husband, who works as a cab driver. The only consolation for her was that she had the support of her mother-in-law in her fight for justice. After suffering for several years in a terrible marriage, she now wanted a divorce. 

Mother of two children, Manju said, “Even my saas (mother-in-law) stands steadfast behind me in my struggle for a fair deal. She has seen her son her son attacking me violently after drinking bouts.” 

As she was narrating her story, her eyes welled up. 

New Seemapuri is not more than two-three kilometres away from Vivek Vihar, arguably the first posh colony in east Delhi. Even though both these areas are close to each other, their worlds are apart. 

If Vivek Vihar is full of greenery and home to known transporters and realty company owners of Delhi-NCR, New Seemapuri is devoid of lush. 

As you reach the office of Mahila Panchayat in ‘B’ Block, you can observe a flurry of activities with the arrival of several women. 

Inside the Mahila Panchayat office, around 25 women are sitting on the floor. Some are waiting outside the office for their turn. Inside the room, the floor is covered with bedsheets and walls covered with posters explaining the rights of women. 

Alas, all the women arriving are survivors of domestic violence, bigamy, alcoholism and sexual harassment. They have come here to seek advice from the Mahila Panchayat councillors, who are sitting there with a small table in front of them. 

Kiran is also a councillor here at the Mahila Panchayat, which is among the first in the national capital. It was started around 25 years ago by the Delhi Brotherhood Society (DBS), which also established St Stephen’s College and is now opening St Stephen’s Cambridge School in Sonipat. 

TRAINING: The Mahila Panchayat run by the Delhi Brotherhood Society is the only one that teaches women techniques of self-defence

To run the Mahila Panchayat, DBS gets support from the Delhi government. 

Informs Kiran, “The Panchayat gives space to women to speak without any fear. Many of them visit us to resolve disputes within their families. Here survivors are told about the legal rights they have and we help them through counselling, police and courts.” 

Covering her head with her red saree, Sundari is a working woman in her own way. She cooks food in three homes in Vivek Vihar and earns around Rs 22,000 per month. 

A native of Jharkhand, she has come to Mahila Panchayat because a ruffian of her area in Dilshad Colony has been stalking her for the last several months. 

According to Sundari, “The stalker was my neighbour earlier and now he follows me on his scooter as and when I move out of my house for work. He asks me to marry him even though I am a married woman. I am so harassed by this madman. Despite my frequent rebukes, he is not changing. Therefore, I am here to seek the advice of Women Panchayat.” 

There are more than 50 Mahila Panchayats in Delhi. Each consists of around 10 staff members. 

“We identify and motivate women to work as councillors. We train them with regards to legal issues and laws relevant to crimes against women as well as maintenance rights. We also train them in counselling, FIR writing, pursuing cases with police,” says Father Solomon George of DBS. He is the moving force behind the New Seelampur Mahila Panchayat. 

According to Father Solomon George, “I have been observing that stalking is the initial stage of a [bigger] menace. The ultimate intention could be molestation or even rape. Stalking needs to be nipped in the bud without any delay. It is a serious crime that is rampant in New Seemapuri.” 

At around 1:30 pm every Wednesday, Mahila Panchayats across Delhi meet with victims of domestic violence, listen to their painful stories, suggest possible solutions to disputes and educate women about their legal rights. 

Says Father Solomon George, “I can tell you that the cases related to stalking are only increasing thick and fast. These stalkers are shameless and despite resistance, they continue their act. After rejections, they humiliate the victims by sending them obscene stuff online.” 

The DBS-run Mahila Panchayat is perhaps the only body in the Capital that gives women training in self-defence. 

Kiran says Mahila Panchayats are not courts. 

“We try to resolve the cases through social pressure and advice. We call those who treat their wives like animals here and politely tell them first to change for the better or face police action. I assure you that things have improved in many homes thanks to our persistent efforts,” informs Kiran. 

After spending more than three hours here, one gets an impression that women belonging to the lower economic strata of the Delhi society visit Mahila Panchayat for justice more. 

“The sad part is that even after facing all kinds of odds in their homes, the victims do not want to leave their husbands. The reason is financial insecurity. If they get divorce from their husbands, they have no place to go. It puts them in a very difficult situation,” says another councillor. 

If the only option is divorce, the panchayat sends the case to the courts. Take the case of Nimmo, a mother of four. Her husband has married again. Still, Nimmo is ready to live with him. 

“Where will I go if my husband asks me to leave the house? My parents are not around. My siblings have no time to support me. I am ready to live with the second wife of my husband. I am only here (Mahila Panchyat) so that they convince my husband not to beat me,” says Nimmo. 

She works as a househelp in Anand Vihar and earns around Rs 16,000 per month. Almost 20 years into her traumatic marriage with a man, who tried to set her on fire more than once, the poor woman is still ready to live with her husband. She shows you the burn marks on left hand. 

“We not only stop a home from breaking but we also ensure the woman is treated well before we put the case as resolved. Follow-up is an important part of what we do,” says Kiran. 

READYING THEM: The Mahila Panchayat run by the Delhi Brotherhood Society is the only one that teaches women techniques of self-defence

Most of the victims thronging the Mahila Panchyat are mostly from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Bengal, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh. 

Most of them live in and around New Seemapuri that came up in late 1970s and early 1980s. 

As you leave the Mahila Panchayat and the women there, you tend to think that the debate of women empowerment would be incomplete unless women belonging to the lowest economic strata of the society get just and fair deal.