By Maya Palit
In May 2016, a 14-year-old Dalit girl was the victim of an attack where she was kidnapped, raped for 12 days and forced to drink a corrosive liquid that destroyed her internal organs. She was lying in hospital for two months when Swati Maliwal, the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), read about her in a news report that suggested the girl was dying. (She eventually died.) Maliwal rushed to the hospital to find the 14-year-old in a horrifying state, spitting blood, and had her shifted to a private hospital in Delhi. She issued a notice to the Station House Officer (SHO) at 11 pm that very day demanding why the suspects hadn’t been arrested even after months.
The SHO subsequently arrested the accused, but two days later, he registered a First Information Report (FIR) against Maliwal, stating she had made the teen’s name public. She had indeed mentioned the name in the notice, but the DCW immediately sent out a disclaimer acknowledging this mistake.
This sort of deflective attack is hardly the first on the DCW, which has been receiving a lot of bad press of late.Earlier this week, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) swooped in with questions over an alleged recruitment scam in connection with an investigation – which Maliwal claims is politically motivated – that has been going on since September. Back in August, the ACB conducted a raid on the DCW over allegations of nepotism (in response to which Maliwal filed a counter-complaint accusing her predecessors in the commission of major corruption). Prior to that, the DCW was caught in crossfire in a row between AAP and BJP leaders, during which the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi apparently attempted to evict Maliwal from her office.
The current ambush is already having consequences. For one thing, it is delaying the DCW’s ability to support the Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks, a campaign against gender bias in hostel rules. Devangana Kalita, a founding member of the campaign, praising the DCW’s rapid response to their complaint, said, “It was the first time that an institutional body has recognised the nature of this discrimination. We were glad to have the DCW’s support. It has been very proactive, and that is why it is facing this backlash.”
But the Commission has been struggling to carry out its work for other, more concrete reasons as well. It recently announced a decision to shut down its rape crisis cell because of the enormous workload (11,696 complaints in the last six months) and what it describes as the lackadaisical attitude of its new government-nominated secretary, who has apparently refused to pay its staff for two months now. According to Maliwal, several staff members are survivors of rape, acid attacks and dowry harassment, and 79 out of 95 employees earn less than Rs. 25,000 per month, so they can’t afford to continue working without remuneration.
“It is sad that this harassment and targeting is happening at a time when the Commission is being extremely proactive. We are spending nights at Nari Niketan, and over the last year, the helpline has handled over 2 lakh cases and the rape crisis cell has handled over 5,000 cases,” said Maliwal. Just a couple of days back, the DCW urged the Lieutenant Governor to take action after it publicised the results of a survey which revealed that corrosive acid is still available in 30 shops across Delhi, despite a Supreme Court Order banning its sale. Over the last year, the DCW issued 54 notices to police stations for their non-compliance with the mandate that rape and sexual assault cases must be reported to the DCW. But it is uncertain whether any of this will be addressed seriously. Maliwal mentions, for instance, that the government has overlooked the 55 recommendations for staff recruitment suggested by the DCW over the last year, as well as requests to set up a ministerial committee in collaboration with the Dilli Mahila Aayog, which could meet regularly to discuss realistic measures for crimes against women.
Those familiar with how the system works indicate that the clashes between the DCW and the government are only part of a broader problem related to the powerlessness of State Commissions across the country. Ranjana Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research, an organisation that works in the area of gender sensitisation, pointed out that institutions like the DCW have been targeted for years. “Successive governments have disempowered all the women’s commissions. The money has never been increased, nor their autonomy or judicial power.”
Tenzing Choesang, a technical director at Lawyers Collective, an NGO that promotes human rights, echoed this view of the situation. “Commissions are severely handicapped around the country,” he said. “As recommendatory bodies, DCW and NCW (National Commission for Women) don’t have any teeth, per se. Their functioning is limited, especially as the parties they confront often don’t cooperate despite summons.”
Although she echoed the popular view that no single government can be blamed for diminishing the importance of statutory bodies like the DCW, senior advocate Rebecca John, nevertheless, emphasised that the dispute at hand is particularly alarming. “The actions of the Lieutenant General are absolutely outrageous and the fact that it’s going on unchecked is the sign of a Constitutional crisis and a serious assault on freedoms in this country. The muzzling of the DCW also reflects the lack of respect for women. The DCW is a statutory body, but it should at least be allowed to function in the space that is available to it; to stand up for gender rights and equality. If it is subjected to this kind of contempt, this negative impression will permeate down the ranks.”
John added that while she remains deeply critical of its functioning, especially as the chair is always a political appointment, at a time when India is going through a very complicated phase, the slow erosion of organisations like the DCW will only add to the host of problems on our hands. Let’s hope it isn’t too late for the DCW to extricate itself from the present morass and return to recording the injustices done to marginalised women – the reason it was established in the first place.