Us-supported Delhi Brotherhood Society is empowering communities by putting justice into local hands
There is a sense of expectation in the room. In a community centre in New Seemapuri, Delhi, four couples have gathered for a hearing before the Mahila Panchayat (women’s council).
The council is managed by the Delhi Brotherhood Society (DBS), with support from Us.
Hearings provide an opportunity for prominent and trained members of the community to resolve local disputes – in this instance, domestic violence and marital conflict– without the need for fines, court fees or imprisonment that further impoverish families.
The room is not large. There is no furniture – people sit cross-legged on mats. The walls are a plain fading-yellow, but the room is an explosion of colourful saris and colourful expressions.
Justice is not hurried. Time is taken to hear and discuss cases. And there are trained counsellors on the premises to help couples find a way forward.
One couple has been married six years. They have no children, but the wife is pregnant. The woman wears a remote expression and sounds sad and distracted as she tells the room how her husband hits her and gives her very little money to buy food and medicine. Her mother, who is also in the room, starts to weep quietly.
After she has spoken, her husband has a chance to respond. He tries to talk his way out of the accusations, but the women in the room interject – they know this man from their community and know his wife is telling the truth.
The facilitators ask further questions and help the couple reach a resolution: the man will stop his violence immediately and start giving his wife sufficient money for food and medicine. Furthermore – as is customary – the couple must return in 14 days so the council can confirm that the agreement has been fulfilled.
Another couple has brought their two children, aged about four and seven. They are returning to the council having first appeared 14 days earlier when – like the first couple – the husband was told to stop beating his wife.
The wife is smiling and says there is now peace in the family home. The husband is sent out of the room and the wife is questioned further. She affirms that the violence has stopped. The children are also questioned and confirm that family life is much happier.
When the day’s proceedings are over – and the couples have gone home – there is a joyful atmosphere in the room. The women are happy that these council hearings are bringing peace to their communities.
DBS is currently operating two councils – in New Seemapuri and in Mandoli. They have legal accreditation, which means they have the power to summons people to attend a hearing, with redress to the full judicial process. One of the reasons for their success is that women in the community are both witnesses to proceedings and then able to monitor and verify whether rulings are being upheld. The people are accountable to each other.
The councils are also an example of inter-faith co-operation. While DBS is a Christian organisation, the councils are in the hands of the people – whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian. There is no discrimination according to faith.
DBS council facilitator Asha Kasgar explained: ‘Our main work is to help women find justice. There is a mentality towards women in India which is the cause of a great deal of violence and abuse. The women are often afraid to speak out, so they suffer in silence.
‘There are many cases of violence which would have gone unnoticed if DBS hadn’t been able to intervene.’
Facilitator Kiran Bala added: ‘There is much injustice inflicted upon women. But God continually raises people up to challenge these atrocities. When DBS intervenes in a situation of injustice, it is the intervention of God.’