“There is no women’s movement in India; I don’t see it”: Legal expert for victims of sexual violence Audrey D’Mello

21st Sep 2015
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Her mother used to be an image of fire, vitriol, and madness, as she marched alongside the first ever batch of women up in arms against the patriarchy of the system, in the 1980s.

And then, she would come back home to get battered by an abusive husband.

It was in those initial moments of her life itself that Audrey D’Mello was exposed to the underbelly of life as a woman, and turned into a mutineer by her circumstances, without much of a choice.


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Being the child of the victim:

Audrey believes children are stronger than one would imagine – she certainly was. Like any other child, she was also afraid of conflict and wanted to avoid confrontations at all costs. But Audrey shared her childhood home with a permanent elephant in the room, like a sword hanging over their heads. “There was always this element of uncertainty, where we wouldn’t know what would spark the next fight. And then the drill would follow, where mom would get beaten up and thrown out of the house.”

“Back then, physical violence was only just starting to gain traction. Domestic violence by husbands had no space to even be spoken about; there was no conversation around it.”

What it does is deliver deep scars to children’s morale. Yet, ironically, mothers continue being in that violent situation and stay back just to hold the family together for the sake of the children. Rather than having a dysfunctional but unbroken family, isn’t it better for the child instead to not be in constantly violent circumstances?

“It indeed is a moral dilemma for mothers. But the answer was clear to us. I was with my mom through that journey – and we pushed her to take a stand and leave. I was only eight at the time.”

“I was very closely linked with the issue and grew up to be a second-generation feminist. I even witnessed the first wave of Indian feminism and attended the first women’s conference here.”

Audrey’s on-again off-again relationship with the women’s movement:

Never falling out of passion for the movement, there did come a point when she decided to take a step back and pursue a different career out of stress over income. Building a career in communication, she had a supremely successful stint and even started a family while she was at it – until she had her third child in 2007.

“It was my mom’s dream to see the women’s movement reach fruition. But the problem with first-generation feminists who started organisations was that while drove them fully with passion – what they lacked were organisation skills and building a robust NGO with lucrative opportunities for younger people – who may not have the passion but had the commitment and needed a professional space to work in.”

One such organisation was Majlis, founded by legal expert Flavia Agnes to grant access to justice to victims of violence, by arming them with the legal tools necessary to attain redressal. “Flavia had invested so much time and energy in building this organisation and I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. I brought my organisation skills from my career to bring about a professional environment.”

Under Audrey’s tutelage, the team has now come to employ 30 lawyers and social workers. A ‘Majlis Lawyer’ is distinct and conspicuous in their presence at any magistrate in the city, owing to their command, confidence, know-how and feistiness.

Urban patriarchy is anything but a myth

“I see it every day,” says Audrey. “The women who come through the doors of Majlis are sobbing, howling even –they’ve hit rock bottom. These women are across caste and class, religion and education.”

We say educating the girls is what will bring about change, but does the education lack the necessary depth and insight to uplift a woman? Then, we said economic independence will bring about the change.

“All these terms are failing us. Women my age, my education, my qualification have given up their careers to stay at home to raise their children,” she says.

“Some women even find it cute to say things like they don’t look into finances and bills. I’m like, ‘You really should, you know?’” she thinks. “If something were to happen to these women in the future, there is nowhere they will be able to seek refuge from their own mistakes.”

The patriarchy of marriage and rape:

In Audrey’s opinion, the root cause of most social evils is the institution of marriage, family and the sanctity and all-importance attached to it.

“First of all, marriage is a mandate. You could have a thriving career and a happy single life where you can earn, spend your money on yourself, and put your legs up and enjoy. Yet, your existence is pitied, looked down upon, and viewed as though something is missing,”

explains Audrey. And once you’re married, staying married is a priority. Maintaining a family at all costs is such a mandate. Women bear the brunt of it and suffer as a result. You could be married and facing acute violence and oppression everyday, but that sort of a life is all right. ‘At least you’re married’ is the voice in your head that continuously dupes you into believing that you are still privileged, somehow.

“One says the cause of death is dowry. Dowry in itself isn’t the cause – the fact that the woman is given no option, no alternative, nowhere to go and seek help, is the cause of deaths. We don’t raise our girls to be independent; we don’t raise them to believe that they can have full lives without a man. If we gave our girls the confidence to walk away, nobody would die.”

What goes hand in hand with the sanctity of marriage is the idea of preservation of sexuality. The sexuality of a woman becomes such a thing to hide and be controlled. Fifty per cent of the girls are married before 18 – to be able to control their sexuality. They can be sexually active after they are married, they can get raped in marriage, in fact. As long as it is under the confines of marriage, and in the name of it, it is acceptable. But if one does it consensually, voluntarily, that is unacceptable.”

Sexual violence and marriage are interlinked, she feels, explaining “Rape is supposed to be worse than death. Where does that come from? Only murder is death, so why is rape seen as the ultimate violation? If we were able to look at rape as a crime, we’d be able to deal with it so much better, than to believe that it is the ultimate violation of the soul – like the life of the girl is over. That is due to the heightened priority we give to virginity and tabooisation of sexuality – Why? You have to be pure, protect it, save it for your marriage. That is the patriarchy of rape.”

We must have that dinnertime conversation where we tell our girls how to deal with rape if it happens. “It is gruesome, but can we ask them to look at it as a crime, so they can cope with it better? They’re so unprepared to deal with the shame and social ramifications. Victim-blaming arises out of the expectation that a girl must remain ‘pure’ for marriage. Take off the label and a girl can be saved from the aftermath.

Can changing the law change the world?

You have to be a part of the system to change it, and Audrey has formed an organisation structured on that very principal. “For the longest time, the women’s movement has been about standing on the outside and opposing what the government did. It was time for us to understand the nitty-gritties, knowing how these

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laws worked, and showing the government how it is done from the inside. So we collaborated with the state.”However, according to Audrey, a law would take at least two decades to even create a blip in the figures and system. And with women especially, the complications only multiply.

“Every woman who walks in through these doors undergoes such a layered and subtle violence, physically, emotionally and mentally, all her life. She is raised to be submissive, not to talk loudly, tolerate, adjust …. When these girls grow up and face violence while still having the mindset of being docile and compliant – they’re expected to know their rights, access the law, and stand up to their husbands!”

This sudden jump in temperaments is where the law fails. What’s more, women who do seek out the laws neither find acceptance from their families, nor find appropriate rehabilitation. “Shelters are made for trafficked girls or deserted women and have a vibe just like jail. It feels like jumping from a frying pan to a fire. The government should be creating halfway shelters which are like homes – where women can live with their children. Our laws aren’t tuned to be practical to the needs of the women afterwards. If you ask me, they were doomed to fail,” opines Audrey.

At Majlis, they not only equip women victims with the legal know-how, but also with the counselling that tells them to respect themselves more, and not look at themselves as secondary citizens – and handhold them through this change in perspectives.

The women’s movement and its flaws:

There is a fundamental error in the design of our women’s movement. “I don’t see a women’s movement. I don’t see it like the way I see the other movement. We aren’t a community – like trade unions, who find common interests despite religious and social identities. Hence, it has become about a few loud voices and few articulate women making demands for the community at large. We haven’t been able to find our common interests to rally together, resulting in the movement becoming too autonomous,” says Audrey.

Majlis is opposed to uniform civil code, states Audrey. “We have diversity and every woman lives in her own nuanced community. We can’t ignore the idea of maintaining their standing in their respective communities – since these communities are central to one’s sense of belonging. Thus, changes need to come from inside, not from the outside.”

“Girls, know your rights first. Put yourself first. Respect yourself,” concludes Audrey.

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