Majlis Legal Centre
Human Rights

Indian Lawyer Overcomes Domestic Abuse to Defend Women’s Rights


Article Highlights

Flavia Agnes, 65, an Indian lawyer, says suffering domestic violence by her husband inspired her long career of fighting for women’s legal rights.  

New rape cases continue to draw international attention to violence against girls and women in India.

MUMBAI, INDIA – Flavia Agnes, 65, is a women’s rights lawyer from Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra state. She fights court cases, advises the government on law implementation and offers legal services to women at the Majlis Legal Centre, a forum she co-founded for women’s rights discourse and legal initiatives.

Her own experience with domestic violence inspired her to become a women’s rights lawyer, she says. When she was 20 years old, she married a man 12 years her elder who physically abused her. He broke her nose and arm, banged her head on walls, dragged her on the floor and starved her.

It took her 14 years to seek a divorce and custody of her children because she was asthmatic and economically dependent on him, she says. But her time in court sparked her interest in law and women’s rights.

After completing law school, Agnes co-founded Majlis Legal Centre in 1991, which has an all-women staff, including seven lawyers, she says. Around 500 to 600 women approach the center every year for assistance with issues such as rape and domestic violence. The center offers financial assistance to clients who cannot afford the full cost of legal services.

Violence against girls and women in India continues to draw international attention as a string of rape cases have become public. Massive protests erupted in India in December 2012 after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi, India’s capital. In March 2013, a Swiss tourist was gang raped in Madhya Pradesh state. Two child rape cases emerged in April 2013 of a 5-year-old girl in New Delhi and a 4-year-old girl, who has since died, in Madhya Pradesh.

There were 228,650 reported crimes against women, such as sexual harassment and cruelty by husbands, in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Crimes against women increased by 23 percent from 2007 until 2011.

Agnes’ work gives such women faith in improving their rights in India, employees at Majlis Legal Centre say.

The center gives people hope, says Farat Jahan Ali, 45, a counselor at the center.

“Sometimes, the victims and the families develop so much trust on us that they believe that Majlis Law can resolve all their problems,” she says.

Persis Sidhva, 25, a self-described feminist, has worked as a women’s rights lawyer at Majlis Legal Centre for the past three years. She says Agnes’ work influenced her during law school to pursue a career in women’s rights rather than corporate law.

The intense stories of rape and domestic violence that clients bring to the center sometimes affect Sidhva emotionally, she says. But they also propel her to take on the cases.

“It gives me a strong sense that justice should be served to those women,” she says.

In addition to offering aid to women and children through Majlis Legal Centre, Agnes also works to improve women’s rights through advising the government.

She currently advises the Ministry of Women and Child Development in Maharashtra state on how to best implement the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, she says. She is helping the ministry to establish protocols for collecting evidence and information for domestic violence cases, as well.

But she says she is skeptical about the effectiveness of India’s new fast-track courts, which the government created in 2013 to try cases of sexual violence more quickly in the wake of the December gang rape that caused international uproar.

“Fast-track courts are not going to make a difference,” Agnes says.

This is because the fast-track courts in India do not ensure convictions of the guilty, she says.

“The accused is called to the court many times, whereas the victim has to visit just once or twice,” she says. “Hardly 10 percent of the accused get convicted.”

The conviction rate of crimes against women in India in 2011 was 27 percent, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

But there are other ways to improve women’s rights besides changing laws, Agnes says. She and other members of the Majlis Legal Centre started 10-week training programs for community social workers in 2011 about women’s rights and domestic abuse.

Basanti Hargovind Solanki, 35, a social worker with Don Bosco Development Society, a nongovernmental organization that works in Mumbai's slums, took one of these legal courses in December 2012. The training better equipped her to help women suffering abuse, she says during a phone interview.

“Women in the slums are afraid to go to [the] police and court, so they stay silent and suffer the violence inflicted on them,” Solanki says. “After this training, I am more equipped to help such women and make them aware of their rights.”