THE “CASEWORK” DEBATE in Saheli
THE “CASEWORK” DEBATE in Saheli
After working for nearly ten years as a centre for women in crisis situations, in 1991 we took a decision to discontinue and review casework in Saheli. This decision was a difficult one, and followed several years of active questioning and debate of some of the basic premises and assumptions underlying our work.
We recognized reaching out to individual women to be a vital activity, and in 1981 when Saheli started doing crisis intervention work, there were hardly any organizations which provided support to individual women. The few that existed had a traditional welfare approach, tending to view women as victims rather than as active agents with the potential to control their lives. We refused to cast ourselves and other women in the role of helpless victims, and felt the need to create a space where we could support women and articulate our struggles. The last one and a half decades has witnessed a tremendous increase in the visibility rendered to women’s issues. The changed social context, as well as changes within Saheli as a group necessitated a review of casework, which began around 1991.
The autonomous women’s movement in the late 70s highlighted the issue of violence against women, by focusing attention on rape and dowry related violence. The issue of domestic violence came into sharp focus as another form of terrorising women and denying them their rights in their marital homes. Several campaign groups, such as the Samta Collective and Stree Sangharsh had emerged in Delhi around this time. These groups brought out into the open the issue of domestic violence, so far considered a “private” matter. Women came out into the streets, protesting against wife murders, put up street plays such as “Om Swaha”, sat on dharnas, gheraoed violent husbands, and militantly voiced their determination to put an end to male dominance. Dowry, wife battering, rape, sexual harassment, pornography and other forms of subjugating women were crucial struggles of the movement at that time. Within these campaign groups, a need was felt to supplement agitational politics and intervene even before women were murdered in their homes and added on as yet another statistic of “dowry death”. A sort of ‘preventive’, as it were. We, in Saheli, felt an imperative need to provide space for women to share their problems, articulate their feelings and also support their struggles.
Domestic violence was (and still is) a common experience and erodes a woman’s right to a dignified life. We knew then and do even now, that there were no ready made solutions for the problems women faced. We put faith in mutual sharing of experiences and in exploring together the various alternatives and options available. Our vision was to create a space for women to be without fear, guilt and subordination, and link up our individual struggles with the broader fight for structural change and social justice. At a practical level, it meant that members of Saheli concentrated on support work in the organisation, and involved themselves in campaigns as part of the broader forum of Stree Sangharsh. By 1982, [b1] Stree Sangharsh had become less active and campaign work was also taken up by Saheli. The balancing act between campaign work and support work was not an easy one, and these contradictions and the seeming dichotomies continue even today.
The debate within Saheli about whether or not to stop doing individual support work has several dimensions, and continues till date, four years after we stopped actively doing casework. Here we attempt to share the questions we have repeatedly asked ourselves, and the dilemmas we have faced. We believe these issues are of relevance to all groups attempting similar work related to violence against women.
VOICES IN FAVOR OF CONTINUING CASEWORK
“We have helped women to gather courage to stand up for themselves. This task is far from over.”
“We must reach out to women with our ideas and practices, and doing casework is the best way. When I began to understand the reasons for my low position in the family, it made me angry, and want to do something for other women like myself.”
“I was one of those who thought we must stop casework and do community work with women. Then I had to deal with my own crisis with my husband and in-laws, and I came across other agencies doing this work. Having experienced that, I feel convinced that Saheli must not give up doing support work.”
“Don’t call women ‘cases’!”
At the time the decision to limit casework was taken, there was a sense of frustration with the stagnation we seemed to have reached. However, not all of us were convinced that the source of this inertia was the nature of casework per se. Several of us feel strongly that helping individual women should continue to be a priority, since such work continues to be relevant as long as sexual harrassment, subjugation of women and the threat of family violence persist in society. Nor are all of us convinced that the issues which we sought to highlight through casework have gained enough visibility.
As a response to the mounting pressure from women’s groups, the state itself has taken a number of measures to tackle violence against women. The setting up of the Crimes Against Women Cell (CAWC) by the police, the introduction of new legislation such as Section 498-A IPC against domestic violence, the anti-Sati law, amendments to laws regarding dowry, rape and obscenity, are evidence of this state response. However, the role of the state in this context urgently needs to be critiqued by the women’s movement, since these measures are fraught with contradictions, and in many instances are only token and of no real help to women. Since basic structures, societal attitudes and norms remain pro-family while being anti-women, the implementation of these measures have spelt newer hardships for women. The CAWC, for instance, does not have as many powers are earlier envisaged, thus contributing to its ineffectiveness. An alternative support system which can enable women to even consider leaving an abusive family environment as a viable option, is practically non existent. Shelters for women are few, and state-run shelters are often the seat of vice and corruption. Social security and employment opportunities for women continue to be scarce.
Counselling centres run by the State, NGOs and women’s organisations have no doubt grown in number since 1981. However, the perspective of some of these agencies, especially those run by the State, is not necessarily pro-women. Often, instead of looking at the situation from the woman’s point of view, efforts are made to preserve the sanctity of the family, and women are ‘reconciled’ with the most abusive of husbands. In fact, centres funded by the State are even called Family Counselling Centres. In such a context, feminist crisis-intervention has not outgrown its utility or relevance today.
While within the home, women must contend with institutionalized family violence, and in the “outside” world with its blatant sanction to goondaism and its increasing police and military presence, the creed of violence prevails. The concomitant growth of fundamentalist/revivalist trends pushes women back into the home and snatches away even their existing rights. In this context, the women’s movement has to tackle a multitude of forces, and has an agenda of challenging tasks.
VOICES IN FAVOR OF LIMITING CASEWORK
“It is time we reached out to many more women. We cannot continue to limit ourselves.”
“Now even TV serials are condemning wife-beating. Who will condemn the government for forcing women to get sterilized? There are simply not enough of us in Saheli to do everything.”
“Saheli is becoming a social-work centre. I did not become a part of the movement to do social work. How can we struggle for change like this….?”
The last ten years have witnessed a tremendous increase in the visibility rendered to women’s issues. Violence against women has been a focus of the movement since the late 70s. We have consistently been struggling for changes in laws, more effective implementation, gender sensitization of the police and judiciary, support systems for women such as shelter homes, employment opportunities, vocational training, etc. Many such demands have been acceded to, though admittedly in diluted form, in an age where talking about women’s rights is no longer confined to feminists. Women’s rights, fortunately or unfortunately, have now become everybody’s business (while actually remaining our own business).
Today there are a large number of organisations which render support to individual women. Several organizations, including mass-based women’s wings of parties as well as NGOs, today run counseling and crisis centres. In some ways, these organizations have a much wider outreach through their area-based centres than our centralised office. Locally based crisis intervention has the potential of being more spontaneous, sustained and effective due to continuity. Moreover, community involvement in the issue of domestic violence is also possible (though the other side of this is that women may want to keep as far away as possible from their own neighborhood, which may be pressuring them to continue in a violent family situation.) There is no doubt, however that the sheer quantum of agencies offering services, with whatever perspectives, has increased manifold. Some of us felt that our role could be one of intervening and providing a feminist perspective to such work rather than limit ourselves to handling cases ourselves. Especially in State agencies, like the CAWC, Family Counselling Centres etc., effective interventions from us would have far-reaching effects.
Some of us in Saheli felt that the very nature of casework is inherently curative, rather than preventive. Unless it is accompanied by active efforts to organize for social and structural change, casework can only provide symptomatic relief to a few individual women. Yet casework, by becoming a primary activity of Saheli, consumed the energies of volunteers so completely that campaigns on issues emerging from the casework did not receive enough attention.
For some new volunteers whose interests were amorphous, or who approached involvement in women’s issues with a social service orientation, casework from a central office became an end in itself. Consequently, issues which casework highlighted: the need for shelter homes, issues related to maintenance, child custody, matrimonial property, police inaction, etc., could not be taken forward in a systematic manner.
Additionally, not all of Saheli’s campaigns grew out of casework. For instance , health and reproductive technology related issues; the campaigns against EP Forte; hormonal injectables and other harmful contraceptives; the coercive population control program of the government, sex-determination tests; protesting Sati and other revivalist trends and objectionable portrayal of women in the media, were other issues of concern which required urgent attention.
In some campaigns we faced the dilemma of whether or not individual women would even support our stands or not, as with the campaign against sex-determination, where many women were supposedly “for” the tests. The shift in the nature of campaigns also came about because of the conviction that it was imperative for us, an autonomous women’s group, to focus attention on these issues. Over the years, violence against women as an issue had been taken up by other women’s groups of different trends, from right wing to left wing. If we did not take up these newer, more controversial issues, no one else would.
Our impact can be seen now that the campaign against population control, for instance, has spread in a big way. This is not to suggest a hierarchy of issues, but given the limitations of time, woman-power and resources, we have been constrained to prioritise issues at certain points of time. Simultaneously, the false divide between casework and campaign work has continued to be unresolved among us. In dealing with casework as a daily activity and as distinct from issue-based work, we have had limited success in taking the assumptions of casework itself forward, as well as blurred the vital link between the problem of individual women and larger social processes.
The lack of volunteers to devote themselves to casework was a recurrent situation over the years. The entire burden being on one or two members meant that exploring creative alternatives was simply not possible. Some of us were of the opinion that rather than continue casework in a routine fashion, it would be better to limit it, review our work so far, and strategise on this basis.
Our faith in a non-heirarchical organizational structure and the collective group process, also contributes to a discomfort with the option of increasing the institutionalisation of the group. Although this may be a more efficient method of working, we see the merit of struggling to establish alternate ways of working, which reflect our feminist principles. Some of us in fact see the decision to limit casework as arising out of expediency, and a lack of volunteers and other constraints, rather than an ideological position.
CHALLENGES THAT ARE STILL BEFORE US!
In our initial years when we operated as a small, relatively unknown neighborhood group in Nizamuddin, and fewer women approached us for help, we were, to a greater extent, able to render adequate support. We were resorting to direct action in several cases, and depended less on legal options. For instance, instead of leaving child custody to a long drawn out battle in courts often prejudiced against women, we would help a woman to physically claim her child and thus establish de facto custody. We offered our homes to women who were shelterless, and shared our lives with them. We were more able to create alternate support systems, in keeping with our vision.
However, over the years, the sheer quantum of casework had increased tremendously, with Saheli getting wide coverage in the press, over television, being listed as a crisis centre in daily newspapers, telephone directories and Yellow pages, and of course by word of mouth. Even the police began to refer “cases” to Saheli. Gradually we began to get overwhelmed, and had to figure out how to cope. The available woman power or volunteers needed to sustain the individual support work with our kind of perspective, had hardly grown in a proportionate manner. We realized that our methods were becoming more institutionalized, and more “traditional” solutions had to be adopted, since the extra-legal, unconventional approach needed much more time and energy.
Given the informal structure of our group, we have never had a fixed number of full-time workers in Saheli. Depending on how volunteers are placed for time and other resources, and depending on the quantum of work in Saheli, we have had a variable number of paid workers, from none at all, to six, at any given time. Although active efforts are made to prevent this from happening, usually the load of casework tended to fall on the shoulders of the full timers of the group. The numerous and exhaustive aspects of casework demand flexible time commitments which volunteers who have full time jobs or family or health constraints etc., are unable to provide on a sustained basis.
Further, for those of us who are continuously absorbed in tackling situations of women in crisis, this work not only stretches our time and energy over a whole range of activities, it also takes an emotional toll. Encountering the same problems over and over again, dealing with the legal system, the police, the family and husbands, leads to feelings of despair and burn-out. Responding to this reality is a challenge for any group, especially small ones like ours, which can scarcely afford to have activists drop out. Renewing energies, keeping up spirits to sustain the struggle assumes more significance in these bleak times.
IMPACT OF SECTION 498A INDIAN PENAL CODE
The introduction of Section 498-A in 1983 drew attention to the fact that within the ‘sacrosanct’ bond of matrimony women were victims of both, physical and mental violence of varying degrees, culminating even in murder. Sec. 498-A also introduced the concept of mental cruelty as distinct from physical cruelty. It recognized mental cruelty as a specific type of torture to which women were subjected in their matrimonial homes. It acknowledged that constant taunting, abuses, humiliation, prohibiting of communication with parents were all forms of violence against women and should be treated by law as a criminal offense.
It is interesting to see that the legislature defined cruelty in Sec. 498-A in broad and liberal terms. While clause (b) of Sec. 498-A covers cruelty caused only by dowry demands, Clause (a) covers cruelty caused by any willful conduct of the husband or his relatives. Clause (a) is therefore capable of broad interpretation and could include all forms of domestic violence.
Our experience in Saheli shows that Sec.498-Ahas usually been invoked by women only to seek redress in cases where dowry is cited as the primary cause of violence. The reasons for this have been many. Firstly, the police and judiciary both respond more sympathetically if the husband and in-laws have tortured and harassed the woman to meet their unending dowry demands. When women state other causes of cruelty, eg., inability to produce sons, violent temperament or the suspicions of the husband, his desire to remarry etc. they are usually advised by the police to try and “adjust” to their situation. Moreover, the main thrust of the judicial system in cases of matrimonial dispute has always been to reconcile the parties at any cost. Domestic violence as illustrated in Clause (a) of Sec. 498-A in fact challenges the power relationships that exist within the family and it is perhaps for this reason that the legal system does not encourage women to invoke this clause.
Consequently, a pattern that we have noticed in reporting cases under Sec. 498-A, is that demands for dowry were highlighted as the only or main cause of violence. Obviously this pattern is misleading, and creates the myth that resolving the problem of dowry would eliminate violence against women and create the ideal, safe family. This myth delinks dowry from other aspects of patriarchal society such as unequal inheritance rights and the secondary status of women and is therefore false.
Our experience also gave us an insight into the support structures available to women who go to court. The parental family of the woman mostly stands by her if the case is about dowry related cruelty. In such cases at the time of bail the court usually orders that the woman be restored her dowry, particularly her jewelry or the cash equivalent of the same. However, this family support is often absent, if the woman accuses her husband of torture and harassment for reasons other than dowry.
Statistics indicate that very few cases registered under Sec.498-A result in conviction. However on closer examination we find that in many cases women enter into out-of-court settlements and take compensation from their husbands so that they can rebuild their life and move on, instead of wasting it away in court.
In our work, we find that laws like Sec.498-A however limited, are helpful to the extent that they help the woman tilt the balance of power in her favour. When she does have access to a support group, her need to take recourse to legal action minimizes; but when she has to fight a lone battle the legal framework is her only hope.
One of the foundations of our work has been that emphasising the link the link between the “personal” and the “political” would contribute to politicising women, drawing women into our work, into the movement, into the collective struggle for social transformation. In the initial years, when there was an active campaign against dowry and domestic violence in Delhi, support work with individual women had a movement context, and these links were established more organically. Though even in the beginning there was no intention to build up a mass base through support work, our hope was to sow seeds of change in society by conscientising women we came in contact with.
By the mid eighties, when the campaign against dowry had receeded somewhat to the background, casework became less and less an activity to fit into an active movement. Later volunteers who joined Saheli had different expectations from casework, which remained unfulfilled, since they did not regard casework as an end in itself. Drawing women into the movement in this context was more challenging.
By now, the nature of campaigns in Saheli had changed: reproductive technologies, the EP Forte campaign, the anti-population control, campaigning for egalitarian laws for women etc, were issues it was difficult for uninitiated women to relate to. State response to women’s issues has become increasingly sophisticated, thus necessitating complicated responses from us. In this context, several strategies were needed to reach out to women who came to Saheli for help. Systematic involvement through newsletters, personal contacts, second Saturday meetings and public functions was increasingly difficult because of the tremendous increase in volume of work. In the near absence of such interaction, it was not unnatural that our work began to be more “service-oriented”.
Women who came to us for concrete help in resolving their problems belong to all classes. We have believed that family violence cuts across all class barriers, though it is a reality that women of different classes experience this oppression in various ways. We have placed faith in the processes of equal sharing, mutual openness and vulnerability, to help in linking women despite class differences, and forge bonds of strength, solidarity and sisterhood.
However, despite conscious individual and collective effort, these processes are often difficult to put into practice. Many factors impinge on the relationship we develop between ourselves as Saheli workers, and women who come to us for problem resolution. These include varying class backgrounds, power differences etc. Some of us also felt that there is a distinct shift in approach of the later volunteers.
There was more de-linking of the personal from the political, less mutual sharing, openness about one’s own life, and more of a “third-person” approach, as though we as activists and feminists have resolved all these issues in our own lives, while the unfortunate women who came as “cases” needed our help. Even the change in our language was symptomatic of these shifts. It became easier to refer to women who came for help as “cases”, and support work as “casework”, setting the tone for a more unequal atmosphere. These issues have been increasingly difficult to tackle with the increase in the volume of cases pouring into Saheli.
The decision has certainly not been easy, and we are constantly confronted with women walking into our office for help. However, the debate is an open one, coming up time and again and we hope to keep alive discussions on it, in order to tackle the issue of domestic violence, which continues to be a looming threat over many women’s lives. It is imperative for all of us in the movement to weave together the various approaches: individual support work, campaigning and agitating, legislative reform, gender sensitisation of the police and the judiciary, and women-centered research, in order to carry forward the struggle.