Legal aid is hardly available for poor women in India

Free legal aid is the biggest concern for women prisoners, leading to delays in securing bail and justice. Not just women, children born inside jail also become victim of such situation

Photo by Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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NH Web Desk

The recent report released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) recommended that women prisoners who have served a third of their terms, should be released on bail. This is not the only issue women inmates face in the country's crowded prisons.

In fact, what they struggle the most to get is free legal aid, which they are entitled to, leading to delays in securing bail and justice. Not just the women, but at times their children who are born inside the jail also invisibly become a victim of such situation.

As per most recent data available from the end of 2015, there are 4,19,623 persons in jail in India, of which, 17,834 (about 4.3%) are women. Of these, 11,916 (66.8%) are undertrial prisoners. In India, an analysis of prison statistics at five-year intervals reveals an increasing trend in the number of women prisoners – from 3.3% of all prisoners in 2000 to 4.3% in 2015. A majority of female inmates are in the age group of 30-50 years (50.5%), followed by 18-30 years (31.3%). Of the total 1,401 prisons in India, only 18 are exclusive for women, housing 2,985 female prisoners. Thus, a majority of women inmates are housed in women’s enclosures of general prisons

“Lawyers are not very keen on taking up free cases because there is no money. They don’t visit the jails as frequently as they should; there is hardly anyone to create awareness about the legal rights to the female inmates. They (lawyers) take up cases where they can draw good money,” said Flavia Agnes

Among the states, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of women prisoners — around 4,000, while the number of children growing up in its prisons is more than 350 — followed by Maharashtra and West Bengal with around 1,500 female inmates in both their states.

"Legal aid is hardly available for women. They are poor and they cannot afford bail for themselves; and when they are in jail, nobody in the family is much bothered. They usually don't get support from their families. It is extremely sad to see that not much are being done for the women inmates," advocate and social activist Flavia Agnes said.

There are a few factors that leave women behind bars and delays securing bail. And the primary reason, according to legal experts, is that the female inmates remain ignorant of access to free legal services.

"Women prisoners are entitled to free legal aid. They will get aid if they ask... but many women don't ask because they suffer from lack of awareness about their rights inside jail. And when the lawyers visit, they skip the sessions," said advocate Meera Bhatia, who has provided free legal aid in the Delhi High Court and currently functions as an amicus curiae in the Supreme Court.

Legal experts also stated that a majority of the women inmates are not well educated and mostly belong to the lower socio-economic strata. Therefore, not just the woman but her families too remain ignorant of the legal services available. Women are at a most disadvantageous position when it comes to their reintegration in society after release. Many are abandoned or harassed post-release, mainly due to the stigma attached with incarceration, which is even more pronounced in cases of women.

"They can be easily bailed out for a small amount but nobody bothers to do so. Families do not usually prefer to get their ladies back because it will harm to their image in society," Agnes pointed out.

"A majority of the women are convicted for cases like theft, domestic violence and human trafficking, and they belong to economically poor families. And the families are not keen on spending money on a woman and helping her secure bail," Agnes added.

The report also recommended that prison authorities should coordinate with local police to ensure released prisoners are not harassed by them due to the attached stigma. At least one voluntary organisation should be designated in each district to help with integration of released prisoners. Prisoners must also be given the right to vote, so as not to disconnect them from the larger political process and to enable them to become equal citizens of a democracy.

Another reason, the legal experts pointed out, is that many lawyers do not show interest in taking up cases where the honorarium is less.

"Lawyers are not very keen on taking up free cases because there is no money. They don't visit the jails as frequently as they should; there is hardly anyone to create awareness about the legal rights to the female inmates. They (lawyers) take up cases where they can draw good money," Agnes explained.

In the states, at the district and local levels, legal aid is provided by SLSA (State Legal Services Authorities), DLSA (District Legal Services Authorities) and TLSA (Taluka Legal Services Authorities), respectively. Add to this the lawyers at the national level, the number comes to more than 61,000, of whom 11,000 are women.

"The perspective is different with varied free legal aid authorities. Whether to give bail or not is a prerogative of the court and not of the legal aid authorities. If a woman fails to get a lawyer on her own she can approach for free legal aid when the representatives visit the jails. The lawyers will then put forth the bail application," Sunil Chauhan, an advocate associated with the national-level authority pointed out.

However, Chauhan added that once the case goes to court, the matter is considered on the basis of the crime and not the individual.

"The bail is for the court to decide. These hearings are like any other and it is not necessary that bail will be granted," he added.

Women in prisons face greater hardships than their male counterparts due to factors such as social stigma, financial dependence on their families or husbands and many others. These difficulties are further exacerbated when the woman has children. In the study conducted for the purpose of this report, it was found that women have to face numerous problems in prisons owing to inadequacy of female staff which often translates to the reality that male staff becomes responsible for female inmates, which is undesirable. It was also found that women were not provided with meals that are nutritious and according to their bodily requirements.

With IANS inputs

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