With the widespread dissent over quite a few judgements passed recently by the Supreme Court (which this writer takes strong umbrage to), the legal rights for women need to be known explicitly. In a patriarchal society like ours with the focus being on moral conduct, tradition, and custom, an important question that arises is what are women's rights today that protect their interests?
Here are the rights that every woman should know, for information is power.
1. Right to Maternity Benefits
The Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 clearly states that women are entitled to full paid leave from work to take care of the child.
A recent amendment to this law was introduced in 2016 by the Modi Govt. As per the amendment, the duration of the aforesaid leave, earlier at 12 weeks, has been increased to 26 weeks. Furthermore, this applies to all organizations with a workforce of more than 10 people.
2. Right to Stridhan
Not to be confused with or mistaken as Dowry, Stridhan refers to any and all voluntary gifts given to a woman (for her sole ownership) before, during and after marriage, and even during childbirth. These gifts could have been given by her parents, siblings, relatives and even, in-laws. It covers moveable as well as immoveable property. The Supreme Court judgements passed in November 2015 are very clear that the woman holds right of ownership even in the case of judicial separation (not Divorce). Misuse of and/or Refusal to hand over your streedhan amounts to ‘criminal breach of trust’.
Additionally, in cases of domestic violence, denial of stridhan is directly covered under the Domestic Violence Act, which in itself is liable for criminal proceedings.
Streedhan from family and relatives is non-taxable under the Income Tax Act.
3. Right to ‘Not Going to Police Station’
We are already aware of the laws around Zero FIR and that a woman cannot be arrested after sunset and before sunrise.
But did you know you are well within your rights if you refuse to go to the police station even for interrogation. Under Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a woman can refuse to being physically present at the police station for interrogation. The interrogation can be conducted at her residence in the presence of a woman constable and family members or friends.
In addition to this, a woman need not visit the police station even to lodge a complaint. This can be done via email or registered post addressed to the Deputy Commissioner of Police or Commissioner of Police. Further proceedings are carried out by the SHO of the respective area.
4. Rights regarding Sexual Crimes
Firstly, a rape cannot be dismissed only on the verdict of a doctor. There has to be proof in the form of a medical report and that too should state whether there has been sexual activity or not. Judgement on occurrence of rape cannot be made by the doctor.
Secondly, all organizations are mandated by Supreme Court to set up a committee for grievance and redressal of sexual violence complaints. These committees should be headed by a woman and have 50% women members. One of the members should be from a women’s welfare group.
Thirdly, the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 protects women from any kind of sexual harassment in public and private sector – organized and unorganized both. It covers acts or incidents of sexual harassment as inappropriate behavior conducted as :
1. ‘quid pro quo’ (preferential treatment in exchange for sexual favours) and
2. ‘creating a hostile work environment’ (creating an intimidating and hostile work environment to solicit or coerce, and/or punished for refusal of sexual favours)
And while Marital Rape is still not a crime in India, women can take recourse under Domestic Violence Act of 2005, as it covers not just physical but also emotional and sexual violence.
5. Right to Free Legal Advice
In accordance with the fundamental rights as laid down in the Constitution of India, the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, states that a woman (or a child), is entitled to avail free legal aid and services during the conduct of a case and trial in any court, tribunal or authority. The scope of free legal aid includes not just the right to an advocate for legal representation but also all fees, charges and payments for provision of legal services, documentation, and other legal proceedings.
6. Right to Medical Termination of Pregnancy
While termination of pregnancy on the basis of sex determination (female foeticide) is a criminal offence, terminating a pregnancy under humanitarian and medical grounds is a legally permissible. The termination of pregnancy can be done by registered medical practitioners only and only under strict regulations as laid down by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. This law covers pregnancies resulting from rape, failure of contraceptive measures or those pregnancies that can pose a threat to the mother’s or child’s physical and mental health.
7. Right to Maintenance
As per the Indian legislation, women of every religion are protected and provided for in the event of Divorce.
Apart from the Hindu Marriage Act of 1951, which is widely known, The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, The Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872, and The Muslim Women Act 1986 state and lay down laws and legal rights as per the customs and practices and religious texts of the respective religion.
The Muslim Women Act, while extremely detrimental and discriminatory, as it denied Muslim women their right to alimony for more than 90 days after the divorce (period of iddat), was overturned and nullified in later judgements. Also, the earlier limit of Rs. 500/- as monthly payment has since been revoked. The loose terms within the Act have since been interpreted broadly and liberally by Courts to ensure fair and just provisions for the divorced women.
Additionally, there are various scenarios (like live-in relationship, fraudulent marriages) in which a woman is entitled to maintenance.
So now that you know some of the laws that protect us in various situations, please spread the word. Educate the illiterate and uneducated women around you – the domestic help who does your dishes, or the housekeeping attendant at your office.
Note - None of the above laws are applicable to the State of Jammu and Kashmir which has its own laws.
Disclaimer – Above information is only for the purpose of creating and spreading awareness regarding the rights and laws relating to women and is by no means to be understood as legal advice in its entirety.