The Importance of Women Lawyers’ Organizations in India

By: Priti Suri and Krishna Jhala

Women lawyers in India have come together to form organizations which play a vital role in society. These organizations are run with the intention of bringing about a change in society. While this article concentrates on four major women lawyers’ organizations, many more exist at various local levels along with a number of loosely held affiliations.

The Society of Women Lawyers-India (“SOWL”) came into existence in 2010, as a by- product of a handful of lawyers working in different capacities such as practitioners, sole proprietors, in- house counsels, partners of law firms from various parts of India joining hands to form a platform focusing on three main topics: increasing and exercising influence, building and strengthening client relationship and client practice, and achieving and maintaining balance. SOWL, although at a very nascent stage, lays prime emphasis on mentoring young professionals. It is the only organization of its kind in all North India, and has support from lawyers around the world. SOWL has various committees formed under it such as the legislative and policy committee that addresses issues related to employment equality, domestic violence at the workplace and protection against sexual harassment. SOWL has partnered with an international organization called i-Probono. The i-Probono initiative connects civil society and non-governmental organizations with legal support from volunteer lawyers. SOWL provides training and continuing legal education, hosts seminars and legal talks, and assists in legal policy and research analysis.

A recent example of SOWL’s contribution in legal policymaking came to light after the infamous Nirbhaya rape and homicide case (the “Delhi Gang Rape Case) that took place in the capital city in December 2012. The incident led to mass outrage not only in Delhi but in cities all across India at the inability or unwillingness of the police and government to charge and prosecute such crimes instead of brushing them under the rug. The incident led to SOWL conducted legal discussions among women lawyers on issues related to safety, protection of women and prevention of crime against women. As a result of these concerted legal discussions, SOWL provided recommendations for amendments in the various criminal laws of the country including the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. These recommendations have been incorporated in the Criminal Law Amendments Ordinance of 2013.

The All India Federation of Women Lawyers (“AIFWL”) is another organization of women lawyers. It was established in 2007 by Ms. Sheela Anish and operates out of Bangalore. AIFWL’s objective is to uphold and safeguard the constitutional rights of the citizens of India. It promotes the rights and welfare of children and women and has done commendable work in this field. It held a seminar in Chennai on the issue of the “girl child” creating awareness about the need to protect girls and their rights. AIFWL also jointly organized with National Commission of Women a seminar focusing on the “night shift of women workers” in Bangalore, where a large number of women are employed in call centers, business process outsourcing and IT Companies. The seminar highlighted difficulties faced by women working at night including the issues of harassment and exploitation at work. The constant efforts of AIFWL have found considerable support by many in Indian. AIFWL is affiliated with the International Federation of Women Lawyers and has thus has helped in bringing Indian women lawyers into an international forum.

Lawyers Collective (“LC”), headed by Ms. Indira Jaisingh, is an organization created to provide expert legal assistance to the underprivileged, especially women children and workers in the unorganized sector. Lawyers at LC are engaged in both professional and public interest work. LC has a program called the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative which aims at bringing about empowerment of women through law. It concentrates on issues of domestic violence, personal laws, and sexual harassment at work place, among others. The organization provides legal aid through this initiative. LC played an important role in the passing of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. It held campaigns and legal discussions addressing issues of domestic violence. LC has also worked in the arena of drug policies by making submissions on the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Bill which later became a part of the Standing Committee’s Report submitted to the Government of India. On the development of law on HIV, LC played a vital role by addressing issues such as nondiscrimination in employment, the right to marry, negligence in blood transfusions, and the like.

Majlis is another organization among women lawyers’ groups run. It is run by Flavia Agnes, based in Mumbai. It is a broad based pluralistic organization, engaging in both legal and cultural activities. It consists of lawyers and social activists. The founder members of Majlis have been a part of the women’s movement in India since 1980. Majlis Legal Centre is engaged in a comprehensive women’s rights programme and its initiatives include “Access to Justice for All Women,” where it ensures that the rights of women are protected by providing legal counseling, legal representation and innovative legal strategies. It helps in educating and disseminating information about laws and legal avenues available to women and makes sure that no discriminatory laws against women are passed. It initiates public interest litigation and policy level interventions. Majlis also has a project called “Fellowship to Women Lawyers in District courts of Maharashtra” which was started in 2003. It has so far awarded 100 fellowships to women and equips women lawyers with resources to defend their women clientele and implements legal interventions in rural and backward areas of Maharashtra.

While the work undertaken by these women lawyers’ organizations may not be voluminous in nature, they have definitely brought about remarkable change in their own sphere. These organizations address pressing issues in our society and provide relief to those affected. Members of these organizations work from different parts of the world with the aim of giving back to the community.

Priti Suri is the President and one of the founding members of SOWL-India. She is also the founder partner of PSA, a corporate business law firm. Her areas of expertise are corporate, commercial law, cross-border transactions and M&A. Priti is also a Co-Chair of the India Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section for International Law. She may be contacted at p.suri@psalegal.com.

Krishna Jhala is an associate at PSA. Her areas of practice include technology, media and telecommunications, general corporate and defence. She may be contacted at k.jhala@psalegal.com.

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