Majlis Law provides legal support to women, has built a support system for victims of rape, and is deeply involved in bringing about a positive change in the community’s and the legal system’s attitudes toward women
Majlis Law (Majlis) is known only as a legal aid group, perhaps because of its well-known founder-director Flavia Agnes, but its operations are diverse. Besides offering legal services, Majlis has been trying to effect serious social change—it is committed to empowering women by informing them about their rights, conducting legal awareness programmes for women’s groups across Mumbai, engaging in policy interventions and public campaigns, creating support systems for rape victims and publishing books and articles on women’s issues.
The organisation was started in 1991, by Flavia Agnes, herself once a victim of domestic violence, and other activists. Majlis has an in-house team of 25, mostly lawyers, at its office in Kalina. The small team belies the number of cases it has fought over the years. Audrey D’mello, the programme director of Majlis, pegs the number at 50,000. She says, “Since 2000, we had started a fellowship programme. We identify women lawyers from all over Maharashtra and give them a five-day course on women’s rights. In most years, we had 100 participants, 10 of whom we hired at a stipend of Rs5,000 for a year. The programme ended in 2008, for lack of funding, but we still have a loose women’s lawyer network of about 120. Collectively, this network has fought about 50,000 cases.”
Despite being an NGO, Ms D’mello says that Majlis doesn’t provide only free legal aid. She says, “Nearly all our activities, and 80% of the cases we take up, are funded. Ours is a ‘pay-as-much-as-you-can’ organisation. After all, many of our clients are high-profile, well-to-do women who come to us simply because they know they can trust us. You need to understand that women in all walks of life can be in violent marriages. This isn’t an Indian phenomenon either. Women the world over are often unaware of their rights. Or they just want to find a way to save their marriage. So they need counselling, which is usually not the best approach because it is not enforceable unless it is the ruling of a court.”
But Majlis doesn’t believe that fighting case after case is the answer. This is where its other initiatives come in. “There’s a limit to the number of cases you can fight. This is why we believe it is also necessary to devote resources to bringing about social change. So, for example, we give talks and organise interactive programmes in colleges in Mumbai. We continuously write articles and books, to highlight procedural and technical shortcomings in the legal system and the police. We try to effect policy-level changes and modify existing laws. Also, instead of simply hosting discussions, we now train social service organisations around Mumbai. We organise lectures on women’s rights and teach them how to build evidence, so that correct information is spread within communities. We also help victims of rape by putting them in touch with groups that can provide them the support system they need at that time.”
Since its inception, Majlis has had an all-women team, which draws criticism from certain sections. To them, Ms D’mello says, “What we’re trying to do is create opportunities for women so that they, and those they are connected to, can be convinced that it is possible to work and manage families. It isn’t easy working with women. They need leave to look after their parents, children and husband.”
Majlis is constantly looking to raise funds to support its lawyers and to ensure that its services remain free. It costs Rs12,000 to support a litigant for one year and Rs1.2 lakh to support a lawyer for a year. Donations qualify for tax deduction under Section 80G of the Income-Tax Act.
A 2/4 Golden Valley, Kalina,
Phone: 91-22-26662394 / 26661252
Email: [email protected]
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