Case studies

Tackling domestic violence

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Sheela and her disabled son were verbally and physically abused by members of her husband’s family, forcing her to move back to her parents’ home. This placed her family under immense financial pressure. However, supported by PACS and partner Nidan, Sheela found employment and a carer for her son and has filed lawsuits under the Domestic Violence Act and the Dowry Act at a family court. 

Sheela's father (right) took her in when she wsa abandoned by her husband.

Forced out of her home

With a cheerful expression, Sheela walks through the narrow lanes of Naya Tola, Ward Number 36 – an urban slum in Katihar district of Bihar, in eastern India. She is 25 years old, and lives with her four year-old son, father, mother, and younger sister. Looking at her now, it’s hard to believe she has endured so much suffering.

Sheela’s troubles began the day she married Jitendra Sah in 2009. From the outset, her husband’s family sneered at her, calling her plump and ugly. When Sheela became pregnant, she was brought back to her mother’s home in accordance with local tradition. In 2011, she gave birth to a baby boy, but the baby had physical disabilities. On hearing this, Sheela’s in-laws did not visit her or the baby, fearing the child’s healthcare would cost them money. Sheela asks in anguish: ‘Is it a sin to give birth to a disabled child? He is God’s gift to me. I am happy to accept him wholeheartedly. But my husband’s family was hostile.’

After a few months, Sheela returned to her in-laws’ home in Begusarai with her young son. One day, when he fell ill, she went to consult a paediatrician. The doctor prescribed some medicines and advised her to take the baby to Patna for a brain scan as he was showing signs of ‘mental retardation’. 

From then on, Sheela’s in-laws began to treat her cruelly. ‘After returning home, they started fighting with me about unnecessary things,’ she explains. ‘I was too young and didn’t know their intentions. They used to talk behind my back. They somehow wanted me out of their house, because as long as I was there they would have to pay for my son’s medicine. They used to starve me, beat me and even deny milk to my son. I had to ask my mother to send me milk powder. They were also searching for another bride for their son. I didn’t know about this.’

Standing up to abuse

This treatment continued for days. Sheela’s mother-in-law would lock the kitchen and store room so Sheela couldn’t take any food. Looking at the condition of her son, Sheela decided they had suffered enough. She felt it was better to return to Katihar and stay with her parents than to stay and put her son’s health at risk. Her husband dropped her off and told her that he would return in 10 days. But he didn’t return. 

These were the most painful days for Sheela. Seeing her 60 year-old mother selling bangles in the market to take care of the entire family was more than she could bear. It was around this time that PACS’ partner Nidan began to work in Sheela’s ward, mobilising women to form neighbourhood groups (NGH) to avail themselves of the benefits of government schemes. Sheela joined an NHG and began to attend meetings. She became a regular visitor at Nidan, and gradually found the courage to share her story with the staff there. 

Sheela walks to the school where she now works.

Legal action

Nidan’s representatives took Sheela to the mahila thana (women’s police station) to file a first information report. Sheela recalls: ‘When I went to the mahila thana, I was told the legal suit against my husband and in-laws could be filed only from Begusarai as it was not under their jurisdiction.’ She was directed to the District Social Security Unit in Katihar, which conducted a detailed inquiry into her case. They found that Sheela’s in-laws had withheld her dowry (valuables amounting to Rs. 200,000) and had forced her out the house. Nidan’s legal clinic studied her case and provided guidance on filing a domestic violence lawsuit at the district court. Sheela submitted a petition to the District Legal Services Authority in Katihar demanding compensation from her husband. 

In accordance with procedure, Sheela attended court for hearings. But the process did not go smoothly. She explains: ‘I was tired of going to the court as, in spite of sending notices, my in-laws never turned up on the stipulated date. When all hope was lost, I met advocate Renu from the family court with whom I shared my problems. She said she would help me. Today, she is handling my case free of charge.’ 

Sheela has filed three lawsuits under the Domestic Violence Act and one under the Dowry Act at the family court. She says with confidence: ‘Presently, the court has found merits in the Dowry Act case I have filed. Notice will be sent to my in-laws. If they do not turn up then warrants will be issued in their names. The case is against all of them – nine people, including my husband.’

Sheela (third from right) at the Nidan office.

Empowering women

According to Sheela, Nidan has changed her life in many ways. It has been her guide and mentor in legal matters and has helped her escape poverty by finding her a permanent source of income. ‘Nidan helped me secure a job at a private school in Katihar. I began with teaching nursery kids, but now I have been promoted to primary school teacher. I am earning Rs. 3,000 as salary,’ she reports proudly. Nidaan has also assisted her in finding her a carer for her disabled son. 

Sheela has a message for other women who are being victimised in their own households: ‘Never feel defeated in your life,’ she urges. ‘You have to face all challenges, struggles and move on in life. When God gives pain, he also shows us a way out of it.’

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