Landmark judgments protecting women’s rights


The Indian judiciary has played a crucial role in framing and interpreting laws that uphold women`s rights and dignity in India, resulting in several landmark judgments, writes Nivedita Pal.

The Indian judiciary has played a crucial role in framing and interpreting the law to uphold women`s rights and dignity in India, resulting in several landmark judgments, writes Nivedita Pal.

The Indian judiciary comprising the High Courts of the states and the Apex Court i.e. the Supreme Court have, time and again, delivered judgments and orders that uphold the rights and dignity of women in the country. The progressive judgments delivered by these courts, since Independence, have helped and, sometimes, persuaded the Indian executive and the legislature to frame laws to uphold women`s rights.

India is one of the few countries in the world with maximum number of laws that protect women and empower them. The Indian Constitution, through the Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and the Directive Principles guarantees equal rights to all citizens. In fact, there are several provisions in the Constitution that embody the spirit of gender equality and lay the ground for framing policies, mechanisms, safeguards and programmes for protection and, more importantly, empowerment of women in the country.

The Indian Constitution upholds women’s rights through right to equality, right to life with dignity and right to freedom from discrimination. In addition, there are several laws that ensure protection of women rights and dignity.

When a judicial body delivers an order, that order becomes binding on the parties, that in such cases are often the state or the central government. In this manner, the judiciary plays a crucial role in interpreting the law to uphold women’s rights, providing a lawful impetus to the law-making bodies in framing laws that protect women and setting precedents for lower courts and guiding them to deliver such judgments.

There are countless judgments that have positively influenced the women rights movement in India and upheld the constitutional rights affecting different spheres of a woman’s life.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013

One of the most important cases that provided for safety of women from sexual harassment at workplace was the Vishakha and others v/s State of Rajasthan case. Bhanwari Devi, a social worker (saathin) in Rajasthan was working with a state government programme to prevent child marriages. At one such instance, she tried unsuccessfully to protest against and stop a child marriage of a one-year-old infant. The family head, Ramakant Gujjar in a bid to seek revenge for the humiliation, raped Bhanwari Devi with five of his men in front of her husband. The lower courts acquitted all the accused.

Consequentially, Vishakha (group for women’s education and research) along with four other women organisations filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on the issue of sexual harassment of women at workplace and the absence of any protection — to enforce Fundamental Rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. In 1997, the court ordered framing of such guidelines as ‘Vishakha Guidelines’ to be practiced at workplaces by the employers. These guidelines eventually formed the basis of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 — an extremely important law to protect millions of Indian women who step out of their households to earn a living for their families.

The judgment laid down that it is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in workplaces or other institutions to prevent sexual harassment and furnish employees with mechanisms for effective resolution of such incidents. The Supreme Court also defined ‘Sexual Harassment’ for this purpose as disagreeable sexually determined behaviour direct or indirect as:
– physical contact and advances,
– a demand or request for sexual favours,
– sexually-coloured remarks,
– showing pornography,
– any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature

A landmark judgment on acid attacks

Another landmark case, Laxmi v/s Union Of India (2006) where an acid attack victim, Laxmi filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court praying for the betterment of the acid attack survivors, adequate compensation to the victim and measures to regulate the sale of acid. Laxmi was a minor when she was attacked by three men in New Delhi as she refused to marry a man named Naeem Khan. She faced severe physical and mental trauma.

The issues raised in the PIL were:
• Considerable amendment in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 and Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973 relating to acid attacks as there is no specific provision for the same;
• Complete ban on the sale of acid and its various forms and that such acids should not be available over the counter, as easy availability encourages such culprits;
• Prosecution of acid throwers as well as the rehabilitation of acid attack victim which included treatment as well as compensation, as the treatment and surgeries are very expensive

In 2013, the Supreme Court taking cognisance of the rise in cases of acid attacks on women, imposed strict regulations on the sale of acid, including ban on sale of acid over the counter and ban on sale of acid to a person below 18 years. Dealers can sell acid to a person only after furnishing of a valid identity proof and the need for the purchase. Also, it is mandatory for the dealer to submit the details of the sale within three days to the police.

Many other orders were passed by the court for providing guidelines for the betterment of the acid attack survivors and granting them justice. These include amendment in CrPC requiring the government to compensate the victim, amendment in IPC and inclusion of separate section specifically dealing with acid attacks, minimum compensation of Rs 3,00,000/- to be given to every acid attack victim, full and free medical treatment and assistance to be provided to the victim even by private hospitals and no hospital or clinic can refuse treatment.

Upholding the dignity of rape survivors

In Lillu v/s State Of Haryana (2013), for the first time the agony and trauma of a rape victim was realised who had to go through the two-finger test to give her character certification. On the basis of various precedents, the court held that the test is a violation of the victim’s right to privacy and dignity. The court held that rape survivors are entitled to legal recourse that does not re-traumatise them or violate their physical or mental integrity and dignity. They are also entitled to medical procedures conducted in a manner that respects their right to consent. Medical procedures should not be carried out in a manner that constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and health should be of paramount consideration while dealing with gender-based violence.

Other landmark judgments

Law is a reflection of society and with changing norms, the practices are also questioned in a court of law. In ABC v/s The State (NCT of Delhi) (2015) the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment held that an unwed mother belonging to the Christian faith is not bound to disclose the name of the child’s father. The unwed mother would have all the rights as a guardian to the child and need not take the father’s consent for guardianship rights.

A division bench held that living under the same roof, you are married under law in Dhannulal and ors v/s Ganeshram and Ors (2015). The bench held that continuous cohabitation of a couple together that is, ‘live-in relationship’ would raise the presumption of marriage unless otherwise proven. The case was that of a property dispute of a man who lived with a woman, not legally wedded wife, for 20 years and the bench held that she was eligible to inherit the property.

More recently, many petitions heard by the Apex Court questioned the Right to Freedom of Religion of women in India and religious practices. Here are a few landmark cases:
• In Shayara Bano v/s Union of India (2017), the Supreme Court declared the practice of Instant Triple Talaq (talak-e-biddat) un-Islamic and against the basic tenets of Quran. Shayara Bano had challenged the practice when her husband of 15 years invoked instant triple talaq. The court questioned the custom which is theologically sinful and why was it still part of the practice of a community. The court also directed the government to bring a legislation to this effect within six months.
• The government introduced the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act 2019:
– Any pronouncement of talaq by a Muslim husband upon his wife, by words, either spoken or written or in electronic form or in any other manner whatsoever, shall be void and illegal;
– Any Muslim husband who pronounces talaq upon his wife shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine.
• The Sabarimala Temple case is one of the most important cases that initiated the debate between Right to Equality and Right to Freedom of Religion.

The temple in Kerala – a shrine of Lord Ayyappa – had an age-old tradition of not allowing women of menstruating age to enter the premises. The practice was questioned in the court through a petition and in September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that women of all age groups can enter Sabarimala Temple. The court initially lifted the ban and termed it as a violation of women’s right to practice religion before going on to place it for review before a larger bench in November 2019.

The Apex Court said restrictions on women in religious places was not limited to Sabarimala alone and was prevalent in other religions as well. This was in reference to the review pleas for larger bench seeking review of its 2018 ruling that allowed menstruating women to enter the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

In January 2020, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) filed an affidavit in Supreme Court stating that entry of women in mosque is allowed as per Islam. However, it is not mandatory for women to join group prayers or congregational prayers as they can offer prayers at home too. This was in response to a petition filed by a Pune-based Muslim couple seeking to uphold the right of Muslim women to enter mosques freely and offer namaz.

Nivedita Pal

Nivedita Pal is a Kolkata-based law associate working on a Women Rights Project with – an initiative of DraftCraft International to protect and empower women by bringing on one platform the latest on rights and issues, strategic case studies, state initiatives and informed legal opinions.