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Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am happy to inaugurate the National Conference of Lady Lawyers and Lady Teachers on Justice for Women. I am particularly happy to be amidst you all, as it reinforces my linkage with the legal profession. I congratulate the Vidya Prasharak Mandal for their laudable effort in providing a platform to so many trained legal minds in charting out a roadmap for a more gender sensitive and responsive judicial system.

Equality and justice for women was envisioned by the leaders of our freedom movement as part and parcel of the larger movement for social and political liberation. Mahatma Gandhi opined, "I am uncompromising in the matter of women's rights. In my opinion, she should labour under no legal difficulty not suffered by men. They can no longer be treated as dolls or slaves without the social body remaining in a condition of social paralysis."

The founding fathers of our Constitution through the instrumentalities of Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles laid the foundation for a gender-just society. Later, the Constitution was amended making it a Fundamental Duty to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.

Post-Independence, the pro-women leanings in our constitutional philosophy inspired the enactment of welfare legislations, which sought to end exploitative practices which reinforced the subordinate status of women in society. To mention some noteworthy legislations we have the SITA Act; the Special Marriage Act; the Dowry Prohibition Act; the Sati Prevention Act, the Maternity Benefit Act; the Factories Act; the Equal Remuneration Act; the Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act, 1986 and provisions in the IPC to deal with obscenity etc.

The recently enacted Domestic Violence Act, 2005 addresses the right of women to live in a domestic atmosphere not violative of woman's dignity. The Hindu Succession Amendment Act deleted the gender discriminatory clause to rectify the gender imbalance in inheritance rights. The path-breaking 73rd and 74th Amendments by providing ensured representation for women in urban and rural local bodies have enabled public decision-making by the hitherto marginalized and suppressed humanity of women in India.

Rules of evidence and procedure have also been moulded to lean in favour of women in issues like property ownership, inheritance, succession, marriage and divorce, maintenance, guardianship, custody and adoption.

Today, our women are competing on an equal footing with men. Their exclusion from professions hitherto viewed as male preserves have become relics of the past. With their talent, acumen, intellect, skill and capacity for hard work, Indian women have gained prominence as legal practitioners whether in the Bench or the Bar. The presence of so many women lawyers amidst us here is adequate testimony. It is equally heartening to note the presence of young lady lawyers, since junior members in any profession constitute the core and strength of their profession, as they are the giants of tomorrow. It is a matter of pride that in India, law schools are welcoming girls with open arms and they are joining with undiluted zeal. That women are coming forward in large numbers and effectively discharging their roles as responsible citizens of the country is immensely satisfying.

We have come a long way since the epoch making event in 1921, when Cornellia Sorabjee was the first Indian lady to be admitted to the Bar. I understand that out of around 609 Judges actually positioned in various High Courts, 44 are women and one High Court is presently headed by a woman. We had 3 women judges in the Supreme Court in the past. Clothed in the finest traditions of jurisprudence, our women lawyers have proved themselves to be able partners in the justice delivery system. As the entire womanhood sees what a critical mass of woman can do, there will be more women actively stepping out and doing things. Of course there is still a pressing need for scaling up the presence of woman judges and law officers at all levels and I hope that problems coming in the way will find quick solutions.

Now, speaking about gender justice, the question before us is whether the stand-alone presence of the wide-ranging laws in our legal landscape can sufficiently ensure gender-justice. All of us here will agree that law is only one of the many methods through which gender justice can be guaranteed and has its own share of limitations in stamping out subordination and suppression of women in absolute terms. To ensure that the promise of law is translated into actual practice, civil society groups especially lawyers must be vigilant that the provisions of law are implemented effectively and fairly with the right modicum of sensitivity towards women. The intent of some laws have suffered because of poor and faulty implementation. The Pre- Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act is a living example. Enacted in 1996, it saw the first conviction in 2006 after 10 long years. Such disturbing revelations need prompt remedy.

Another disquieting trend has been that women themselves have not been innocent of abusing women. At times women have played an unsavory, catalytic role in perpetrating violence whether against the daughter-in-law, the mother-in-law or female domestic helps. Instances exist whereby protective legal provisions for the benefit of women have been subjected to distortion and misuse to wreak petty vengeance and to settle scores. Some surveys have concluded that 6 to 10 percent of dowry complaints are false and were registered primarily to settle scores. It is unfortunate if laws meant to protect women get abused as instruments of oppression. The bottom-line therefore, is the fair invocation of legal provisions and their objective and honest implementation.

For a large majority of Indian women, suffering is often silent and invisible. Hence, for gender-equity laws to make real sense, the victims must be made aware that they are victims and that there is a law to stop such suffering and punish the guilty. This journey, which connects the real edifice of law and legal structures to the lives of marginalized women, is to my mind the most daunting challenge. Women must be made aware that the legal landscape is a constructive negotiating tool to enrich their lives. We have to reach out to the mass of women and convince them that the legal domain which appears distant, intimidating and imposing, is not so but is actually designed to help them. Aggrieved women often find greater solace, comfort, ease and confidence in seeking redressal through women lawyers. This impels the need for more and more women to join the legal profession.

I would like to particularly draw your attention to the phenomena of female foeticide, one of the most pernicious and inhuman forms of crime. It is incumbent on us to focus our collective energy on how women can take the lead through positive decision-making for achieving socially desirable parameters.

Discrimination against women cuts across boundaries of religions, culture and income groups. The pattern and forms of neglect may vary, but the motive is to willy-nilly maintain male hegemony at the cost of disempowering women. Women make up half of the population and have a right to be included and respected in all important decisions which affect not only their lives but also affairs involving national interests. It is therefore important for collective platforms like this to explore how best to reshape the attitudes and perceptions of our youth to advocate gender relationship based on equal respect, free from the shackles imposed by traditional custom, belief and practice.

The importance of the workplace is no less significant. Women have battled many a traditional prejudice to emerge in leadership positions in the professional world. Yet in terms of numerical strength, women are disadvantageously placed. The iniquitous power relationship between men and women have to be analyzed and critiqued within civil society to impart the right meaning and right spirit to the concept of gender justice. More pro-active efforts are required to create a gender-neutral work place. Positive change in the mindset of both men and women for this purpose is therefore an imperative necessity.

Let me put in a word of caution and sage counsel. Empowerment does not mean setting women against men. Gender injustice cannot and should not be perceived as war or rivalry between the two sexes. It means making both men and women realize the changing roles and status of the two sexes and develop a consensus for harmonious living and mutual dependence in the context of an egalitarian society.

As members of the Bar, I urge you all to recognize practices and principles of justice, equity and good conscience. Lawyers are the trustees of justice and the custodian of law for us all. The legal profession is an ancient and an honorable profession and is respected as a privileged vocation. With privilege comes the onerous responsibility of using law to further the cause of social good and to better the lives of all so as to uphold the majesty of law in all its magnificence. I would like to exhort the community of women lawyers to devote time and energy to start legal-aid clinics to secure legal services not only for women, but for all those people who are helpless, deprived and despondent.

The need of the hour for my women lawyer friends gathered here is to drive positive reform and quality in the profession, secure the progress of the nation, help in building up a just and benevolent society, render the greatest good for the greatest numbers and especially for the deprived and the indigent in the largest measure. This should be the ultimate aim and obligation of each lawyer here. As women lawyers, you will get countless opportunities, where by your professional commitment, you can keep injustice at the periphery and make justice the core of this country's soul. Let your actions be guided by how you wish history to chronicle your success. I look forward to the downtrodden women of the country being beneficiaries of your dedication.

Thank You.


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