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Kochi, 28th December, 2009


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am happy to inaugurate the National Conference of the All India Federation of Women Lawyers. It is significant that this event is being held in Kerala, a State which has to its credit women who have made remarkable achievements in the legal field. Dr. Anna Chandy, the first woman High Court Judge in India was from Kerala. Justice Fathima Beevi, the first woman Judge of the Supreme Court of India was also from Kerala. I am, therefore, happy to be speaking at a Women Lawyers' Conference here. Moreover, the social indicators of Kerala are also impressive. It is a State where the female population is over 51 percent and the literacy rate of females is 88 percent, the highest in India. However, I am surprised to learn that in spite of this alcoholism is rampant and women are the worst sufferers. Similarly, I am told that the dowry system persists and continues to be a major problem here.

The Preamble to the Constitution of India resolves to secure to all its citizens justice - social, economic and political. When we look back, we can derive some satisfaction about advancements made in the field of gender issues since independence. The roadmap for a gender responsive approach finds its genesis in our freedom movement in which women and men both participated shoulder to shoulder in the fight to remove the colonial yoke. Later, in the Constituent Assembly debates, the concept of equality irrespective of gender, found resonance. Fundamental Rights in our Constitution give to all citizens - equal rights and equal opportunities. The women of India got the right to vote from the very beginning of the adoption of the Constitution of India. I have often remarked that this was a laudable step because in many other countries women had to strive hard to get voting rights.

Post-independence, the pro-women leanings in our constitutional philosophy inspired the enactment of women welfare legislations. Noteworthy legislation include the Special Marriage Act; the Dowry Prohibition Act; the Maternity Benefit Act; the Factories Act; the Equal Remuneration Act; the Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act, 1986 and more recently, the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

Over these years, these laws have been helpful in enabling women to come forward in the various activities of the nation. The increasing presence of women in employment, social and economic activities, as well as in public life is a proof that the constitutional doctrines of equality and equal opportunity are at work. However, I hope that more women will join professions, including the legal profession and the judiciary. There are many challenges that remain, in particular the social biases and social malpractices which continue to impede progress towards the goal of gender equality.

While the relevance of laws in bringing about social change is important, we also know that enacting legislations only is not enough. There needs to be awareness about the remedies available and the procedures to be followed. Information needs to be disseminated about laws, their applicability and the forums to be approached for the redressal of the infringement of rights. There is need to raise the levels of "legal literacy" in the country. Hence, Non Governmental Organizations and legal societies like yours should undertake awareness campaigns to make people, including women aware of their legal rights and obligations under the law.

Social justice, a concept fundamental for building an equitable society, in the legal world is intricately linked with the means and ability of all its citizens including the poor to approach a legal institution for remedial action. Access to justice, in fact, can be described as the cornerstone of a responsive judicial system. The importance of simple procedures cannot be over-emphasized in this regard. Legal reforms should address procedural aspects so that justice delivery mechanisms can be easily understood by the people at large. The system can be made more transparent, effective and people-oriented. Innovative mechanisms are required to reduce delays in legal proceedings. This could include revising many of our legal codes and laws which are old and outdated as well as strengthening the institutional aspects of the Judiciary.

Another factor impinging on the decision to opt for a legal remedy is the cost of access to justice due to court fees and lawyers' high fees. Affordability of legal services is an issue on which there should be constant focus in legal circles so that the right for judicial opportunity is not compromised due to high costs. To take care of situations where costs must not constitute a barrier to seek justice, Article 39A of the Constitution calls for free legal aid to those who cannot access justice due to economic or other disabilities. Access to quick, inclusive and quality justice is the key to achieve this objective. Government has taken several steps to make free legal service available for the poor, the disadvantaged and others who fulfill the eligibility criteria. Legal Services Authorities at the National, State and District levels have been set up. Legal Aid Cells require full support of the legal fraternity. I would like to exhort the community of women lawyers to devote some of their time and energy to contribute to these efforts to secure legal services for women and for all those people who are vulnerable and poor and, thus, set an example in this regard.

Judicial officers and, indeed, law enforcement authorities should be given necessary training to sensitize them so that while dealing with cases of violence, harassment and discrimination against women, they should ensure speedy justice. Training programmes for members of the judiciary, administration and police must include courses on how to deal with gender issues. The message should register in society that those violating the dignity and rights of women will be dealt with immediately. This can act as a deterrent for offenders.

We are living in challenging times when tremendous changes are taking place around the world. Legal systems have to cope with the impact of 21st Century changes, particularly Information Technology which can be used for delivering justice in a quicker and transparent manner. At the same time, we have to be aware about the possible misuse of such technologies. There is a rise in cyber crime where the "hackers and attackers" are collecting critical and sensitive information and, thus, acquiring the capacity to harass people. I am glad that the Conference will be discussing cyber crimes relating to women and children which is a serious matter.

Belonging to the legal fraternity, I have great respect for the legal field. We have produced some of the most brilliant lawyers and judges who have helped in the interpretation of law and its implication in diverse fields. My experience tells me that the best path for lawyers is to follow in the footsteps of Gandhiji and realize that the true function of the lawyer is to "unite the parties riven asunder". Lawyers need to examine when to use litigation to resolve disputes and when to resort to mediation. This will enhance the name and reputation of the lawyer as a peacemaker. The legal profession also requires strict confidentiality and you must honour this code.

The legal profession is an ancient and an honorable profession. Lawyers work among people and can influence social attitudes. There are social evils like child marriage, female foeticide, female infanticide and dowry, which need to be addressed. I am also concerned about the debilitating effect on individuals, families and societies of alcoholism and drug addiction. I particularly call upon women and the youth of the country to take up the challenge to eliminate these social evils and work towards changing social attitudes and social mindsets. I believe that women have great potential to bring about change in society and that is why I am asking them to take the lead. This will bring peace, prosperity and a sense of well-being in society. Moreover, I also urge women to exert themselves to build compassionate and tolerant societies. There is much strife and violence in the world. We need to move away from confrontational attitudes to living together in harmony. Even as women fight for their rights, they should be aware that the fight is not about women versus men. It is about changing social attitudes and understanding that women and men have a complementary and supplementary role to play in building their future together and, therefore, to work jointly to help each other to lead better lives.

With these words, I inaugurate the Conference and wish it every success. I wish all of you a very happy New Year.

Thank you.

Jai Hind.

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