Courts and Women’s Rights in India in 2015

September 9, 2015

This is a post authored by Sandeep Suresh


The Supreme Court has been predominantly lauded in 2015 for its far-reaching judgment in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India that expansively interpreted the freedom of speech. But we must not forget that the Supreme Court and some of the High Courts have rendered a few prominent judgments that have upheld women’s rights significantly in 2015.


In July, the Supreme Court delivered a progressive judgment in ABC v. State (NCT of Delhi) on an issue relating to child guardianship. In this matter, an unwed Christian mother had applied for the sole guardianship of her son, whom she has been raising solely without any involvement of his father. The Guardian Court rejected her application filed under section 7 of the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 on the ground that a notice had to be sent to the father for his consent as per Section 11. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that unwed mothers could be made the sole guardian of a child without disclosing the father’s details or his consent. In cases where the sole caregiver of a child is one of the parents, the Court held, the term ‘parent’ in Section 11 would mean that parent alone and hence, notice need not be sent to a father who has been uninvolved in the upbringing of a child. The Court relied on the best interest of the child and held that such procedural requirement should be done away with. Justice Vikramajit Sen held that “In today’s society, where women are increasingly choosing to raise their children alone, we see no purpose in imposing an unwilling and unconcerned father on an otherwise viable family nucleus”. Another significant aspect of this judgment is the need raised by the Court for implementing a Uniform Civil Code in India. The Court lamented that while Hindu and Muslim women are given primacy as natural guardians of illegitimate children under their respective personal laws, unwed Christian women are still disadvantaged in India.


In April, the Supreme Court dealt with an issue of the validity of marriages in Dhannulal and Ors. v. Ganesh Ram & Anr. The significance of this decision lies in its ruling that there is a presumption in favour of a valid marriage when a man and woman have cohabited continuously for a long time. In this matter, the woman had been living with a man like his wife for around 20 years until his death in the same house with the respondent-relatives who alleged that she was only a mistress and not the legally wedded wife.


This year, the Supreme Court also dealt with a significant issue relating to the implementation of victim compensation schemes. In Laxmi v. Union of India the Supreme Court issued several directions for the protection of acid attack victims such as minimum 3 Lakh Rupees compensation for victims, adequate publicity of victim compensation schemes, private hospitals must not refuse treatment to victims, and full treatment must include medicines, food, bedding, and reconstructive surgeries.


With regard to the determination of rape cases, in State of Madhya Pradesh v. Madan Lal, the Supreme Court once again clarified that rape cases cannot be compromised or mediated, as rape is a non-compoundable offense. The Court held that compromise in rape cases would be against the victim’s honor and dignity, which are sacrosanct. This judgment has also been critiqued substantially for the patriarchal language and references to women made by the Court.


Apart from these Supreme Court judgments, the Kerala High Court also affirmed women’s rights in the context of maternity benefits. In P Geetha v. Kerala Livestock Development Board Ltd, the petitioner, who became a mother through a surrogate procedure, was not granted maternity leave by the Respondents on the ground that birth of the child was not under normal circumstances. The High Court held that while granting maternity leave, women could not be discriminated against merely because the baby was obtained through surrogacy.


These affirmative judgments definitely give us a positive expectation that in the second half of the year, the Courts will deliver more progressive judgments for women’s rights.