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Shireen Mistri, [LLB, 2nd year, Government Law College, Mumbai]

Every nation has a legal system through which its citizens are granted rights and privileges. In India, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Designed to uphold ideals of justice, liberty and equality, it guarantees its people a life free from oppression, and every law enacted must be in accordance with it. Building an effective legal system rests first on enacting suitable laws that are in the interest of the people, and second, on ensuring that they are effectually enforced. There is a notion that law enforcement is limited to a small group comprising the police, lawyers and judges. In reality, however, it begins with each individual and is contingent on the legal awareness of citizens. Legal awareness means consciousness of legal culture, awareness of one’s rights, and an understanding of how to actualize them. Last year, the National Legal Services Authority launched an initiative with the overarching objective of educating women about the rights available to them and the means of securing them. It has been said that injustice lies in the lack of awareness, making awareness initiatives a sine qua non for an effective legal system. To this end, and to empower women through legal education, here are four laws that every woman in India should be aware of. 1. Right to Maternity Benefits In 2017, India amended its maternity laws, surpassing several countries with regard to maternity benefits offered to working mothers. Benefits for pregnant women, both before and after birth are governed by the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961. Every woman that is subject to this Act is entitled to the payment of a maternity benefit during her period of absence from work which includes time before, during and after delivery, up to 26 weeks [1]. The Act also guarantees women leave with wages for a miscarriage or medical termination of pregnancy [2], and leave with wages for illness arising out of pregnancy [3].

2. Right to Equal Pay and Opportunity According to a recently published salary index, women in India earn 19% less than men [4], demonstrating a high gender pay gap. However, this is only half the picture. In the unorganized sector, especially in agriculture and small-scale industries, women are habitually paid significantly less than men. The gender pay gap is a consequence of complicated socioeconomic barriers and structural deficiencies. Article 39 (d) of our Constitution proclaims equal pay for equal work for both men and women to be a Directive Principle of State Policy. The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 emphasises equal pay for men and women performing the ‘same work or work of a similar nature [5]. The Act goes a step further and prohibits an employer from reducing the rate of remuneration of any worker to achieve equilibrium [6].

The Code on Wages, 2019, recently notified, consolidates and replaces four central labour laws relating to wages and bonuses. Section 3 of the Code on Wages prohibits discrimination on the ground of gender in matters relating to wages in respect of the same work or work of a similar nature done by an employee and also prohibits discrimination on the ground of gender while recruiting an employee. 3. Right against Domestic Violence Domestic abuse was the highest reported crime against women in India in 2019 [7]. National Family Health Survey data suggests that over 30% of women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their husbands at some point in their lives [8]. Despite its wide prevalence, instances of domestic violence often go unreported. For some, acknowledging domestic violence and seeking relief means accepting the breakdown of a very personal relationship. Others are unaware of the relief available and therefore think that there is no alternative to staying in a toxic and abusive relationship. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 was enacted to safeguard women and empower victims to seek justice and relief. The Act defines domestic violence to include mental or physical harm or injury caused by a domestic relation [9]. A domestic relationship has been defined such that protection is accorded not only to married women, but to anyone who is living or has lived in a shared household, related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family [10]. Under this Act, a victim can approach either a police officer, protection officer, service provider or magistrate and file a domestic violence complaint [11]. Simultaneously, a victim can apply for relief which could include a protection order, monetary relief, custody order, residence order or compensation order [12]. A victim can also avail of shelter homes [13], medical facilities [14], counselling [15], and free legal services under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. Additionally, a victim of domestic violence has the right to file a criminal complaint under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 whereby, an offender shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term that may extend to three years.

4. Right to file zero FIR and right against arrest at night Nirbhaya’s case brought about several changes to our legal system, one of them being the zero FIR. Many a time, people are refused the right to file an FIR because of the place of the crime and jurisdiction. A zero FIR is an important provision that allows an individual to file an FIR in any police station, notwithstanding the area of jurisdiction or location of the crime. It does away with the inconvenience of finding the correct police station to lodge an FIR and the victim is spared from procedural troubles. Filing a zero FIR helps to initiate an investigation as quickly as possible, and ensures that there is no loss of evidence due to a lapse of time.

Finally, Indian law has provisions in place to safeguard women from harassment at the time of an arrest. According to Section 46 (4) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which governs the arrest of women, it is a woman’s right to be present at a police station only during the day. The aforementioned section specifically provides that save in exceptional circumstances, no woman can be arrested after sunset and before sunrise.

The aforementioned laws are the tip of the iceberg as far as laws enacted for the protection of women in India are concerned. Our legislation has embodied within itself provisions that impose the will of the people and safeguard women from oppression and injustice. However, such a plethora of laws is rendered half effective if they remain in oblivion. Awareness of one’s rights and the capacity to defend them is the weapon and shield that the law makes available to citizens against whom injustices are perpetrated. It is therefore imperative that Indian women take it upon themselves to get informed of their rights. It is the intent of this article to be a small step in that direction.

1 Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, Section, 5(1), 5(3) 2 Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, Section 9 3 Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, Section 10 4 Bhattacharyya, 2019 5 Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, Section 4 6 Ibid.

7 Dhawan, 2020 8 Chattopadhyay and Jacob, 2019 9 Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 3 10 Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 2 11 Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 5 12 Ibid. 13 Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 6 14 Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 7 15 Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Section 14

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