City's K. Sumathi was selected to the International Visitors Leadership Programme of the U.S. Department of Justice

Not so long ago, in a land not so far away, there were very few women criminal lawyers. “And not just in colleges! If you wanted to join an office, you'd to go all the way to Delhi or Mumbai,” says K. Sumathi, who stood in that minority, a little more than two decades ago. “But, the stipends in Delhi were so low that I'd have to work as a cook in the guesthouse where I was staying — wake up at 4.30 a.m. and cook, return from the office and cook.” In return, she would get one square meal a day.

But then, the clouds cleared a little, and she was called to an office in Chennai. She couldn't have timed it better — they were defending the notorious serial killer Auto Shanker, and members of PLOT accused of murder. “Invaluable learning for a newcomer,” she says. And that was the beginning.

The unfair advantage

Sumathi has just returned from the U.S., — she was one of the two women from India selected to the International Visitors Leadership Programme of the U.S. Department of Justice. “In our criminal jurisprudence, the State pairs the victim with a prosecutor, while the accused gets to pick the lawyer of his choice.”

If you choose to file a private complaint instead, you lose the infrastructure of the State, such as help from the police.” There must be an option to hire the prosecution of your choice. “Otherwise,” she says, “you're giving the accused an unfair advantage.”

Sumathi has been fighting for gender justice too. She talks about 10-year-old Nujood Ali, who walked into a Court in Yemen in 2008, demanding divorce from her 34-year-old husband, who had been raping her since the wedding. She went on to write her memoirs I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. “An immense display of courage and awareness. Here we tell our children so little, deeming it unsuitable. They must know, and grow up knowing what it is like to be underprivileged,” she says.

“A legal system does not end at the gates of the court. It extends into every aspect of our lives. It needs to be sensitive enough to handle that.” But, she says, it is not just the system that needs to change. “I have heard counsellors speaking to victims of domestic violence — ‘It was only a slap or two, no? After all, he's your husband'. Or, the way they dismiss marital rape,” she says.

“There are so many maintenance cases stuck in court. These cases will drag on for years.” And, since many women cannot support themselves in this period, most opt out of litigation. “You shouldn't be taking a decision such as that because you don't have the wherewithal to live.”

A powerful idea

She has an idea. “A website that compiles the names and qualifications of these women, and then invite people to hire them. As teachers, secretaries, or wherever they might be needed. If they're not graduates, they can look after children in houses with working parents. I might prefer a woman chauffeur driving my children to school.” The idea has been met with much enthusiasm, but she's categorical. “I don't want to be told it's a great idea. I want action.”