In the spartan office of the Koduvally Block Panchayat, Zainu leans forward on a makeshift table set amongst dusty stacks of files. She whispers to the two women lawyers sitting across that her estranged husband has threatened to kill her, but all she cares for is her six-year-old daughter.

Zainu is in thirties. Her eyes constantly shift from the lawyers across the desk to her daughter fiddling with her umbrella and skipping about the room. “Give us a number so we can contact you? Is there anyone you can turn to for help?” Ms. Jaison asks.

“Only my child... There is no one,” Ms. Zainu says, before she leaves the room with her six-year-old daughter holding the red umbrella.

Zainu’s was one of the two cases of domestic violence and assault the Women’s Legal Help Programme, a brain child of the block panchayat inaugurated by Home Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan last year, heard on Saturday.

Lawyers C.K. Zeenath and Mini Jaison form the legal team employed by the panchayat who take time from their law practices to drive down to Koduvally twice a month to meet distressed women and children, offering them legal aid for problems ranging from sexual assault to domestic violence.

“This is the only block panchayat in the State which hosts this independent programme to render legal aid and counselling for women and children,” K.K. Ali, Development Standing Committee chairperson of the block panchayat, said.

The programme works on a shoestring budget of Rs.50,000. Its jurisdiction is spread across the 11 gramapanchayats of the Koduvally block. There is no financial or resource aid given by the government or the legal services authority.

A year into the programme, Ms. Zeenath says they have been able to barely scrape the surface of crime against women and children.

“There is no dearth of crime against women; it is just that most do not reach us. Victims suffer in silence,” Ms. Jaison says.

Ms. Zeenath says even the legal team’s request to put flexboards at the local bus stand has met with no response. “For all this talk about women empowerment, this is actually a society where victims are not able to seek justice. A victim is usually insulted at a police station where she goes to lodge a complaint under a protective law,” she says. In many cases, the lawyers say, a timely phone call to the police station on their behalf is what many women want.

Complaints are received by the team either in person or over the phone. In the past one year, 27 out of a total 29 complaints have been settled. “There is this case of a family, a young widow and her three children. They are HIV positive. She always calls either of us on the phone but refuses to meet us,” Ms. Zeenath says.

Mr. Abdul Razzak, the block panchayat presidents, says plans are on to expand the team so that sittings can be organised in all the grama panchayats.

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