IMPHAL, September 29: “Marginal communities like people living with HIV & AIDS, sex workers, transgenders and people who use drugs need to come out and seek legal aid whenever they feel the need to. You have to speak up so that we can serve you”, said W. Tonen Meitei, CJM and Secretary, District Legal Services Authority, Imphal East, while speaking at a district-level legal awareness workshop held in Imphal today.
Encouraging communities to make the most of free legal aid provided by the Manipur State Legal Services Authority (MASLSA), he said that many people out of self stigma and fear do not speak up and endure hardship and subjugation quietly. Responding to a query on lack of awareness among communities on legal aid, the CJM encouraged NGOs to approach MASLSA so that awareness programmes can be jointly organized.
Vulnerable communities like People who Use Drugs (PUD), People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV), Men who have Sex with Men (MSM), and Transgenders (TG) representing various community networks and groups and partner NGOs of the Manipur State AIDS Control Organisation (MACS) working in Imphal East took part in the interaction and shared their experiences. They narrated incidents of violation of their rights of inheritance, abuse from law enforcement personnel and sought justice.
Ksh Keshorjit Singh, Advocate & Para Legal Volunteer working at the Legal Aid Clinic, Uripok Cheirap Court Complex, said that since the clinic was set up in 2012, more than 500 cases have been registered and many of these involve rights abuse of people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS and transgenders.
“Our motive is not punishment but to facilitate both parties to mutually come to an agreement so that interests of both are taken care of”, he added.The workshop was jointly organized by the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), Imphal East, Manipur State AIDS Control Society and Centre for Advocacy and Research. Speaking at the workshop S.K. Victor, Consultant Mainstreaming, Manipur State AIDS Control Society, emphasized the need for a concerted effort, “All stakeholders need to work together so that vulnerable communities access legal aid without difficulty and their rights respected”.
Underlining difficulties faced by communities in accessing legal aid, Victor suggested identifying a programme staff in all partner NGOs to look after legal aid. A referral system can be developed so that whenever legal aid is needed within their area of operation it can be brought to the notice of the District Legal Services Authority, he suggested.
Meena (name changed), sharing her experiences of accessing legal aid said that she heard about free legal aid when she joined Hope Care Network, a state-level network of women infected and affected by HIV & AIDS, in 2011. When her husband died in 2008, Meena was confident she would be able to look after her two children and decided not to ask for help from her husband’s first wife who got everything that was left by her husband.
“Initially, I thought I will take care of my children on my own but it was getting more and more difficult. Through the legal aid clinic I sought for 3,000 rupees out of the Rs 7,000 pension amount that she gets every month. Finally it was negotiated at 2,000 to be paid by fifteenth of every month”. Every month when the amount reaches the clinic, a Para Legal Volunteer would call Meena to collect it. “I am thankful to them (Para Legal Volunteers) for solving it amicably. I was afraid things would turn bad”.
Tonen said that MASLSA and DLSAs have been set up with an aim to protect the constitutional rights of all human beings, vulnerable communities in particular. They can approach MASLSA in Imphal or District Legal Services Authorities (DLSA) in districts concerned for grievance redressal. The government provides free legal aid services to the marginalized and vulnerable populations across the state. Apart from providing free legal aid, the organization will also strive for legal literacy among the needy.
Key recommendations emerging from the discussion include- identification of community representatives and programme staff to look after legal aid, bring to the notice of the Secretary, DLSA, Imphal East, any act of abuse or rights violation taking place in the district, give appropriate directives to the law enforcement and take cognizance of cases of violence faced by the marginalized communities, provide timely access to legal counseling for these marginalized communities through legal aid clinics, under the leadership of DLSA, Imphal East, train community representatives as Para Legal Volunteers to facilitate legal aid. Under MASLSA there are presently six Legal Aid Clinics in Manipur- LMS Law College, Imphal, Royal Academy of Law, Oinam, Chierap court complex, Imphal, Legal Aid Clinic, Malom, Legal Aid Clinic for Marginalised Communities at Palace Compound in Imphal East, and Legal Aid Clinic, Kakching.