Creating Safe Spaces within Legal Settings
How Sukoon came about
MH centers in India typically operate from clinics in hospitals and other institutional spaces, which often makes approaching them difficult, given social stigma and financial capacity concerns – besides the under-acknowledged power of social structures like marriage to affect emotional wellbeing. Marriage is considered sacrosanct in Indian culture, overall, and its dissolution unthinkable. Most individuals and families approach marriage with this belief.
The Family Courts Act (1984) created a space for couples to find legal solutions to interpersonal issues,(1) establishing “Family Courts” to ensure rapid resolutions to marriage and family conflicts. It was a revolutionary Act because it recognized the culturally delicate nature of such issues, and the Family Courts were envisaged as spaces attuned to family needs. They were even set up in premises distinct from other civil and criminal courts.
While family courts across Maharashtra have state appointed marriage counsellor, the dominant discourses of gender, power, sexuality and marriage that underlie marital conflicts and violence against women(2) are not necessarily challenged within existing counseling services. Therefore, there was a need to establish counselling services in family courts to address marital conflicts and related distress from a psychosocial perspective, taking existing power dynamics on board.
These ideas helped us, in 2018, to establish Sukoon, a field action project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Sukoon provides free counseling services in legal settings – using a gender-sensitive, strengths-based, and intersectional feminist lens that foregrounds financial and geographical access to quality MH care. Sukoon is currently based in five spaces in and around Mumbai, including two Family Courts and the Mumbai High Court.
The need for a safe space in court premises
Those who approach courts for decisions about their marriages often have no space to process their emotional upheaval. As one litigant said:
‘I went through depression for a year. I felt lonely, sad, scared . . . and would cry often. I also tried to commit suicide and felt a sense of anger/frustration that my husband does not understand me and my problems.’
Emotional distress related to separation and decision-making is markedly high; there is also the frustratingly time-consuming nature of the court process.(3) The litigants’ personal lives entering the public sphere also causes significant social stress – their marital conflicts are now open to scrutiny. Social stigma is a common experience for marital litigants in societies deeply invested in marital permanence.(4)
‘Coming to family courts is extremely stressful. Nobody wants to come here, nobody wants to drag their personal lives to court.’
Both women and men reported feeling helpless when the marital futures they had envisaged faded away. While conflict and separation were described as painful in themselves, the courts often further compounded the agony. Procedural delays and uncertainties made individuals feel stuck and lost. The legal process also brought financial burdens, while negatively affecting employment opportunities. Women survivors of domestic violence risked retraumatization because of court interrogations and having to encounter the estranged spouse. Courts often become sites of re-triggering old wounds, including childhood abuse, maltreatment by natal and marital families or larger systemic inequalities.
Against such emotionally volatile backdrops, Sukoon aims to create a safe space for litigants. Sukoon’s counselors use an empathetic approach, informed by values of social justice and feminism, to create a space within court premises where litigants feel comfortable being vulnerable, and articulating their distress.
“‘Coming to family courts is extremely stressful. Nobody wants to come here, nobody wants to drag their personal lives to court.’”
How Sukoon works
With Sukoon’s trained counselors, litigants are able to explore and navigate their individual as well as relational journeys. Litigants’ concerns vary, from individual mental health-related issues to matters regarding reconciliation or separation. At this point, it becomes important to acknowledge the power asymmetry prevalent in Indian marriages.(5) The counselors are careful to foreground women survivors’ resilience, taking into account the systemic nature of violence and of other marital conflicts that litigants bring into the room.
Litigants walking into the Sukoon room at any of the centers have either been self-referred or referred by a judge, or a marriage counselor. A common thread tying all clients together, no matter what the referral source, is confusion, either about why they’ve been sent there (‘How is this different from marriage counseling?’) or how to process the overwhelming emotions caused by their personal loss or grief, and move ahead.
When R, a 33-year-old woman, came to Sukoon, she appeared numb. With her consent, and after explaining the role and scope of Sukoon, the counselor conducted a grounding activity with her. Some minutes later, when she felt more stable, the client spoke of how the space was so different from others in the court complex. In other rooms, what mattered was the truth, the fact, and being able to prove it loudly. Here, her internal process, her experiences, everything mattered. She felt heard. Over the course of a year, she went on to have a trial period living with the husband she wanted to divorce, and then deciding the marriage was not working. Since they had tried everything – individual sessions, couple sessions, learning new ways of communicating, setting boundaries with extended family – she was finally able to let go from a place of peace and resolve, rather than uncertainty.
Sukoon provides a unique space for many litigants like R, because it does not privilege heteronormative standards like family interference. Clients have said they prefer Sukoon to private practice counselors as they feel the latter often fail to understand cultural power dynamics, even blaming them for the problems they face.
The counselors at Sukoon are trained in various schools of therapy – cognitive behavioural therapy, feminist therapy, narrative therapy, couple and family therapy, arts-based therapy, dance movement therapy, and so on. They strive to join in the client’s distress and build trust; help clients work through their concerns using psychological and behavioural interventions; attempt to reduce interpersonal tensions; and support couples in arriving at common terms, and negotiating their lives in the aftermath of the court case.
A model for growth and replication
Over the two years of its existence, Sukoon has served more than 500 individuals, couples and families through one-on-one or couple/family sessions, and more than 1300 litigants in group therapy sessions. In terms of outcomes: clients were found to have gained stress management skills; some acquired the objectivity to empathize with partners; many learned to set boundaries; there were several instances of shifts in parenting behavior. Sukoon has also worked towards sensitizing over 350 court staff, judges and marriage counselors, and with over 100 stakeholders to sensitize the legal justice system to mental health concerns.
Sukoon’s indigenously developed counseling model offers scope for its replication across legal settings in India. Until the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, it used to be automatically assumed that the family as an institution had the best interests of the individual at heart; families were seen as a person’s obvious guardians and caretakers. While the legal position has changed, cultural change will take time. In a country where family is still seen as a fundamental unit (unlike the individual, as in some other cultures), MH concerns arising from familial distress are still viewed through a lens of shame. Our hope is that by being present where family conflicts play out, Sukoon might catch those who fall through the cracks between the clinic at one end and “family as best” on the other.