FLAVIA Agnes was born in Mumbai but grew up in Mangalore, Karnataka in a small town called Kadri and lived with her aunt. On the eve of her Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams, her aunt passed away and Agnes went to Aden, Yemen, and worked as a typist. Her father’s death resulted in the family returning to Mangalore.
Educated in all girl’s school and raised by her aunt with four other sisters, Agnes had her only brush with the opposite gender when she was married. “I didn’t know that marriage was all about beating and oppression.” When she was 20 years old, she married a man 12 years elder to her who physically abused her. It took her 14 years to separate from her husband, get custody of her children, an education and became a lawyer.
She has three children from this marriage, one son and two daughters. After numerous court cases for child custody, Agnes got the custody of the two daughters but her son decided to stay with his father. The divorce proceedings took much longer. As a Christian, Agnes was not entitled to ‘divorce on the grounds of cruelty’ under the Christian Marriage Act and had to ask for a judicial separation. Frustrated with the length of the legal proceedings for divorce, Agnes dropped the case entirely in 1986. In the 90s, she began using her mother’s name Agnes as a surname.
Prior to her marriage, Agnes had only completed her SSC exams. Agnes’ greater involvement in the women’s movement made her want to study further to get gainful employment, live independently and get custody of her children. As a result, Agnes gave the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University (SNDT) entrance exam and completed a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Sociology with Distinction in 1980.
Agnes went on to complete an LLB in 1988 and began to practise law at the Mumbai High Court. She later completed her LLM from Mumbai University in 1992. She did an M.Phil from National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU) in 1997.
For her thesis, which was later published by Oxford University Press, she worked on law and gender equality, looking at the politics of personal laws in different religious communities, examining, in particular, what these mean for women.
Involvement with the women’s movement
In 1978, Agnes started giving private tuitions to school children as a means to earn some extra money for herself and get financial independence from her husband. Quite a few of the children who came for these classes came from similarly broken families with abusive fathers. Slowly she began to get in touch with these mothers and found out that the problem of physical abuse of women was prevalent in India.
Forum Against Oppression of Women
Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW), earlier known as Forum Against Rape, was set up in 1979. It was a campaign group that dealt with issues involving wife beating, dowry and sexual harassment. The Forum was part of the autonomous women’s groups i.e. groups that were not associated with any political party, that came about as the issue of violence in the family gained momentum in early 80s and large scale women’s movements took root. These groups addressed the issues of issues of eve-teasing, dowry deaths, rape and other forms of violence. Agnes started going to Forum meetings in 1980.
Agnes thought her ignorance of Marathi would not allow her to help the girl and her family but as it turned out the family spoke a particular dialect of Kannada and since Agnes had been educated in a Kannada Medium School, she was the only one who knew the language and could converse with the family. Agnes gave a speech “standing atop a wooden stool outside the Turbhe police station. That was a historical moment, a turning point in my life, my first speech. The people in the area liked the speech. I was thrilled.” She also had past experience as a typist and that made her the lead person in Turbhe investigation as she typed out all the reports concerned with the case and was the chief person on the case. Turbhe became a turning point in Agnes’ life. She identified deeply with girl’s problem and the oppression she felt. The speech was followed by a very successful public demonstration and Agnes’ public life began from there.
Agnes left behind the path of activism and protests and decided that legal process was the next step. Started in 1990, Majlis is an organisation that supports women’s access to the legal system (including marital disputes, domestic violence, economic rights and property settlements), Majlis tries to empower women by informing them about their rights, conducting legal awareness programmes for women’s groups across Mumbai, engaging in policy interventions and public campaigns, creating support systems for rape victims and publishing books and articles on women’s issues.