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The right fight
Suniti Sonowal empowers underprivileged women in Assam with free legal aid

For 70-year old Suniti Sonowal, helping others has been a way of life for over two decades. She lives alone at Ashroy [refuge or shelter], a tidily kept house at Nayanpur in Guwahati. As an advocate of women’s legal rights, Sonowal has provided legal aid and counselling to hundreds of distraught women who have been victims of violence.

Sonowal is not just a lawyer though; she is also an eminent poet, short story writer and musician. Her father, Sitanath Brahma Choudhury, an eminent litterateur who was twice elected president of the Asam Sahitya Sabha, was also an MP from 1952 to 1957. “My father not only raised his voice for women’s emancipation but also established the co-educational Birjhora High School, Bongaigaon from where I was the only female student to take the matriculation examination in 1957,” says Sonowal.

While studying for her BA at Handique Girls’ College, Guwahati, she married Devendra Nath Sonowal, who happened to be the first IPS officer from a tribal community in Assam. Having completed her graduation in 1961, she became a housewife moving with her husband from one place to another. But she never believed in staying idle. By the time she had her second daughter, she had already acquired a bachelor’s degree in music (sitar) and was beginning to write short stories as well as poems.

However in 1982, with the untimely death of her husband, life hurled a bitter surprise at Sonowal. A strong-willed woman, she soon enrolled herself, along with her elder daughter, for a master’s in Guwahati University. The mother-daughter duo finished their post-graduation in 1986. But Sonowal was already aiming for a degree in law. “While my father used to often tell me about the importance of a degree in law, it was only after getting the degree and using it to help distressed women that I realised how powerful it could be,” she recalls.

While she joined Guwahati High Court as a lawyer in 1989, she also started working in the legal aid cell of the Asam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti, where she continued till 2005. Over the years, she earned tremendous fame and respect dispensing legal aid to distressed women. Several other organisations started approaching her for her legal counsel. The Assam government nominated her as a member of the State’s Women’s Commission for a three-year term in 2002. A life member of the Assam state branch of the Indian Council for Children’s Welfare, she was also made a member of the state Juvenile Justice Act Implementation Committee.

Despite her hectic schedule, Sonowal still finds time to work with the Sodou Asom Lekhika Samaroh Samiti, a state-wide body of women writers. She has published three novels; two collections of short stories; a collection of folktales for children; and a handbook on law for women. She has also edited two collections of short stories and several journals including the mouthpiece of the Sodou Asom Lekhika Samaroh Samiti. Recently, she also finished writing the biography of her illustrious father. “I owe a lot to my father,” she says in fond remembrance. “He inspired me to work for a better cause.”

In 1999, she joined the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and contested the Lok Sabha elections from Guwahati, going on to first head the party’s women’s wing and later become the vice-president of the main state unit. “However, my first passion is to help women in distress, especially those who find it difficult to cope with a drunken or abusive husband,” she insists. “My basic intention as a legal aid counsellor has always been to help reconcile the differences in a couple. Every time I succeed in settling their problems mutually, I feel very happy.”

Each day is long and stressful for Sonowal. And her duty does not end with providing legal aid. “Life is agonising for many women here. Very often, I end up handing out money when some poor woman does not even have enough to pay for her bus fare back home,” she says with a gentle smile. Sonowal doesn’t mind going out of her way though as long as she can soothe one more troubled brow.

As told to Tapati Baruah Kashyap

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