Law to help divorced Indian women avoid financial ruin

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one out of 100 marriages in India fail.

Powered by automated translation

NEW DELHI // For 28 years of marriage, Mita Ghosh kept house, raised her children and oversaw the construction of the family home. Now divorced, she has little to show for her nearly three decades of marriage. Under India's divorce laws, women like Mrs Ghosh risk financial ruin if they end their marriage.

Three years ago, Mrs Ghosh, now 56, divorced her husband, an engineer who she claims stifled her dreams from the day they were married.

She had qualified to pursue a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Calcutta but he refused to let her continue her education.

"He didn't want me to go to work," Mrs Ghosh said.

"He didn't want to give money for my daughters. It was a big struggle for me to approve things for them. I became a buffer between the children and the provider."

Her husband spent most of his time away from home, working on contracts abroad while she raised their two daughters and had the new house built.

"Problems were there from the beginning. We were two different people but, over time, money became an issue," she said. "He said I spent too much when I asked for money to repair the air conditioning. He suspected me all the time about other men."

When she finally divorced her husband, she lost all rights to the home she had lived in for 16 years. All she received from her husband was a lump sum of 2.7 million rupees (Dh193,444). Their home was worth an estimated 15 million rupees.

"That house was built by me: my blood, sweat and tears are in that house," she said. "From approving the plans to fighting with the contractor to everything, I did everything."

Never having worked outside the home, Mrs Ghosh now earns 7,000 rupees a month giving private music lessons and is living with one of her two daughters.

Mrs Ghosh's story is not unique in India, but a new law could make life after divorce easier for thousands of women.

There are no official statistics on divorce in India but anecdotal evidence suggests one out of 100 marriages fail, compared to about half of marriages in the US. Divorce, even separation, is stigmatised in India. A married woman sent away from her husband is considered the ultimate shame in traditional households.

The Indian cabinet approved on March 23 a bill that would allow women to stake claim to property bought by their husbands during their marriage. The bill is expected to go before parliament this week and, if approved, will help remove a dreadful choice faced by Indian women in abusive marriages: financial well-being or personal safety. Until now, property remained with the spouse in whose name it has been bought or registered, usually the husband.

The new bill has been hailed by social activists, but they claim it will be difficult to implement.

The idea that a wife has a right to property purchased with her husband's money is foreign to India, said Bharat Chugh, an advocate with the Indian Supreme Court, who specialises in dowry and matrimonial law.

"If a woman is not earning, then she has not acquired it - that is how they see it. But she should be entitled to it because she took care of the home," said Mr Chugh, who also works at the Free Legal Aid Clinic in New Delhi.

The bill leaves the courts to decide what portion of the shared property a wife is entitled to.

Activists said that with no strict minimums, a husband could conceivably grant his wife a minuscule portion of the value of the property and still satisfy the requirements of the law.

"Leaving it to the judiciary, who have until now not been women-friendly, is exactly what we did not want," said Kirti Singh, a lawyer and activist.

"Large sections of the judiciary are paternalistic, patriarchal in their outlook. They don't think women are entitled."

Ms Singh said the new property rights were necessary because 80 per cent of women who choose to divorce are forced to live with their parents.

"Divorce drives a lot of women into destitution," said Ms Singh. "They live at the periphery of their families."

Women are usually granted a "maintenance" or alimony by the courts, which is based on a fraction of the husband's taxed earnings. Since only about three per cent of Indians pay income tax, and then only report a fraction of their actual pay, most women receive paltry alimony. Often their husbands simply refuse to pay.

Last year, an Economic Research Foundation survey of 405 women in Delhi, from all economic classes, showed that 46 per cent said they did not receive their court-ordered payments, and 60 per cent said the money did not arrive on time.

For the poorest, divorce is simply not an option.

Susheela Ram, 21, attempted several times to leave her husband after three years of marriage. The couple and their extended family migrated from Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi where her husband, Shiv Ram, works as a daily-wage labourer. After their first child, Nandini, a girl, was born two years ago, the physical abuse started, said Mrs Ram, a domestic helper.

"When I return, he drinks and beats me, then I spend a few months searching for a new place. Then he comes there and forces me to go back with him. Financially, that is easier, but only if I bear the slaps."

Mrs Ram wants to live separately, but will not consider a divorce.

"No one in my family has ever done that, so how can I?" she asked.