The logo of Delhi-based Save Family Foundation is a doodle of a woman holding a baby, a man’s arm around the two. While it’s unfair to read too much into it, the image is symbolic of India’s favourite stereotype of the man as the provider and protector. Its letter addressed to Union law minister Salman Khurshid calls the amendments suggested in the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill 2010 ‘myopic, unconstitutional, undemocratic and discriminatory’ in bold fonts, and then describes supporters of the law as among those who bat for a ‘fatherless society’.
After expressing outrage at the fact that only the man’s property will be divided after divorce and not that of the wife, the letter ends voicing concern about the fate of the country’s GDP if the law comes to force. In a rather high-strung paragraph, the treasurer of the organisation says:
Young professionals, who have taken huge loans to buy property, are the hardest hit if their property goes to wife during divorce. Most of them are on a "Cancellation Spree" after the cabinet decision to give property of husbands to wives. Banks will also start denying the home loan to married men as their loan amount will be at risk if the couple is going through divorce, directly affecting the GDP and economy of our country.
The cause for Save Family Foundation's Wasif Ali’s fury are the provisions of the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2010 which, post-divorce, gives the woman equal share in property acquired after marriage. Following a fit of debates after the law was cleared, the Cabinet has decided to amend it again to define 50 per cent share in the property acquired by the husband even before marriage.
While Save Family Foundation may consider such amendments near-apocalyptic, a recent India Today article reveals that they may in fact offer long overdue relief for Indian women, who rarely receive alimony from their spouses. Divorce instead often drives women into near penury or financial dependence of their parents.
A survey cited by India Today says 63 per cent of Indian women become deopendant on their parents post divorce, even as 88 per cent of the divorced men continue with the same lifestyle after divorce.
The article cites cases like that of Hetalben Desai in Gujarat whose husband, a rich electronics goods dealer, continued to cite ‘financial hardship’ to refuse alimony to her. Hetalben has to depend on her retired parents for survival.
A law enabling a woman to claim maintenance isn’t enough unless it chalks out how much. A sad reality the case of Sarvesh in the same article demostrates. Married off at 17, when Sarvesh sought divorce at 27 to escape an alcoholic, abusive husband, she was allowed a paltry maintenance of Rs 350 and had to stay in women’s homes and eat in gurdwaras to survive.
Despite the amendment, the divorce law still remains unclear on the fate of the children and doesn’t define who and to what extent takes the responsibility of their upbringing. In one section of the Amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, there just one clause that says in no definite terms that divorce will not granted by the court if it isn’t sure of how the children will be cared for. “The court shall not pass a decree of divorce under section 13C unless the court is satisfied that adequate provision for the maintenance of children born out of the marriage has been made consistently with the financial capacity of the parties to the marriage.” The representation of ‘Financial capacity’, as has been seen in the past, is something that is subjected to widespread manipulation.
In a Hindu article, the All India Women’s Association argues that the divorce laws in the country have always been grossly unfair on women. More importantly, the latest amendment which allows any party to seek divorce on the grounds of ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ makes the woman’s position even more fragile.
“In countries where irretrievable breakdown of marriage has been introduced as a ground for divorce, laws relating to an equitable division of all marital assets also exist. This is because the contribution of a woman in building up the household and in primarily taking care of children is recognised and considered to be as economically valuable as work outside the house,” notes the Hindu.
Activists have been making such demands in India for decades, only to be dismissed as feminist radicals.
However, despite its loopholes – it makes divorce too easy to get, leaving little space for redress of grievances, the property clause can be unfairly used against the man - the new alimony laws are at least one step closer to acknowledging the right of women to be compensated for their contribution to a family's welfare as mothers and wives.
The India Today article is available in the print edition of the magazine.