Indian marital laws are not gender-sensitive, say activists
Unable to bear the daily harassment by her husband, 34-year-old Aliya, a mother of two, finally decided to call it quits and filed for divorce, little knowing that her problems were far from over.
Aliya's world since 2001, when she filed a divorce petition, has been limited to running from pillar to post trying to make her husband cough up the alimony that was due.
But the protracted battle in the court is slowly taking its toll on her health and is keeping her from her only possession- her children.
"Aliya's case is not a one-off incident. There are thousands of cases like hers pending before courts all over the country. This only goes on to show that there are several loopholes in the Indian marital laws that need to be plugged," said Jaya Sagade, vice principal of ILS Law College, Pune.
Sagade's voice was among the many at the two-day seminar on economic rights and entitlements of separated and divorced women held in the capital which saw women lawyers, teachers and women rights activists come together to deliberate ways to "plug-in" the "flaws" in Indian marital laws.
They also raised concerns about how the right to maintenance which was increasingly being used as a tool for discrimination.
"We need to, at first, look for alternatives to the word maintenance. People, especially those connected to the judicial system, are increasingly looking at alimony as a welfare scheme where money is doled to women.
"The first step is to change this perception and start looking at it as a right," said Malavika Rajkotia, a lawyer at the Delhi high court.
Separation and divorce for the Indian women usually leads to the woman returning to her natal home with absolutely nothing, she said, adding that this not only leads to a drastic fall in her lifestyle, living standards and social status but is also a big blow to her confidence.
The stigma associated with single women, the paltry amount in alimony, expenses incurred during trials, "class and gender bias" among lawyers are some of the problems that were raised during the course of the seminar.
"Let's take the case of Kerala which has the highest women literacy rate, but even this state is not spared of violence, crime and discrimination against women," said Geena Kumari, a lawyer practicing in the Kerala high court.
Women often feel that they are doubly harassed, first by their husband and marital families and then by the police and lawyers they approach for help, she said.
"Women most often are unaware that they are entitled to maintenance, have no idea how much their husbands earn, or even where they work, and are unable to provide their income proof in order to ask for maintenance," Kumari said.
"These are least of their problems. In addition they have to carry the stigma of being a single woman, go through the cumbersome judicial process, try to meet the expenses for each hearing and the end of all this make-do with the meagre alimony they get which can be as low as Rs500 per month," she said.
Geetha Ramasheshan, an advocate at the Madras high court, said, "Government must try to address more gender-related issues."
She said the judicial system, in the meanwhile, must start treating refusal of alimony as a criminal offence.
A primary recommendation that emerged during the discussion is that all separated, divorced Indian women must be entitled to at least half share of assets in marital home or assets acquired by couple during the period that they were together.
The women also raised the need to sensitise judges to gender issues and a support system for women whose husbands can't give maintenance.
"What is sad is that it's been almost three decades since the landmark Shah Bano case, where the 62-year-old mother of five went to court seeking alimony, but sadly the marital laws in the country have evolved little since then," said Mary E John, director of Centre for Women's Development Studies.