In the din of the unseemly skirmish between the army chief and the defence minister, a little Bill that could have big implications on marriage slipped by relatively unnoticed and unsung. The Cabinet this past week approved the Marriage Amendments Bill (2010). If passed by Parliament, it has the potential to become a new deal for thousands of women trapped in abusive marriages.
The Bill marks three significant departures from the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the Special Marriage Act of 1954. First, spouses will share assets acquired during the course of the marriage regardless of who paid for them (this obviously does not apply to ancestral property). Second, it introduces a new ground for divorce: irretrievable breakdown of marriage. A wife can oppose a husband's plea for divorce under this ground but a husband may not. Moreover, if the judges are convinced that the marriage is beyond repair, they will have the discretion to waive the present cooling off period of six to 18 months. And third, adopted children will now have the same rights as biological offspring in the event of a divorce.
All of this is in the realm of possibility; the Bill is yet to become law. Women's groups have welcomed it - by and large - but elsewhere doomsday predictions range from the death of marriage to the birth of a new breed of mercenary woman.
This is bunkum. With the social stigma attached to divorce, nobody sane gets divorced just to get rich. If anything the Bill has some serious flaws. It applies only to Hindus not to minorities. Moreover, how the assets are to be divided, and in what proportion, is left to the discretion of the judges. In a system where women encounter gender bias daily, this isn't a good sign.
Others object to the sharing of assets acquired by one partner. If he paid, why does she get a share? Here's why. In India, housework has no economic value. The 2001 Census, for instance, listed housewives as 'non-workers' at a par with beggars and prisoners. I am not aware of any India specific study, but a 2002 UK Office for National Statistics study found that not only did women spend twice the time as men on housework, but if a value were to be placed on this labour, it would be worth £700 billion to the economy.
There are exceptions, always. But in most marriages, the wife either is not employed or is not the primary income earner. When she does work outside the house, she still bears an inordinate share in bringing up the kids, putting dinner on the table, looking after the parents, shopping, cleaning and so on. This is unpaid work.
When a marriage breaks down, the same woman often finds she has nowhere to go. Maintenance amounts are both pitifully low (typically between 2-10% of her husband's annual declared income) and pitifully slow in coming. Most abused wives either continue being imprisoned in marriages or turn to their fathers and brothers for financial support. A study authored by lawyer Kirti Singh and due to be published at the end of this year, found that in the event of a divorce or separation, the husband 'usually walks away with all the moveable and immovable assets in the household'. This is why women do not walk out of marriages, even when they face high levels of violence.
By dividing assets, regardless of who has financially contributed to them, the Bill acknowledges the contribution of the non-employed or the lesser employed partner (and this works equally for men).
Far from spelling the end of marriage as an institution, the Bill will strengthen the bonds of marriage. It will enforce discipline on abusive spouses. It will ensure that both husbands and wives remain in the marriage because they want to and not because they have no other choice. It bestows respect and dignity on those who work but are not necessarily paid. And it will see marriage for what it is: a partnership between equals.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.