The big story: The end game
Key changes to the law relating to divorce, approved by the cabinet last week, are broadly progressive towards women. But the amendments have serious gaps that need to be plugged, lawyers, counsellors and women tell Aarefa Johari.india Updated: Mar 31, 2012 22:38 IST
“I would have liked to end the litigation faster”
When Revathi (not her real name), 40, a textile designer from Bangalore, married into a middle-class family in Chennai 22 years ago, she didn’t realise she would have to become the sole breadwinner for her husband and son.
Her husband worked as a co-director of an IT firm, and after the company shut down a few years into their marriage, he refused to take up another job.
Meanwhile, Revathi’s own textile business began growing, and all financial responsibilities fell on her. “Because I was earning, he grew complacent. I had to deal with his tantrums and temper. Because of the strain of running the house and educating my son single-handedly, I could never enjoy my income.”
Four years ago, when she threatened to walk out, his brother got him a mid-level corporate job. “But he never took it seriously, and 19 months ago, I finally left him.” She has filed for divorce on the grounds of economic harassment. Her husband wants to give their marriage another chance, but Revathi would have wanted a quick end to the litigation on the ground of irretrievable breakdown of marriage — had it been part of the law. “I have suffered enough.” Revathi has seen many women struggling to prove mental harassment, and believes an ‘irretrievable breakdown’ clause would be a boon to them. “Marriage is about two people who want to be together. If even one partner wants to opt out, why should the marriage continue?”
“Consider the whole family’s property”
Vandana, the daughter of an air force officer and a housewife, had always believed she was an independent woman. By the time she was 21, she had lost both her parents and had completed her graduation in psychology.
Instead of moving in with relatives, she chose to live alone in a suburban flat her parents left her, working as a marketing professional in advertising.
At 26, her relatives found her a match in a wealthy business family in the city, and Vandana tied the knot after nine months of courtship.
The problems began in the first year of marriage itself. “His family seemed to want a completely different kind of daughter-in-law, and claimed I did not meet their standards,” says Vandana, who had quit her job when her in-laws asked her to, but continued to face verbal and some physical abuse.
The family also wanted her to transfer her flat to their name, but fortunately for Vandana, she had not yet done so when her in-laws “violently” threw her out in 2001. “I had just Rs 750 in my bank account at that time,” says Vandana, who refused to sign the divorce papers her in-laws sent her. She took up a job with a non-profit organisation and approached a lawyer at the Family Court to begin a litigation that would last for nearly nine years.
As interim maintenance, the judge asked her husband to pay 18% of his earnings.
“The family owned property, stocks and other assets worth several crores of rupees, but none of that was in his name. On paper, they claimed his income was just Rs 40,000 a month,” says Vandana, who finally agreed for a divorce in 2009 when the parties finally settled on the alimony amount. “He agreed to part with a larger sum only because he wanted to remarry.”
Vandana believes a law on the sharing of matrimonial property would make no difference unless the law clearly defines property and includes in it the assets owned by the man’s family.
“In our society we are said to be marrying into a family, so at the time of divorce, why talk only of the couple’s property?”
‘I want to sign the papers and move on with life’
Sudha (not her real name) was 24 and working as a computer operator in a private company in Mumbai when she agreed to an arranged marriage with a man who ran a small printing press. “His family lived in a rented one-bedroom flat, and on the second day of marriage itself, his parents asked my husband and me to live separately,” says Sudha, 40. “We could not afford to, and they constantly harassed me.”
As the harassment increased, the couple moved, with their twin girls, to a chawl room. His business never did well, so Sudha would give him her salary of Rs 5,000 for the rent. When the twins were ready for school, he sold all of Sudha’s jewellery and bought a one-room flat in his name.
“He blew up most of my salary on alcohol every night, and would hit and torture me.” In 2010, he didn’t come home for two months, living with his parents instead. “I could not afford to feed the kids all alone. I left them with him and returned to my father’s house,” said Sudha. She sent him a divorce notice after a year and a half of living separately.
When summoned by the court, he agreed to divorce Sudha but refused to give her any money. Weary of pursuing a long litigation for “very little money”, Sudha finally went in for a divorce on the grounds of mutual consent, but now has to wait through the six-month cooling period before the divorce is complete. Sudha believes this is unnecessary in her case.
“There is no question of reconciliation. In fact, in the past three months he has tried to ask me for money because we are not yet divorced,” she says. “Why should I live through this ordeal? I want to sign the papers and move on with life.”