Lifestyle & Belief

Indian Divorce Court

Both the Hindu-nationalist BJP and the supposedly rationalist Left have united to oppose reforms to India's laws governing divorce, reports the Times of India. Maybe that's because the politicians are no better at interpreting what the current system means for the rights of women than the newspaper.

According to the TOI, both Arun Jaitley of the BJP and Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are opposed the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill 2010 to include 'irretrievable breakdown of marriage' as a ground for divorce because they fear that it could be used to deprive women of their right to property, alimony and child support -- an argument that would seem to be bolstered by a headline found deeper in the paper that reads: "86% of divorced women left with kids but no home."

The only problem is that the TOI completely misreads the study in question, which was conducted by the Delhi-based Economic Research Foundation. It turns out that the study doesn't refer to divorced women at all, it refers to women who are divorced OR SEPARATED from their husbands (i.e. it includes women whose husbands have abandoned them or thrown them out).  Further, it finds that only 73 out of 405 women covered by the study were divorced -- which means more than 80 percent of the women surveyed had not been to divorce court at all.  So far from being screwed by the courts, as the headline implies, they were actually victimized by the stigma against divorce and the difficulty of obtaining one -- which barred them from seeking the legal remedies that would have given them alimony, child support, and housing.  It was 86% of these women who were raising children as single parents, mostly without access to the pre-separation family home, and half of them had not even sought "maintenance" (Indian law's word for alimony).

As I wrote in "Love Hurts" awhile back, divorces are painfully difficult to get in India -- sometimes taking 15-20 years and leaving the couple without much life left to live.

If anything, therefore, this survey is an incredibly strong argument for more liberal divorce laws, as well as a public relations campaign geared at removing the stigma surrounding divorce that is equal to the good work being done to fight dowry harassment. But, suffice to say, that ain't going to happen. Instead, in the name of protecting women's rights, the law will protect the so-called "institution" of marriage and women will continue to live in penury -- when some simple rules of thumb could eliminate the supposed root cause of the anxiety of lawmakers from the BJP and CPI(M).

How about a guideline for irretrievable breakdown that mandates that 50% of the marital assets go to the divorced woman and that alimony be paid to ensure that she continues to receive 50% of the pre-divorce household income, along with child support?  For that matter, those guidelines would be pretty good for cases of adultery and cruelty, as well.  

In any case, they'd be far superior to the present system that pretends to be able to force the couple to live together and prevent domestic violence, when everybody knows (and this survey shows) that neither is within the powers of the law.