Divorce Reform in India
A recent article in the Globe and Mail in Toronto, Canada addressed the state of women in India who are trapped in abusive or broken marriages by archaic divorce laws and a dysfunctional court system. Divorce and separation are both increasing along with India’s rapid economic growth and social changes, but a combination of social factors make divorce especially difficult for Indian women. The country has no laws governing the division of marital property in a divorce and since Indian men usually put homes and vehicles in their own names, the women end up with nothing after a divorce.
Kirti Singh, an advocate at India’s Supreme Court, success in leading a drive to reform the country’s divorce laws has caused lawyer-activists in the nation to join in the push to get the Indian government to change the laws. Divorce is out of reach for millions of poor and illiterate women who cannot afford to hire lawyers and go to court. Less than half of divorcing Indian women even seek spousal maintenance and when they do, they have to file a separate petition for child support. As a result, it can take years for a case to wind through the archaic Indian legal system. Making a bad situation worse is the fact that if a woman is the spouse asking for a divorce, she has almost no chance of obtaining a financial settlement of any kind.
Even if an Indian woman does succeed in getting spousal support, the actual awards are usually minimal and may only account for only a twentieth of the husband’s stated income because the men often report far less than what they actually earn to evade taxes. The problem for divorcing Indian women is that they cannot prove what the husband really earns. Adding to their pain, most spousal maintenance orders are never enforced and the women must made do with nothing. Nearly half of the women in Kirti Singh’s survey said they never got their payments, and over half of those who did receive them, said the funds came late.
Even though paying a dowry is illegal in India, it is still widely practiced. Although India does have a Prohibition of Dowry Act that says dowrys are illegal, and if one is paid it must be returned in the event of divorce, the reality is that very few Indian women get their dowry returned. The many women, whose dowry represents their entire life savings, are essentially bankrupt after a divorce. This creates a situation where refusing to agree to a divorce is the only tool Indian women have to negotiate a equitable property settlement.
Because Indian divorce cases can take so many years to complete, many women have no choice but to go back to their husbands or family. The research shows that three-quarters of Indian women return to parents or brothers. Because they have no income, and the cultural stigma of single women living alone, they have alternative but to return to their families, or even an abusive husband. Although Ms. Singh and the country’s lawyer-activists recently submitted a list of proposed reforms to the central government, things move slowly in Indian courts and the reforms could take 10 years to wind their way through the system.