Equality in marriage law
New Delhi, March 23: The cabinet today approved a bill that, if passed, could remove a financial constraint that deters many women locked in abusive marriages from seeking divorce.
The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill 2010 aims to give women the right to stake claim to property bought by their husbands within the duration of the marriage, apart from introducing "irretrievable breakdown of marriage" as a new ground for seeking divorce. (See chart)
Social activists say that under current laws, property remains with the spouse in whose name it has been bought or registered, who usually happens to be the husband. So, a woman is left with hardly any financial support after divorce apart from the "maintenance" granted by the courts, which is generally a small fraction of the husband's purported earnings.
The bill, however, refrains from fixing the share of the property wives are entitled to, leaving it to the courts to decide case by case. Activists fear this might condemn the wives to an unequal legal battle with their husbands.
"We had demanded the right to equal share of property," said women's rights advocate and former Law Commission member Kirti Singh.
"Leaving it to the discretion of the courts is not enough because we have seen that this discretion is not exercised properly. Women are routinely doled out symbolic sums as maintenance by the courts."
Singh said the new property rights were necessary because in four out of five Indian divorces now, the woman has no place to go to and is forced to live with her parents.
"When the wife has helped in building the home, why should the man walk away with all the gains just because he is the only earning member? How can we devalue the contribution made by the women in keeping the home together?"
The ancestral properties of the husband or wife do not come under the ambit of this provision.
Singh was, however, critical of the bill's provision for divorce on the new ground of "irretrievable breakdown of marriage", pleaded by either spouse, despite the safeguards it has introduced for women.
According to the cabinet note, a wife can oppose a husband's plea for divorce under the new clause even on the ground that annulment of marriage would leave her under grave financial hardship. But a husband cannot oppose a wife's plea for divorce under the clause.
Singh, however, said: "This is giving the men the easy way out considering that the bill does not define the concept of 'irretrievable breakdown'. It could be very subjective."
The cabinet go-ahead to the bill may reflect a nascent but growing trend of breaking with a past whose laws and regulations often treated women as the invisible sex.
One recent instance is the framing of the Border Security Force's recruitment rules for the Combatised Paramedics Group C in 2009, an exercise that appeared to have remained oblivious to the fact that many women now work for the force. Against the requirement for "chest", the rules said: "Should be well developed".
Only after a parliamentary panel rapped the home ministry was this changed, in 2010, to "not applicable" for women. The panel's report, tabled last Wednesday, says the original entry was "not only undesirable but also derogatory in nature, especially when it concerns women candidates".
The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill 2010 also says the courts will be free to waive the "cooling-off period", usually a minimum of six months, for couples before they enter a joint plea for divorce. The original draft had suggested doing away with this waiting period altogether but this was opposed by a parliamentary standing committee.
The bill also aims to give the adopted children of divorcing couples the same rights as the couple's biological children.
Introduced in the Rajya Sabha on August 4, 2010, the bill was referred to a parliamentary standing committee headed by Jayanti Natarajan the same month.
The current grounds for divorce include, among other things, adultery, conversion to another religion, unsoundness of mind, a virulent and incurable form of leprosy, venereal disease in a communicable form, renouncement of the world and not having been heard of as being alive for a period of seven years. The provisions for seeking divorce for cruelty and desertion were introduced only in 1974.