India: Increase in women-initiated divorces

The Independent
"India is a country where marriage is considered sacred, so it is hardly a surprise that there is no word in Hindi for divorce. But increasing numbers of women trapped in unhappy relationships are finding a way out."
"To the casual observer, Heena may have appeared to have everything that many young Indian women aspire to. She had her own burgeoning career, a marriage and two children. What she also had – albeit largely hidden from public view – was an alcoholic and abusive husband.
For Heena, an interior designer living in Delhi, the time to get rid of that husband was when he started to get violent with their children. "You carry on as long as you have hope ... But the day he turned on my children was the day I said 'enough'," Heena explained. With her own career developing, Heena moved into the ground floor of her parents' house and began the long and arduous task of trying to rebuild her life after 11 years of marriage.

Her experience is not unique. India is a society where great significance has always been attached to marriage, where wedding ceremonies have traditionally been elaborate, lengthy affairs and where divorce was all but unheard of. Indeed, there is no word in Hindi for divorce. (The word that is usually used, talak, is borrowed from Urdu.) But as parts of Indian society undergo rapid social and economic transformation, increasing numbers of women are deciding to get out of unhappy or abusive marriages and start their lives afresh.

With an unprecedented financial independence brought about as a result of India's surging economy and a new sense of empowerment that women's entry to the workplace has brought, countless thousands of younger women are making a decision that their mothers and aunts would hardly have dreamt of.

"Part of it is to do with economic independence," said Heena, 42, who has two teenage children and asked that her full name not be used. "But part of it is that my parents' generation is changing the way it thinks about what is going on. My mother would never have had the financial or emotional support that I did. In her generation to be divorced or thrown out would have been considered shameful. It would have been thought of in the same way that, sadly, Aids is thought of in India."

While official national statistics are unavailable because divorce proceedings are dealt with at a local level, studies in some of the country's major cities have indicated a massive rise in the number of couples undertaking divorce proceedings at family courts. "A study of recent trends showed that such cases are significantly rising in small towns and semi-urban areas. Many young couples, particularly women, have been filing petitions for separation, which was unheard of in the 1970s," K K Patel, a supreme court lawyer, recently told The Tribune newspaper.

In Kerala, India's most literate state, the number of such filings has increased by 350 per cent in the past 10 years. Even in Punjab and Haryana, both traditional agricultural states, divorce proceedings are rising. Some estimates reckon the national divorce rate to be as high as 6 or 7 per cent.

"Women are economically more independent. They have started working. They are also more aware of their rights," said Vandana Sharma, the president of the Women's Protection League, a Delhi-based campaign group that provides counselling and assistance. She added: "Also families are changing. You used to have joint families with everyone living together and sharing their problems."

While marriage has always been hugely important in India, the institution has traditionally treated women as less than equals. Historically, dowries were paid by the family of the bride to that of the groom as part of the marriage arrangement – something that was long abused and often resulted in poor families struggling to make payments. Such was the burden placed on the families of prospective brides, that female foeticide – the selective aborting of female babies – has become commonplace.

Today, though dowries have officially been illegal since 1961 and the use of ultrasound machines for prenatal gender testing banned since 1996, both practices are widespread. Likewise, the newspapers of the country's largest cities are full of stories of "dowry deaths" in which newly wed brides are either murdered or driven to commit suicide as a result of bullying and harassment for a dowry payment by the groom or his family. Figures suggest that such incidents – or at least the reporting of such incidents to the police – is increasing.

At the same time, in many parts of India there is a gender imbalance that appears to be getting worse as a result of this preference for sons rather than daughters. In 1981, the national ratio of children up to the age of six was measured at 962 girls for every 1,000 boys. Twenty years later, the ratio was found to have fallen further, with 927 girls per 1,000 boys. And so, while the illegal but lucrative practice of selective abortion based on the foetus's gender remains very common, the effect of such practices is forcing grooms in some richer parts of India to import brides from poorer states.

Yet for middle-class Indian women, the past two decades have seen an undoubted change in the opportunities afforded to them. And such changes have been accompanied by a shift in attitude among these women when it comes to getting married. While arranged marriages still account for more than 90 per cent of the total, the spread of cable television and Western influence has resulted in women having greater expectations for their marital relationships and what they might achieve in their lives. By contrast, Indian men have been slow to change and often reacted negatively to their newly empowered wives.

"Women used to start with the lowest expectations. Now they are demanding more physically, sexually and financially," said Ranjama Kumari, the author of Brides Are Not for Burning and the director of the Centre for Social Research, a women's support group based in Delhi.

And while one may have expected the rising divorce rate to be a phenomenon associated with the educated elite of Delhi and Mumbai, it appears that it is happening across India, even if it remains more common in urban areas. Vivek Pahwa, director of SecondShaadi.Com, a matchmaking website for divorcees that was set up last year, said that 60 per cent of the 25,000 or so people who have signed up lived outside India's five largest cities. A third lived outside its 20 biggest cities.

"Remarriage in India has always been a topic best left untouched," says his website. "Through the ages, society has dealt with divorcees, widows and widowers with a different eye. is our humble attempt to eliminate all such biases and provide an effective platform for individuals ... yearning to start a new life."

For all the figures suggesting divorce is increasing, some experts caution that getting out of unhappy relationships remains a tough challenge and is an option only usually available to wealthier Indian women. "When they talk about divorce, they are talking about the sliver of the middle class. We need to look beyond that," said Dr J Devika, a feminist scholar at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, in Kerala state.

She said that in most segments of Indian society, divorce was still stigmatised and that even when women felt they were able to file for divorce, the slow pace of the country's judicial system meant that matters of alimony and rights over children were processes drawn out over years. "Marriage is still central to everything. A woman's social membership in society is largely based on her marital status. It is very hard for a woman if she is single, even if she is upper class," she added. "And then you can get out of the marriage but it does not mean your problems are over."

Anajana Debi knows she has many problems to confront but she remains adamant that she wants to end her marriage. Originally from Calcutta, Mrs Debi has spent her entire married life in Delhi. But when her husband walked out on her for the seventh time, the mother-of-four decided that her marriage was finally over. "It's like a cancer," she said. "And I have decided I am not going to be with him any more. I have had enough of this."

Mrs Debi, now 37, was just 14 when her family arranged her wedding to a man more than 20 years her senior. While the early years of her marriage were happy enough, she said her husband started having affairs with other women. Each time he returned to her and each time she felt she had no option but to take him back. But not this time. She says she is ready to spend the rest of her life as a divorcee and deal with the myriad challenges that brings. She is not ready yet, however, to tell her parents what has happened. "My brothers know about this but my parents do not. I don't want to give them the trauma of it.""

By: Andrew Buncombe

22 April 2008

Source: The Independent