Some of India's most famous women MPs have spent the week arguing against a new bill that seeks to make divorce easier. Actor-politician Jaya Bachchan and M Kanimozhi of the DMK are among those who said the proposals in the new bill will leave women more vulnerable.
The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill was introduced in Parliament in March by the government. It introduces "irreversible breakdown" as a new ground for divorce. That means a man or woman can choose to end a marriage arguing that he or she has exhausted all means to mend a marriage in trouble. Activists say men are more likely to invoke this provision than women, and that the Bill does not clearly spell out the woman's share in property, for example, or what she would be entitled to financially.
The Bill also proposes reducing or waiving the six-month waiting period currently required for couples who apply for divorce on mutual grounds. Parliamentarians from different parties objected to this and said it would lead to "hurried" divorces.
Activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes explains the shortcomings of the new Bill, which she says does not protect the financial rights of women. ''In urban marriages, where the women are educated and financially independent, this Bill provides a quick way to get out of an undesirable marriage. What about women in rural areas, who have no income of their own? So many men go away to the cities for years to work. They can later use this separation to prove irreversible breakdown and get divorce.'' The opposition, activists and women parliamentarians say the new Bill's features could leave the wife financially vulnerable, especially given that there is no law in India which clearly spells out the division of matrimonial property in the event of a divorce.
Under the existing law, the grounds on which divorce is granted include mutual consent, cruelty, adultery, desertion, or one spouse contracting a communicable disease. If the divorce-seeker is a woman, especially a dependent, she inevitably gets a financial settlement. If she has children, she can stake a greater claim. This new Bill, upholding irreversible breakdown as a ground, also grants the wife a share in her husband's property. But the provisions are vague. So in case the husband's owns property jointly with a family member or resettles in another country, the legal battle for the wife is that much longer.
Kanimozhi asks, ''What happens when women don't bring anything from her parent's house after marriage? What marital share she will get in this case?
Mrs Bachchan points out, ''Women are a major oppressed party. We are hurrying the legislation without seeing the finer points. It's not easy to get divorce emotionally, practically or financially.''
So strong are the objections, the government has been forced to backtrack. Congress MP Renuka Chowdhury says, ''If there are such strong opinions, the government will reconsider the Bill.''
The lack of financial surety is a critical lapse given majority of Indian wives are homemakers with no independent means of income. In its essence, the bill does not seek to undermine women, but given the reality of wives in India, the extent of domestic abuse, the common rejection for giving birth to baby girls, and the pressures of dowry, it could end up doing just that.