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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SecondShaadi.com is our humble attempt to eliminate all such
biases and provide an effective platform for individuals ...
yearning to start a new life."
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.
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."
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."
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."
Independent.co.uk [ By
Andrew Buncombe, Tuesday, 22 April 2008]