An easier end to unhappy marriages in India?
India’s cabinet this week cleared a proposal to amend the Hindu Marriage Act to allow “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” as a ground for divorce.
The amendment had been resisted earlier and been pending for nearly three decades now. Other grounds for divorce, which can take anywhere from six months to 20 years, include cruelty, desertion and adultery.
The amendment, if approved by parliament, will make divorce easier for estranged couples, experts say, particularly in cases where a partner is deliberately delaying proceedings. Even family courts are notoriously ineffective and insensitive when it comes to separation, with judges often admonishing the woman to be more “adjusting” or offering advice thinly disguised as rulings.
The proposed amendment gives women, who are sometimes forced into marriage, an easier way to end an unhappy marriage and provides some safeguards against harassment.
Some counsellors have warned against making divorce too easy, lest couples do not even attempt to reconcile differences.
But others say the recognition that the divorce process must be easier only reflects the present day reality: while the divorce rate in India, at about 1.1 percent, is among the lowest in the world, it is ticking up, particularly in cities, where women tend to be more financially independent and where divorce is seen as more acceptable in a country where there is still a big stigma attached to it.
Indian laws have often trailed reality; indeed, the courts have stepped in to resolve matters such as a higher marriage age, and more recently, legalising live-in relationships and homosexual relations.
But our laws still don’t have enough bite when it comes to prosecuting those guilty of female foeticide, say, child marriage, dowry offences or “honour” killings.
Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has famously spoken of the millions of “missing” women in India because of higher rates of infant mortality, neglect and discrimination.
The amendment to the divorce law will give Indian women a greater degree of protection from abusive spouses and in-laws. But it is just a tiny step toward fully protecting our women.