Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why make divorce easy?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 25, 2010


Kalpana Sharma

What are the laws that need the urgent attention of the government? One that deals with the increasing, and horrific, instances of so-called “honour” killings, where young women and men are being murdered for no other reason than choosing who they will marry, a right that is guaranteed to them as citizens of this democratic country? Or one that will make divorce easier for those who want to opt out of marriage?

These are not mutually exclusive choices. But because they have a direct impact on the lives of millions of women and men, they cannot be rushed through without adequate thought and debate. On the former, there is still some discussion and no conclusion yet. On the latter, strangely enough, the government seems to have made up its mind and is contemplating introducing a new provision in The Hindu Marriage Act that will permit divorce under “irretrievable breakdown of marriage”.

Divorce is still relatively uncommon in India compared to many other countries. The incidence of divorce is barely 1.9 per cent of registered marriages. This figure of course would not include a much higher percentage of desertions that routinely occur, where men leave their wives and children and live a bigamous life without any fear that the law will ever catch up with them. Such women are left in limbo, still legally married, unable to go into another relationship, and left without financial support. In a country where poverty and illiteracy are common, the figures if ever collated of such women would be staggering.

Under the Hindu Marriage Act and the Special Marriage Act there are specific grounds on which divorce can be sought. These include adultery, cruelty, desertion, conversion to another religion, unsoundness of mind, virulent and incurable form of leprosy, venereal disease in a communicable form, renouncement of the world and not heard as being alive for a period of seven years or more. Section 13-B of the Hindu Marriage Act and Section 28 of the Special Marriage Act also provide for divorce by mutual consent. Under this, both parties have to file a petition in court and are given six months after its admission and up to 18 months to change their minds. If neither party withdraws, the divorce is granted.

The government, and the Law Commission in its 217th report (March 2009), holds that the introduction of a provision of no-fault divorce, that is where neither party has to prove that the other committed an offence such as adultery, or cruelty or desertion to file for a divorce, will assist many couples who get caught in legal wrangles when their marriages have already broken down. Sometimes, even when they use the provision of mutual consent, one or the other party pulls out part way through the proceedings, leaving the other with no choice but to resort to a lengthy legal process to get a divorce. The government believes it is introducing this provision to bring such situations to an end.

But lawyers and women’s groups, who have known first hand the problems deserted women, or those who are victims of cruelty within their marriages, or have to live with adulterous husbands, say that such a provision will place a bigger burden on women. At present, a mutual consent divorce is the easiest and only possible way if both parties want to break up. Otherwise, one or the other has to prove a “fault”. Women often do not take the first step, particularly those women who are not financially independent, as they cannot pay for the litigation and also fear that even if there is a divorce, the final settlement will not suffice for them to survive on their own. For instance, apart from maintenance, sometimes the court awards a lump sum if a woman is able to prove her husband falls under any of the categories listed for grounds for divorce. But if the woman has to leave her matrimonial home, she would not have the resources to get another house unless that was part of the final settlement. And the current law does not mandate a formula for a financial settlement that would take care of the woman’s shelter needs.

In countries around the world, including the United States, where the grounds of “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” are part of the statute, there has been considerable debate over its introduction and it has been followed by clear and specific mandates on division of property. In some states in the US, everything is divided equally between the couple after a divorce on these grounds. In India, there is no such provision in the existing law or in the contemplated new addition.

What this will mean in real life is that an adulterous husband can file under this addition to the divorce law and even if he agrees to pay alimony, he is not bound by law to ensure that the woman has adequate resources to survive on her own. Also, in a society where being married grants women “respectability”, a divorce means losing that status. There is no legal compensation for this and no sign that our society is likely to change its attitude toward divorced or unmarried women in a hurry. Hence, women will always hesitate before filing for divorce.

The bottom line is that provisions for divorce are not gender neutral in a society like ours where there is no level playing field for men and women. Therefore, before any such provision is introduced, there needs to be a much closer scrutiny of its impact on poor women without independent economic resources who constitute the majority in this country. You cannot bring in a law that would ease the way for a small minority without considering the impact on this majority.

This is not to say that women or men should be permanently tied into loveless or cruel marriages. Divorce is a way out of such situations and marriage is not sacrosanct as some hold. But the provisions for divorce must be just. Of course, women who have a hard time proving that their husbands are cruel, or bigamous, could also use this provision to end their marriages. But such women are usually those with financial independence and the ability to negotiate a decent settlement. The majority of women would not dare use the provision for fear that they would be left with nothing. On the other hand, for their husbands, this would be a very handy piece of law to opt out of the marriage, and then go in for another.

Let me end by quoting from a reader who responded to the news that the government was going to introduce this provision. Writes Dr. Mitu Khurana from Delhi on the Economic Times website (June 14, 2010): “My husband threw me out because I could not give him sons. I have two daughters. After trying for four years to make my marriage work, for sake of my daughters, now I have initiated legal action against my husband. So has my marriage broken down irretrievably? Now my insistence not to take any more abuse, has it become a ground for my husband to take divorce and remarry to have sons, which he so badly desires? And what is the fault of my daughters in all this? Just that they were born daughters. That means now no mother should take the stand I took, and simply go ahead with female feticide.”
This is just one voice. There are many more. They need to be heard and heeded. Why is the government is such a hurry?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Just let them play

The Hindu, sunday magazine, July 11, 2010

The other half

Women are visible as spectators in most big sporting events but face great hurdles in their attempts to excel in sports.

Today, after a whole month of watching men kicking a ball around a field, and hearing the buzz of the Vuvuzela, the drama of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa will end. Millions of eyes that remained glued to television screens will get a rest. Emotions will settle. Life will move on, to other sports, other interests.

The FIFA World Cup is the world's most watched sporting event. This year, we are told, it has successfully drawn in an ever greater number of women viewers, over 40 per cent. Women were certainly visible as spectators, or rather the television cameras made sure that they were visible. But does a larger women's viewership of what is seen as a men's game have any relevance in the context of women and sports?

Clearly not. Because sports is not about watching others play; it is about being able to participate, to enjoy the physicality, the team spirit, the self-confidence, the exhilaration that sport imbues in the people who participate. Of course, in this media and corporate age, it has also come to represent fame, fortune and glamour.

But what draws millions of young women and men around the world to the playing field is not the prospect of money or fame as much as the sheer enjoyment and freedom that sports represents. Yet, we know only too well, that women who want to excel in sport face many hurdles. A few succeed. The more glamorous amongst them get name and fame. Others appear occasionally on our television screens and news pages and are then forgotten.

Where are the women?

In contrast, pages are devoted to men's sports and individual men who excel in sports. Looking at an average sports page, or sports coverage on our television channels, you could almost believe that women either do not play any sports, or are not interested.

Take just soccer, or football. The American team made a mark in this World Cup. But it is women who made soccer popular in the U.S. The American women's soccer team won the FIFA Women's World Cup as far back as 1999 in a spectacular match against the Chinese team.

Even in China, women have done extremely well on the football field. Not so their male counterparts, who have not yet managed to qualify for the World Cup. And in Germany, women's football is successful and they now even have professional clubs like the men.

In many countries, women's participation in sports increased because those who manage sports acknowledged that traditional gender biases work against women taking part in sports, and because of that specific steps sometimes have to be taken to encourage them to participate.

Thus, in the United States, for instance, Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education including athletics, was enacted in 1975. As a result, more women could enter institutes of higher learning on athletic scholarships. Before the law, only two per cent of women college students participated in sport. After it, by 2001, the number had jumped to 43 per cent. Similarly before Title IX, only seven per cent of girls in high school participated in sport. By 2001, 41.5 per cent were doing so.

In athletics, the Olympic Charter was amended in 2004 with the following inclusion: “The IOC encourages and supports the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women” (Rule 2, para 7, Olympic Charter). Possibly because of this specific provision, the participation of women in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 touched an all time high of 42 per cent.

Of course, gender equity in sports is not just a numbers game. The playing field can serve so many other functions. Sticking still with football, a unique experiment of bringing healing to a nation that saw the worst genocide since World War II was undertaken in Rwanda a few years ago. “Kicking for Reconciliation” is a project in which over 100 girls, both Tutsis and Hutus, have been trained to play football.

One of their trainers, a young woman called Emertha, said in an interview to Women without Borders, the organisation that initiated the project, “In football, there are no Hutus and Tutsis, there is just us, we, the team.” Passionate about football, Emertha had to overcome the questioning of her neighbours when she took to the field. They told her that this was a man's game. To which she replied, “Why? I have my legs and I use them! What's up? Do I ask you to help me? It's me who's playing and the ball is there. So let me just play.”


In fact, that is what millions of young girls around the world must be saying, “Let me just play”. In this country, we don't talk enough about women's sports. It is virtually invisible from our sports pages barring the exceptional sports woman. But should we not be looking at sporting facilities for children, including girls, in schools? Are they given adequate encouragement? Do they have role models if they really want to pursue a future in sports? Where can they go for further training? Do colleges give sports scholarships? How many girls win them? Is their percentage going up or declining? Even as we encourage girls' education, should we not be looking at sports as an integral part of education?

India is hosting the Commonwealth Games later this year. We read constantly about the infrastructure being put in place in New Delhi for it. The spanking new airport is now the envy of every major Indian city including Mumbai, which suffers the problems of making do with an incrementally improved airport. Yet will these games encourage more young Indians, women and men, to aspire to be sportspersons?

That is unlikely if even the few sports facilities that exist for young people are swallowed up by the infrastructure being built for the Commonwealth Games. As the former director of the NCERT, Krishna Kumar, wrote in this newspaper last week (The Hindu, June 28), school playgrounds in Delhi have become dumping grounds for construction material and some grounds have been taken over. Delhi schools will be closed during the Games. As a result, when children return to school, they will be forced to make up with extra classes, leaving precious little time to enjoy sports. We might have the Right to Education now, but young people still cannot assert the right to play sports. And young women cannot even dream of kicking a ball around a football field leave alone saying, “Let me just play”.

(To read the original click on the link above)

Friday, July 09, 2010

Words and their meanings

The Hoot (

The language used to describe those who protest in Kashmir is not just a matter of semantics. It is important because it places what is happening within a context, says KALPANA SHARMA.

Posted Thursday, Jul 08 20:22:51, 2010

It is interesting how in the current standoff in Kashmir, with curfew imposed in Srinagar and even journalists not being allowed free movement, the phrases used to describe those confronting the security forces are consistently careful in most of the English language print media outside Kashmir. The angry young men of Srinagar, Baramulla, Anantnag and Sopore are being called “stone-pelters” or “stone-throwers” or just the generic term “protestors”. Although some reports hint that some of them might be paid to provoke the police and the CRPF, nowhere is the word terrorists, or even separatists, used to describe those participating in street battles in Kashmir, notwithstanding their battle cry of “aazadi”.

Is this because the bulk of the reporting, as the situation developed in the last month or so, is by Kashmir-based reporters who have followed the story, and the process leading to the protests, rather than by parachute journalists from Delhi or elsewhere who land up when there is a high drama?

Speak to journalists in Kashmir and you will find that many are extremely sensitive about the terminology that so much of mainstream Indian media uses without pausing to think about the meaning. In fact, on a news programme on NDTV on July 7, the day curfew was imposed on Srinagar, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, the “moderate” Hurriyat leader, took the Indian media to task for calling the young men on the streets “hooligans” and “trouble-makers” without understanding why they have taken to the streets.

Another example is the generally accepted view that the higher turnout in the last elections in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the increase in tourism, adds up to a return to “normalcy”. Or that ordinary Kashmiris are now willing to settle for better governance, basic facilities and a “peaceful” life rather than demanding “aazadi”. Many journalists accept this conclusion without question. Thus, through the summer, when tourists from all over India flock to the beautiful valley, you will find articles about “normalcy” in Srinagar and elsewhere.

Yet, when the street battles escalated, particularly in the course of the last month, many readers in other parts of India must have wondered why? Were these young men provoked, paid to throw stones? Or were they nursing grievances for months and years that finally came to a boil with the increase in civilian deaths and the lack of response from New Delhi on the demand for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Is it possible that the media did not probe deeply enough to assess the mood of these young people in the beginning, or to understand how widespread was the feeling of disillusionment and disappointment in the valley? Could it be that journalists from outside Kashmir underestimated the power of a Shopian or the fake encounter of three young men in Machil and presumed that a surface “calm” meant that things were indeed “normal'? Could it be that journalists have been seduced by the language and phrases used by the authorities in relation to Kashmir and as a result overlooked the gaping wound of unresolved political questions that remains open?

I would suggest that the surface changes have not touched the deeper disappointment and disillusionment in Kashmir about the long-term future of the region. Thus, it is not “peace” that ordinary people want; they stress they want a “resolution” to the Kashmir question. They want development and jobs, yes, but they also want a political solution. These are not mutually exclusive. And for us in the media to believe that participating in elections settles open and unresolved political issues like Kashmir is na├»ve at best and foolish at worst.

The language used to describe those who protest in Kashmir is not just a matter of semantics. It is important because it places what is happening within a context. Thus, what is significant is not that people are using stones instead of guns, as some reports suggest, but that young people are daring men with guns, even at risk to their lives, because their anger and frustration cannot be contained any more. We need to comprehend this anger that fuels the “stone-pelter”.

Writing in the context of the Middle East, veteran journalist Robert Fisk, who has covered the region for over three decades, talks about language and semantics in his column in The Independent. He discusses the use of phrases like “spike in violence” when what is actually meant is an increase in violence, about the unthinking repetition of phrases like the “road map to peace” or getting it “back on track” or even the tautology “deadly massacre” when all massacres are necessarily “deadly”. Many of these phrases emanate from official briefings and become part of the lexicon of journalists. Fisk questions this unthinking adoption of terminology and what it represents. He writes:

“Power and the media are not just about cozy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.

In the Western context, power and the media is about words ??" and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops ‘correct' our spelling, ‘trim' our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?”

The context of Fisk's comments might be different, but the point he makes is apt for Indian journalists, whether we cover Kashmir, the Northeast, or the so-called “Naxal-infested areas” in India.

(To read the original, click on the link above)