India: New law on domestic violence

The Independent
For the first time, women in India have legal protection against abuse in their own homes. It is the first time Indian law has recognised marital rape, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse of a woman by her husband as crimes.
There is a remarkably low rate of violent crime against strangers in most of the big cities, and it is safe to walk the streets of Mumbai or Bangalore late at night. But every six hours, a young married woman is burnt to death, beaten to death, or driven to suicide by emotional abuse from her husband, figures show.
More than two-thirds of married women in India aged between 15 and 49 have been beaten, raped or forced to provide sex, according to the UN Population Fund.

One of the most common causes of violence against women is dowry-related. In most of India, women's families are still expected to provide their husbands with dowries when they marry.

Husbands - or their families - who are dissatisfied with the dowry beat, emotionally abuse and often even kill the women.

Last year 6,787 cases were recorded of women murdered by their husbands or their husbands' families because of their dowries. Many die in "stove burnings": set alight by husbands or in-laws who then claim it was a kitchen accident.

Domestic violence against women is already illegal, under a 1983 law. But the new law marks the first time India has recognised marital rape. Previously it was impossible to prosecute a man for raping his wife, which was considered to be within his conjugal rights.

The new law also for the first time recognises emotional, verbal and economic abuse of a woman by her husband as a crime. Punishment can include a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees (£230). Existing law already provides longer sentences for physical violence.

But more importantly, the new law also provides a share of an abusive husband's earnings and property for the victim, and medical costs.

Crucially, it also guarantees abused wives the right to continue living in the family house. Houses are still shared by extended families in much of India, and abused wives are often thrown out by their husbands' in-laws, leaving them destitute and homeless.

"It's going to orient women to stand up for their own rights and take the necessary precautions to empower themselves," said Renuka Chowdhury, minister of women and child development. Previously many women are believed to have been afraid to speak out because they risk losing their husband's financial support for themselves and their children.

But concerns remain that even under the new law, many cases of abuse will still go unreported, unless attitudes towards domestic abuse change. The UN Population Fund's 2005 report found that 70 per cent of Indian women believed wife-beating was justified under certain circumstances, including refusal to provide sex, or preparing dinner late.

By Justin Huggler in Delhi
Published: 27 October 2006