Two out of 10 NRI marriages reportedly end with the wife being abandoned. India has no laws that protect wives whose NRI husbands get ex parte divorces and custody of children. Will government’s decision to issue two valid passports to women marrying abroad help this situation?
In January 2010, the Government of India (GOI) Ministry of Women and Child Development announced an unusual decision: it will issue two simultaneously valid passports to married women who leave the country to live with their husbands in foreign lands. The second passport would include information about a woman’s NRI (non-resident Indian) spouse, serve as her proof of marriage, and be deposited with the Indian Embassy/Consulate in the country where she is being taken to reside. This unprecedented move is to protect women who are deserted abroad by their émigré husbands; men who disappear without a trace after destroying their wives’ travel documents, making it difficult for the women to return to India.
Although this indicates the government’s concern about the issue, Indian women being abandoned in a foreign country is only a small part of a much larger crisis. An astounding number of NRI wives are abandoned not in a foreign country, but in India itself. These are women who have never resided abroad, or who have been brought back to India deceptively and/or coercively by their NRI husbands and discarded without any legal or financial means.
The pattern of NRI wife abandonment falls into three types: (a) a woman who is residing with her husband in a foreign country suddenly finds her husband has disappeared leaving her in the lurch; (b) a woman who has been residing abroad with her husband is either deceptively and/or coercively taken back to India and left there without her passport, visa, and money and thus without any way of rejoining her husband; and (c) a woman who is married before her husband migrates to a foreign country but is never sent sponsorship for a visa to join him. Alternatively, a man who is already living abroad may return to India to marry and then leave with promises to send for his bride. However, the visa papers never arrive. Since a large number of such marriages take place hurriedly, mostly when men come back to India for a visit, the women have been popularly labelled “holiday brides.”
The phenomenon of wives abandoned by their NRI husbands has been growing invisibly for more than a decade. Nearly every Indian state has women deserted by NRI men who live in various foreign countries including Canada, UK, European and Middle Eastern countries, and the USA.
Although there is little systematic research on the subject, the numbers reported in newspapers are staggering. By a 2004 estimate, approximately 12,000 abandoned women live in Gujarat, and according to a 2007 study, an estimated 25,000 wives of NRIs have been deserted in Punjab. In 2008, GOI Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi stated that in Punjab alone, at least 20,000 legal cases were pending against NRI husbands, presumably for abandoning their wives. In 2009, the chairperson of the National Commission for Women’s (NCW), Girija Vyas, commented that “out of 10 NRI marriages, two result in the wife being abandoned after honeymoon”. (1) In Canada, there may be as many as 10,000 runaway grooms. According to the Government of Indian, émigré husbands have abandoned at least 30,000 women in India, a number significantly less than what newspapers report and NGOs suggest.
Regardless of actual figures, there is little doubt that the number of wives abandoned by NRI husbands is appallingly high. An added outrage is that the overwhelming majority of abandoned women have no way of combating their husbands’ desertion. Many are forced to live with their in-laws as virtual servants to avoid destitution and silently suffer countless indignities. Some women are bringing up children who have never seen their fathers and a few have committed suicide to avoid the uncertainties and social shame of being abandoned. While the fundamental motivation of such behaviour in men might be to dissolve an unwanted conjugal relationship, in all cases the main purpose of abandonment is to deliberately deprive women of financial and legal recourses to pursue justice. Hence, abandonment has dire and far-reaching consequences for married Indian women. It profoundly affects financial, emotional, physical, and social conditions of a woman and renders her life and livelihood practically nonviable. Preeti Sandhu, a mother of two who had been brought back to India on a vacation and abandoned at the New Delhi international airport by her NRI husband, stated to a reporter, “Where will I go?… Can I be a burden on my brother?” (2)
The GOI and South Asian women’s organisations (SAWO) in the US are acutely aware of the issue of wives abandoned in India by NRI men. Unquestionably, in a society with scanty safety nets for women and where divorced women still suffer significant social stigma, abandoned wives suffer grim privations in India. Defining abandonment as an individual left without resources by another on whom s/he is dependent for social and financial survival, SAWOs have dubbed transnational abandonment of wives as the emerging face of violence against women in a globalising world. However, the mainstream violence against women movement in the US is yet to see eye to eye with SAWOs, believing that desertion of adult women does not meet the parameters of either domestic violence or sexual assault. In contrast, the GOI’s actions seem to lend credence to SAWO’s characterisation of the problem. In 2006, the GOI created a fund for abandoned Indian women that would grant each applicant US$ 1000-1500 to legally pursue their claims in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Gulf countries.
Indisputably, desertion of women is atrocious and can be extremely traumatic for the affected. However, when abandoned in the US, it is possible to find legal representation. Each US state has non-governmental organisations and free legal aid services that facilitate all women’s access to the legal system and ultimately, to assert their claims to an equitable financial division of marital property. However, women sent back to India and abandoned have far less access to legal recourses and financial resources. Indian immigrant men tend to abandon their wives in the home country specifically to thwart the women’s efforts to find justice and assert their economic rights. Nor do these wives have the opportunity to protect their interests and rights in US courts and are frequently only the passive recipients of whatever legal decisions their husbands extract from the legal system.
Since under international law, an individual's country of residency usually has jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, most often after deserting his wife the husband starts divorce proceedings in his country of residence, to wit the US, (3) and obtains an ex parté divorce.
The process of such divorce is fraught with problems for women who are deserted outside the country where their husbands reside. In many cases, the women may never receive the legal notice of filing, a copy of the complaint, and the notice of appearance. Although serving such notices is a necessary step for a valid divorce in the US, men’s families or other hostile parties may suppress such notices being served in India and/or forge the recipient’s signature to indicate legally binding acceptance. Frequently, the divorce notices are served improperly - that is, not personally.
Even when a notice is served properly, it may reach a woman late with only a couple of weeks at hand to respond. Most women tend to be ignorant of the US laws and often do not have easy access to appropriate legal advice in India. Local attorneys in India may also be unfamiliar with US family law, which does not require anyone to prove that the breakdown of the marriage is one party's fault and allows ex parté divorce if one party has not responded to the court's notice of appearance.
In India, family law allows one party of a married couple to contest divorce petitions even after receiving the divorce notice. A woman or her attorney may not comprehend that by refusing to receive or respond to a divorce notice from the US courts, she allows the divorce to be concluded by default and ex-parté after the required time has elapsed. Furthermore, used to the slow moving Indian legal system, many attorneys do not anticipate the fast pace of the US courts. As women fail to respond, appear in court, seek adjournment, or secure legal representation, they lose out on receiving maintenance, child support, rehabilitation support, and an equitable share of marital property.
Even when an abandoned woman has lodged legal complaints in India either before or in response to her husband’s legal case, courts in the US may be ignorant of or oblivious to such proceedings, thus allowing men to get away scot-free with an ex-parté divorce. In addition, courts in the two countries involved may have different laws, may ignore each other’s judgments, and thereby issue conflicting orders (for example, the Indian law of Restitution of Conjugal Rights has no parallel in the US and is often ignored by the US courts). Such jurisdictional disagreements and legal contradictions often jeopardise the financial and social rights of women who are not in a position to protect them in the first place. However, if there are no legal contradictions or split jurisdiction, the Supreme Court of India has shown willingness to accept divorce judgments passed in a foreign country (see Pashaura Singh v State of Punjab, November 13, 2009). It is not clear if the US courts will reciprocate.
So, how can India respond fittingly to the problem of transnational abandonment of women? Governments, legislators, judiciary, and social activists in India and the US are still playing catch up to the fast changing realities in a global world. Gone is the traditional notion that a husband and wife should reside in the same household and in the same geographical location. Due to increased worker mobility across the globe, families may not only live in different households, they may not even inhabit the same continent. To regulate peoples’ conduct and relationships in such conditions, a new set of appropriate private international laws would have to be generated and implemented.
The Hague Conference on Private International Law (popularly known as the Hague Conference), an intergovernmental organisation of nearly 70 member states, serves as one of the primary reference points for multilateral conventions governing international family law disputes. A number of Hague Conventions offer legal remedies that could provide abandoned women in India with financial relief, custody, divorce, and ultimately, a semblance of justice. However, like all international agreements, Hague Conventions are meaningless unless country governments sign and agree to abide by these. India and the US are not signatories to many of these Conventions.
Efforts by the GOI in response to the problem of NRI abandonment are half-hearted at best and futile at worst. The grant of $1500 for legal fees is patently insufficient for women pursuing any legal option in the US and unavailable to abandoned women in India where the sum could have made a difference. The issuance of two passports to married immigrant women is also somewhat hasty, as the loss of such documents in a foreign land, although frightening, is easily remedied by applying to the appropriate authorities. Instead, the funds could have been better utilised by encouraging migrating women to attend seminars to acquaint them with the resources available in a foreign land and provide essential information to protect their rights. In addition, the GOI could take a leadership role in forging bilateral agreements that address the issue of transnational abandonment, split jurisdiction and recognition and enforcement of decisions related to divorce, maintenance obligations and child custody.
In 2009, the GOI hired an attorney-adviser residing in California to deal with the legal issues of Indian women abandoned transnationally by their NRI husbands. Since US laws differ from state to state, it is virtually impossible for one person in one particular state to deal with legal cases in all 50 US states. The allocated funds could have been better spent by developing a network of legal experts across the US to assist abandoned women outside the country, supporting judiciary education, and trying test cases in one or two targeted states to create credible case laws. Such case laws would inform attorneys in different states and might ultimately bring about necessary legal changes to protect women from unjust legal outcomes.
Women’s organisations are organising independently around the issue of abandoned wives. SAWOs in the US and NGOs in India established a network called Aman: Global Voices for Peace in the Home, on December 7, 2006. Led by Swayam in West Bengal and Manavi in New Jersey, Aman has more than 30 organisational members and is focused on responding to women abandoned by their NRI husbands. However, as the network began to operate, the difficulties in working across continents and discrepant legal systems came to the fore. The problems generated by wife abandonment often did not span just two jurisdictions but three or four. Currently, Aman is still recruiting women’s organisations to widen and strengthen its network. Simultaneously, it is providing assistance to affected women individually and attempting to create strategies and suggestions for change at policy levels.
For abandoned women, another serious problem is transnational child custody. After coercing their wives to go back to the home country with the children, NRI men in the US can secure ex parté divorces and full legal custody of their children by default (that is, if one parent or his/her legal representative does not appear in court). Subsequent to being awarded custody, the men have lodged abduction complaints against the mothers at the federal and state levels. As a result, the women have been charged with international parental kidnapping and left to deal with related warrants and the status of a fugitive from law. With such complaints against them, the mothers have been effectively banned from re-entering the US or face arrest and jail time upon re-entry. At least in two known cases, the fathers have travelled to India and kidnapped the children back to the US.
Transnational abandonment of wives is a particularly challenging issue because of the legal complications it generates, the difficulties in arriving at a just solution, and the complexities in dealing with cultural as well as legal expectations of different nations. Unfortunately, the desertion of wives and children has grown significantly in the wake of increased mobility of Indian workers. As Indian men and women migrate to foreign countries, the enjoyment and infringement of their rights occur in transnational spaces – that is, spaces that extend beyond national boundaries and encompasses psychological, legal, emotional, cultural, and economic areas spanning different nations. Due to such straddling of boundaries, special issues and problems arise for individuals and families who live in transnational domains. Changes in international advocacy, law and policy are required to ensure justice and a viable life, especially to women in this situation.
Divorced without a hearing
Ketan (4) a long time permanent resident in the US came back to India to get married. His brothers and widowed mother approached Sharmila’s parents, who had advertised in the newspapers for a match for her, and arranged for the wedding. Sharmila’s parents, who were educated but not well to do, were delighted at the prospect of having their eldest daughter well settled in the US. Furthermore, they were happy that the groom’s family did not demand an exorbitant dowry. The wedding took place within a week of Ketan landing in India and the newlyweds moved in with his mother in a home she shared with her sons. Ketan was supposed to stay in India for eight weeks and promised to send for her as soon as he reached the US.
Within three weeks of their marriage, Sharmila’s mother-in-law began to disparage her family for not providing worthy gifts for them at the wedding. The altercations reached a stage where one of Ketan’s brothers slapped Sharmila in front of everyone and forced her to apologise for arguing with his mother. Ketan ignored the mistreatment of his wife and was impervious to her complaints. By the time he left for the US, Sharmila’s relationship with him was showing signs of serious strain. However, she believed that when they would live in the US by themselves, such tensions would be behind them.
As soon as Ketan left, his mother turned Sharmila out of the house without any money. Sharmila was forced to go back to her father’s home and accept his financial support. She had resigned from her teaching position in a school in preparation of her marriage and migration, and was now penniless. Within a few months, Ketan’s letters, phone calls, and emails to her dwindled and eventually ended. Sharmila’s frantic letters to him were returned unopened, her emails bounced, and phone calls reached a disconnected line. After only a year and a half of their marriage, Sharmila received a notice to appear in a US court to respond to a divorce petition filed by Ketan. Panic-stricken, she consulted a lawyer who advised her not to respond to the notice to stall the divorce proceedings. On his advice, she lodged a Restitution of Conjugal Rights case in the local high court. Within four weeks of the first set of papers, Sharmila received the notice of divorce enacted in the US, which had been granted in her absence. She had received no maintenance or property settlement.
Sanam had been living in the US with her husband Isaad for nearly five years. Both were permanent residents and had two children aged four and one. For the last two years, their marriage seemed to be going downhill and Isaad had even physically abused Sanam a few times. Their last quarrel was severe when Sanam had expressed her suspicion that Isaad was having an affair with another woman. The next morning, Isaad apologised to Sanam for his brutal behaviour and came home in the evening with plane tickets for the whole family. As an act of contrition, he was taking Sanam and the children back to Ahmedabad, their hometown, on a short vacation. This was to be a new beginning for them.
Once they reached Ahmedabad, Isaad dropped off Sanam and the children at her parents’ home and took the next plane back to the US without notifying her. After he left, Sanam discovered that he had taken her and their children’s passports and green cards with him. She was virtually stranded in India with her children. Within a couple of months, Sanam received an ex parté divorce decree and a notice of default custody from the US courts. She realised that she was now divorced from Isaad and he had been awarded sole custody of their children. Next, she received notice that she had been charged with international parental kidnapping and the FBI had issued a warrant against her. She was instructed to surrender herself to the nearest US Embassy otherwise she would be considered a fugitive from law. Sanam realised that she would be arrested if she went back to the US or even appeared at the Consulate to claim her passport. She appealed to Isaad’s parents for help, and they told her to come to their home with the children on a particular day. While Sanam was talking to her mother-in-law, Isaad appeared and took the children away. The next she heard from the children was from West Virginia where Isaad had taken them. Legally, he had sole custody of the children and was thus within his rights to take them wherever he wished. Sanam was now divorced without any financial support, 10,000 miles away in a different country, practically barred from entering the US, and without rights to visit her own children.
(1) Agencies. (2009, August 27). ‘NCW sets up NRI cell to address plight of abandoned wives’, Indian Express, retrieved February 26, 2010 from, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/ncw-sets-up-nri-cell-to-address-plight-of-ab/507941/.
(2) Vij, N (2005, June 10). ‘Promises and Lies’, retrieved August 5, 2005, from SciencesPO Web site: http://www.sciences-po.fr/formation/master_scpo/mentions/journalisme/texte_vij.pdf.
(4) All names and identifying information has been changed to protect individual privacy. The illustrative case studies are from Manavi’s files.
(Shamita Das Dasgupta is co-founder of Manavi (New Jersey), the first organisation in the US to focus on violence against South Asian immigrant women. She has been engaged in advocacy to end violence against women for nearly 30 years. Dasgupta is currently teaching as an adjunct professor at NYU Law School. In addition to several articles, she is the author of four books, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (1995, Interlink Books, USA); A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America (1998, Rutgers University Press, USA); Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America (2007, Rutgers University Press, USA); and Mothers for Sale: Women in Kolkata’s Sex Trade (2009, Dasgupta-Alliance, India)
Infochange News & Features, March 2010