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Saving trans- border brides from bad marriages

Oct 16, 2013

Dynamic and multi-pronged approaches are important when it comes to issues that transcend international borders, writes Lavanya Regunathan Fischer and Devadatt Kamat.

London: The phenomenon of “holiday brides”, mostly poor unsuspecting women who are married off to Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) only to be abandoned by their ‘grooms’ even before they can settle into their new lives, has been growing steadily. This concern, however, has been long recognised. In 2008, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reiterated that the issue of women trapped in fraudulent marriages has assumed ‘alarming’ dimensions. The NCW has also brought out a book, ‘Abandoned Indian Women Trapped in NRI Marriages - The Way Out’, which suggested remedial measures.

But nothing much seems to have changed. Every year, different sources ranging from the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) and the NCW to the media report steadily increasing numbers. In fact, according to 2008 media reports, attributed to the MOIA, 20,000 abandoned wives are officially recorded as abandoned as a result of such marriages.

With their remarriage prospects being virtually non-existent and their families left bankrupt because of the high dowries they have had to pay defrauding ‘grooms’, these women are often forced to either live with their families or depend on relatives for their subsistence in the towns or villages of their birth.

The UK recently proposed a legislation that would ban legal aid to people who were not citizens and lived in the country for more than a year. Such a move definitely spells bad news for scores of immigrant women who are vulnerable to abuse and abandonment.

At first glance, such a state policy may not seem to have any relation to women in India, but a closer look will show that its ripples will indeed be felt, particularly in the small towns of the country. Indian legislators are aware of the well-established plight of abandoned wives, and the problems they face which include domestic abuse. Women of the diaspora also face similar situations, yet have no established support structures or legal remedies. Today, in its attempt to engage with the NRI population, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs is considering a proposal to establish Overseas Indian Centres in USA, the Gulf countries and Malaysia, to start with, because these are the regions where there is a significant presence of Indians. Besides other activities, it is proposed that these Centres will extend “counselling facilities with the help of professional counsellors to those who face the problem of fake, fraudulent or failed marriages”.

But these are all post facto measures. More immediate and pertinent questions that need to be answered. How, for example, can women ensure that they do not fall prey to this form of abuse? And, if they do end up in such unfortunate situations, how will they be able to access measures of recourse? One of the ways in which the government is proposing to do this is to raise awareness on the issues involved for those seeking to marry persons living abroad. Through booklets and other means, such information will be made available in the vernacular for rural readers. Of course, it is anybody’s guess as to who would actually read these booklets. Perhaps it would be more useful if, along with the various immigration documents made available to departing brides, a simple pamphlet is provided detailing the problem and listing emergency numbers or addresses that can be accessed. This may prove handy should any of them find themselves abandoned under foreign jurisdictions.

Dynamic and multi-pronged approaches are important when it comes to issues that transcend international borders, and the system of checks and balances needs to be continually fine-tuned. Unfortunately, there are currently no internationally accepted checks for diasporic marriages. One of the arguments against too much regulation is that it would place unnecessary restrictions on marriages that are healthy and safe, as the majority are.

But while we certainly should not create procedural headaches for the law abiding, we also need to provide succour from within the country to those who travel out and end up in intractable personal situations. This is in the interests of ensuring the safety and security of Indian citizens who can realistically hope that the country of their birth would protect their interests. In an increasingly globalised world, the responsibility of the government to ensure adequate protection for its population, whatever the inherent challenges, are of immediate importance.

The recent passing of the compulsory registration of marriage bill in the Rajya Sabha is an effort to find a workable solution to this problem and it might prove a significant check, since it at least allows such cases to be tracked. The good thing about this Bill is that it makes registration compulsory, even for marriages across religions. Some civil society groups have expressed doubt as to whether it will indeed make a difference since conservative families or communities may choose not to disclose abandonment, if it were to happen. They also point out that there are no incentives or disincentives with regard to registration in this law. But despite its shortcoming, it could be seen as a step in the right direction.

India is no stranger to enacting laws that are sometimes more progressive than those that exist in more economically developed countries. For instance, the constitutional right of non-discrimination on the basis of sex has made it easier for Indian courts to legislate on issues such as equal pay. At the same time, there can be no disputing that a substantial number of Indian women today are faced with the reality that their basic rights are not safeguarded, even on paper. Trans border brides in bad marriages belong to this category.

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