Women confident law will end culture of abuse

Chiranji Gill's beatings began two years ago after she gave birth to a third daughter. Her husband had wanted a boy.

On Saturday, emboldened by a new law that punishes violent husbands, Mrs Gill went to Chetanalya women's refuge in Jehangipuri, where she had earlier sought sanctuary, to ask how she could charge her husband.

Her husband, a bank clerk, appeared at the refuge later the same day. He too had heard of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act that came into effect last Thursday and feared she might complain.

'He said he was sorry and would never do it again. I think he's realised he can't get away with it now,' said Mrs Gill, who returned home with confidence that she can now restrain him with the law.

The legislation was prompted by surveys showing that 70 per cent of Indian women suffer physical or mental abuse by their husbands.

In Mrs Gill's case, it was the failure to produce a boy. But victims give many reasons, from failing to provide a more substantial dowry and talking to a man who is not a relative to coming home late or burning the dinner.

The new law is far-reaching. A spouse or live-in partner found guilty of any kind of abuse, marital rape, demanding a dowry, refusing to let a wife work or forcing her to watch pornography faces a year in jail, a fine of 20,000 rupees (HK$3,452), or both.

Statistics show that every six hours, a young married woman is burned, beaten to death or driven to commit suicide over dowry alone.

Abused women, being financially dependent, have no option but to stay with their husbands.

The new law goes to the heart of this issue, allowing a woman to keep a part of the marital home even if she has no legal claim to it or has made no contribution to it.

'This is the best thing about the law. When a man knows that his wife can get a share of his property and income, he'll think twice about getting violent,' said Mohini Giri, who works with widows, who are also protected under the law.

These provisions have angered some men, who say the law will be misused. Recent cases show existing anti-dowry laws have been abused by vindictive wives who have husbands thrown into jail.

The All India Harassed Husbands Association protested last week at the law. 'It gives such grossly disproportionate rights to women that men won't want to get married,' said member Akhil Gupta.

In Chennai, south India, Matthew Joseph, a messenger with the water board, has become the first man arrested under the new law. The Times of India reported that Joseph's wife, Benedict Mary, told police that he had beaten her with a stick and umbrella during a quarrel.