Spousal maintenance has been found to be out of reach for most women from low economic or disadvantaged sections of society

Memories of abuse remain fresh in the mind of Kalyani (name changed) more than a decade after the breakdown of her marriage and she vows never to go back to her husband, even if it means giving up her right to alimony and living in penury.

“He reduced me to a physical and mental wreck. There were days when I could not move an inch and he would simply lift me and throw me off the bed. I was scared but one day I finally gathered enough courage to run away and returned to my mother’s house,” she says.

Though she was allowed to stay in the house, she was expected to take care of herself and her infant. She took to doing menial jobs in the village, which was not much but allowed her to survive from day to day.

She distrusts the government mechanism to bring her relief in the way of maintenance. Besides, she simply does not have the money to pursue a court battle for divorce which can drag for years, she adds.

Spousal maintenance post separation or divorce remains a huge challenge, especially for a large section of women from poorer backgrounds. It is no secret that less than half of women ever ask for spousal maintenance.

The issue of maintenance is intricately linked to the denial of property rights and job opportunities to women, Flavia Agnes, advocate and co-founder of Majlis, a legal resource centre in Mumbai, says in her book Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.

Since neither the law nor society recognises the role of women as home makers in concrete monetary terms, when a marriage breaks down, women are reduced to a state of destitution. A meagre dole is promised, which is far too inadequate to help women to live a life of dignity.

“Women carry on the task of maintaining their families by working at low paid jobs in the unorganised sector. Since women are not recognised as heads of households their earnings continue to be below subsistence level. They have to choose between a below subsistence level wage and the meagre maintenance dole, because the law will not let them have both.”

Besides, the concept of maintenance is linked to sexual control and economic subordination of women. Therefore, only a chaste woman is entitled to maintenance. Remarriage or unchastity results in the denial of maintenance, states Flavia Agnes.

A legal document proving that the woman has separated from her husband is essential to receive maintenance, says Ginny Shrivastava, who organises and works with single women. The National Forum for Single Women’s Rights recently held a conference in the Capital.

“Sometimes it is done on a Rs 100 stamp paper but it is not official in that sense. In Rajasthan, the chief minister passed a resolution that if separated women can get a verification from the Gram Sachiv, Patwari and Sarpanch and take it to the SDO, they can have a certificate, and be eligible to receive some sort of compensation,” says Ginny.

The organisation of single women conducted a survey of 386 respondents in six States – Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan – which revealed that a majority of separated women do not have court decrees of separation or of divorce. More than 85 per cent of them take responsibility for the children. Very few low-income separated or divorced women file a case for maintenance and of these a very small fraction actually benefit under schemes. Of the total sample only 26.4 per cent had applied for maintenance and of these only 23.1 per cent (9 women) were receiving it. A majority of the separated and divorced women live with other natal family members, but many reported that they were not happy as they were made to feel like a burden.

Separated and divorced women are left out of the ambit of government schemes as well. While 36.6 per cent of the separated women do not have ration cards, around a quarter are without voter cards. Only 13.5 per cent receive social security pension, and only 10.1 per cent had received assistance for housing.

While separated and divorced women are an extremely vulnerable group, society labels them ‘bad women’ and for the government they are invisible. Older unmarried single women are the most invisible of all categories of single women. The study states that most of them are unmarried because of socio-economic reasons and not out of choice.

While the Rajya Sabha recently passed the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2013, to make divorce friendly for women by giving the wife a share in the husband’s immovable property, it remains to be seen how it will pan out.

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