A recent report by BBC revealed the reality that some South Asian women face domestic violence in the form of enslavement in the UK. Citing a paper by academics at University of Lincoln titled Disposable Women: Abuse, Violence and Abandonment in Transnational Marriages, it highlighted disturbing cases of men marrying the women, taking thousands of pounds from their wives’ families, sometimes abandoning them following the wedding, or leaving them with in-laws to be treated as domestic slaves.
Dr Sundari Anitha, from the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, and author of the paper tells SheThePeople.TV, “Women who come to the UK to marry have a period during which they are on probationary stay – and in this period they cannot access any welfare benefits from the govt. This includes housing benefit, income support etc. During this period, their visa is also dependent on their husband and if the marriage ends, so does their visa. Before 2002, women facing domestic violence had two ‘choices’ – to stay and put up with the abuse, or to leave and lose their visa which meant being deported back to India, Pakistan or their home country in South Asia, where they might face the stigma of being a divorcee, and if they have children (who might be British citizens) it might also mean separation from their children.”
It’s rare for women to speak about the issue. Over a year, the academics at University of Lincoln found only 57 women in India willing to recount what happened to them. Campaigners are requesting that British state recognises abandonment as a form of domestic violence and offer protection to women “disposed of” by British men. On top of the violence and abuse, survivors often have to deal with the massive stigma that comes with abandonment.
Dr Sundari Anitha expands on the report’s findings, for SheThePeople.TV.
What happens to these women who come back to the subcontinent?
Women’s responses and options depend on the context and circumstances of their abandonment, and of course on their own resources and contexts… Abandonment takes three forms: (a) a woman, migrating after marriage to her Indian-origin husband’s country of residence, may be ousted or (less commonly) flee after a period of abuse; (b) a woman who has migrated with her husband after marriage may be deceived into returning to India for a vacation and abandoned there, while her husband returns and revokes her visa; (c) a woman may be left behind in India after marriage while her husband goes back with assurances that he will sponsor her visa, but the woman is left with her in-laws and is eventually ousted from their home or leaves because of domestic violence.
For women abandoned in the UK, it is possible for women to access a refuge and to claim ILR and stay on in the UK after leaving the abusive marriage. But none of the women we spoke to were aware of this right that they had. The few who were abandoned in the UK (this was the smallest category of women we spoke to) managed to make their way back to India with help from relatives, family friends etc.
The second biggest category were women taken back deceptively and abandoned. The biggest category were women who were left with in-laws while they waited for a spouse visa, which never materialised. After a period of abuse domestic servitude and extraction of dowry (ranging from 2 months to 8 years), the women were thrown out. In some cases, the husband visited during this period, and the women had children.
Following abandonment, ex-parte divorce proceedings were initiated by the husband. These are proceedings where both parties do not have to be present, and the notice is posted to the wife and she has 6 weeks to respond. Women were ignorant of the proceedings or could not understand the letter. By the time they managed to find a lawyer (and not all of them could), it was too late. Additionally, most women were not aware that divorce could take place in this manner, so did not respond because the law in India is very different. A few who did understand, could not represent themselves in legal proceedings in another country. Some went to the embassy and complained but did not receive any assistance there. Some of the women eventually did initiate legal action in India against their husbands and in-laws, however most complaints ended in a compromise agreement or were not pursued by the police.
In some cases where men came to India, the police did not arrest them, arrested them and were allegedly bribed to let them go (at which point they fled the country), or dropped the complaint, or did not record the FIR. Some of the police officers we interviewed expressed their frustration that they could do little if the men were nationals of another country, or never returned to India. Men managed to transfer their property to other members of their family so the women and their children would have no claim to it. Very few of the women received financial settlement of any kind upon divorce, and none received any maintenance for their children or return of their dowry.
Eventually most women ended up living with their parents – but some of them indicated that their presence was seen as a burden, for some their brothers saw them as a threat to their inheritance, where there were children, women were worried that once their parents died there would be no place for them in the home. Life was very insecure for these women. Another reason for this is that most women did not recover their dowry – so in some ways their so-called inheritance and source of financial security was also taken from them.
Stigma was a big issue for these women.
Dr Anitha says that not enough is being done — while her report has a full recommendations section, she also says that transnational marriages are a reality in a globalized world. ”What we need to do is to make sure that governments act together to implement laws that already exist, work together to sign bilateral agreements, and close spaces that enable men to find new ways to abuse and exploit women and to evade justice.”
And while Dr Anitha calls for more research to be done, she says, “Also, we need to build links to enable groups supporting women to come together and exchange information and knowledge to empower women about the law in the countries they are marrying into.”
Feature Image Courtesy: opendemocracy.net