Govt goes one step back on divorce laws

Diluting women's share in marital property in the event of divorce, the government has sought to restrict the provision for `immoveable property' to residential assets, a move opposed by women's rights activists.

The marriage amendment bill seeks to amend the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Special Marriage Act, 1954, legislating a women's right to marital property acquired during the subsistence of marriage. The amendment cleared by the Union Cabinet recently said that the women's share will be decided by the courts. However, sources said that a new provision in the bill that describes ``immoveable property'' as ``residential property'' has raised the hackles of women activists who feel that this will be used to cut off a woman's share to her rights on other assets acquired by the husband during the period of their marriage.

Opposing the amendment, a delegation of women's rights activists, led by Rajya Sabha MP and CPM leader Brinda Karat, met law minister Salman Khursheed on Monday. Speaking to TOI after the meeting, Karat said, ``This provision will be equal to leaving a woman to the wolves. We have urged the minister to postpone bringing in the amendments till such time as there is a provision guaranteeing equal share for women in marital property. This must be specifically mentioned in the bill.''

Sources said that the proviso appeared to have been brought to pander to parties who felt that a woman after marriage will be able to stake claim to her husband and his family's property. The new marriage amendments include introduction of a new ground for divorce - irretrievable breakdown of marriage. The amendment has met with a mixed response since both BJP and Left parties have demanded that the government bring in adequate guarantees to protect women's rights if the ``quickie divorce'' is introduced.

Karat, who was accompanied by AIDWA member and former Law Commission member Kirti Singh and others, also pointed out that so far there is no adequate definition for ``marital property''. She also stressed that there was no urgency to prioritize this legal reform at a time when several pro-women legislations continued to languish.

Sources said that Khursheed heard the concerns of the members and said that he would consider all aspects before bringing the amendments before Parliament.

The amendments had met with scathing criticism from BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who had argued in the Sabha, that putting irretrievable breakdown without a financial support system as a ground would result in mostly women as sufferers of matrimonial breakdown. ``Once a husband uses it for a divorce, courts will give conventional and very conservative maintenance amounts,'' he had said demanding that provisions like sharing of assets be made part of the bill.

The amendments also give powers to courts to waive off six-month period of staying together before divorce can be granted in cases where the separation is by mutual consent. The amendments also give adopted children the same rights as natural-born children