In a major step towards making marriage laws more women-friendly, Rajya Sabha on Monday passed the bill to amend the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) and the Special Marriage Act (1954) that provides for “irretrievable breakdown on marriage” as a ground for divorce as well as grants women the right to a share in the property of their husbands.
The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2010, will of course also have to be passed by Lok Sabha before it can become law. Most Rajya Sabha MPs cut across party lines to welcome the “progressive” bill, though some held it should have been made more “gender-neutral”, while a few others expressed reservations about its probable misuse against men.
Replying to the debate, law minister Kapil Sibal said there was an urgent need to “protect women rights more” because the Indian society was still quite patriarchal. “So let’s be clear. This historic piece of legislation is a message that MPs are on the side of women in our patriarchal society. Even across the world, women constitute 50% (of the population) but own only 2% of the assets,” he said.
The minister assured MPs that the “irretrievable breakdown on marriage” clause was “gender-neutral” since even men could move the court for it. Both parties have to live apart for at least three years before filing such a divorce petition. “Don’t worry, we are taking care of both men and women,” he said.
Dwelling on the amendments, the minister said courts would decide the “extent” of the wife’s share in her husband’s self-acquired property, both moveable and immoveable, in case of a divorce. While the wife will have no share in inherited property, its value will be taken into account by court while fixing the amount of compensation or alimony to her. “The judge will decide as per the facts and circumstances of each case,” he said.
Earlier, participating in the debate, Najma Heptulla of BJP criticised the UPA government for not bringing in “one law for all women”. Holding that the country’s “100 million Muslim women” were being ignored by the government, she said, “Have they thought of any reforms for Muslim women?”