The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent steps taken by the government of India to curtail the same has struck hard on the people across the country. To rightly quote, ‘We are all on the same ocean but not on the same boat’, and we must acknowledge that although the pandemic has affected the society as a whole, certain sections of the society and certain communities have had to struggle harder, given the whimsical decisions of the government which, perhaps, did not have a clear-cut plan on how to handle the situation.
The sudden imposition of lockdown was a blow to the functioning of the economy, polity, and society and not to mention our own day-to-day lives. Discussions on the impact of Covid-19 and the response to it can go on and on, however, the purpose of the essay is to throw some light on the women who have been fighting for their rights in the Family Courts even before the pandemic and that the pandemic has only worsened the plight of these women. It might not be a surprise to know that women have become one of the worst suffering groups due to the pandemic and the resultant imposition of a nationwide lockdown.
The United Nations in its official website has published reports on how the pandemic has affected each and every person in various ways. There have been reports by leading news agencies in India on the unequal plight that the pandemic left. It might not be a surprise to know that women have become one of the worst suffering groups due to the pandemic and the resultant imposition of a nationwide lockdown. Across various strata, women have been facing a range of problems of varied nature: while the working women went through job losses, no wages, the women inside the houses had to bear an excess load of household work due to more number of family members at home. The concept of ‘work from home’ was a trouble for the working women who now had to ‘work from home’ and as well as ‘work for home’.
Given the said issues of the unequal gender division of labour during the pandemic, the pandemic also saw a rise in the number of domestic violence cases and many well-known media portals. ‘The UN has described domestic abuse as a shadow pandemic as cases of it have increased by about 20% during the lockdown,’ reported Megha Mohan, the BBC’s Gender and Identity correspondent. However, the number of cases that fall within the jurisdiction of the family court, be it in the form of divorce cases, maintenance cases, or even child custody cases are less spoken of.
Family Courts And Patriarchal Morality
Family Courts in India were established with the aim of providing special attention to family matters, which stemmed from the belief that the family as an institution needs special care and that the legal needs of family matters must be dealt with in a different manner than those of other types of legal issues. These courts which have their own set-up, very different from other courts, largely deal with family issues and attempt to solve the disputes by trying to ‘preserve’ the institution of the family or by resolving the matrimonial disputes through negotiation rather than granting divorce to the concerned parties.
Most of the decisions taken by the court aim at reaching a certain kind of settlement between the two parties and most often the women are the ones to settle down and compromise given the justification that ‘even if the husband is abusing his wife, divorce is not the answer.’ A usual morning in the family court is often busy with many lawyers and their clients, mostly women, sitting outside the family courts, waiting for their turn. The other party in such cases, that is, the husband, rarely visits the court premises once the monthly allowance has been decided upon, as his lawyer can deposit it.
Thus, most of these women continue their court journeys with either their divorce cases or maintenance cases pending in the family court; some cases go on and on for several years with no desired outcome. However, the novel coronavirus unleashed ‘novel’ changes in the lives of such litigants too! Despite the difficulty in interaction and the limited information that we could attain, we have attempted to share the stories of these women who have not only been fighting against the novel Coronavirus, like the rest of us, but also struggling with familial issues and the gender biased proceedings and decisions inside the family courts.
(The names have been changed in order to keep the anonymity of our participants.)
Experiences From The Court
Like many women with pending cases in the family court, Rina was also waiting for the date that was issued to her by the Family Court in March, 2020. She fell in love with Jon and eloped with him three years ago. Both of them built their own home, close to Jon’s parent’s house. While Jon worked as a daily wage labourer, Rina had her own sewing business and a small poultry farm. They did not have much but were content with whatever they had. Rina’s hardships began soon after her marriage with Jon was accepted by her in-laws. Any kind of household feud ended up on Rina being blamed as she was the girl who ‘eloped’.
Unfortunately, when she was abandoned by her husband and in-laws after three years of her marriage, apart from her sewing machines, she could not take along her basic belongings back to her natal home. Jon never tried to contact her after she left. She had decided on finalising her divorce now and re-starting her vocation of sewing with the permanent alimony she is supposed to receive from the divorce. After a yearlong wait of several dates issued from the family court, the sudden closure of the legal machinery due to the pandemic left her helpless and in a very bad condition. Her natal family depended on bamboo crafts for their livelihood. Many of the finished products were washed away in the floods this year. The law which was meant for her protection was of no help at this juncture.
With the re-opening of various offices after the lockdown, Rina is still waiting for her next hearing date with much hope. The parties who approach the family court are offered counselling before the court takes any kind of decision regarding divorce, maintenance or child custody. The idea is to reach the settlement through counselling. Hence, Rina was also counselled by Hiba, a woman herself. Hiba says that family matters don’t hold a prime position in the jurisdiction process. Cases in which both parties are present are allowed to offer their say in front of the judge through virtual communication set up in the court premises for that purpose. Hiba sees no positive outcome in Rina’s case in the coming months as the number of cases taken per day has reduced drastically due to the pandemic situation.
Hiba speaks of another client, Archana. Archana teaches in a private school and has a son. She has been busy preparing online study materials for her students during the lockdown. She teaches virtually every day and has to cater for her old parents with whom she presently stays. However, her salary was reduced due to various reasons as cited from her employer. With all these happening, her husband, a government employee, stopped paying the monthly alimony all of a sudden. Her marriage fell apart much before she had resorted to legal aid.
She has been receiving monthly allowance since 2014 and has filed for divorce in 2019. She has been approved of enhancement of the allowance as her son reached high school. She consulted with Hiba when her allowance was not provided to her since April. She is worried that her husband might argue in the court that she is financially well off through her own income from her teaching job and can, therefore, sustain herself with lesser alimony. Hiba assured her that this will not happen and she is bound to receive the allowance money, even if the husband is trying to avoid it.
Hiba quoted what Archana told her, “Baidou, school or pora o poisa dia nai, khoraki o nopowa holu. Pise belege diya xohai lobo o jabo nuaru.” (The school has not given me my salary and neither have I received my monthly alimony. I can’t even go out to seek help from others.)
Many people were offering help to those in need during the lockdown period across the country. Archana’s position in the social ladder is such that although she is in desperate need of help, nobody will assume her to be so.
To mention yet another story of yet another woman, Saira is also facing troubles because of the stagnation of the family court. Saira doesn’t have a bank account. She used to receive her monthly alimony in the court in cash. With the courts not functioning due to lockdown, she has not been able to collect the money since March. She had left her husband’s house due to constant abuse from her in-laws. She later claimed for maintenance through the family court. Her important documents like her Voter Identity card, and Ration card registered in her name which was required to apply for a PAN card or bank account were never returned to her when she left her conjugal home.
Her abusive past in her husband’s home has rendered her presently in a mentally unstable state. Her court affairs are mostly dealt with by her old father, the only person in her natal home. He became quite clueless when the pandemic appeared with its far reaching consequences for their household. With a meagre earning from their farming, they have been going through much trouble during the lockdown period.
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These are only the stories of a few women who we have come across and there are certainly many women who are facing similar issues with the legal machinery. One lawyer mentions that as per the Covid-19 guidelines and protocols issued for the courts, it is the ‘urgent’ matters that will be given priority. However, inside the family court, the line between what is urgent and what is not gets blurred because of the court’s tendency to ‘save’ failing marriages. Hence, cases pertaining to divorce and maintenance are not usually considered as ‘urgent’ matters.
Inside the court, the usual functioning seems to have become stagnant. The women in the family court come from all walks of life. Although new cases have been registered, the proceedings of these cases have been delayed. They have been carried out in online mode in order to follow up with the covid-19 protocols. However, such an attempt has only resulted as a good reason for most of the men involved to evade the situation.
Also, the online mode of conducting the proceedings have remained largely unfeasible for those who come from the rural background and are not familiar with the functioning of modern technologies. Many women have their maintenance cases pending in the court and many have not received their money for months. Stagnation of the family court has rendered these women helpless in regards to who they can approach.
Covid-19 has, without a doubt, affected all of us. Everyday, with the increasing number of cases we are made to realise that the world that we live in may not be the same again. We are ought to live with the disease. However, as already mentioned, the repercussions of the pandemic has revealed that we indeed live in a society full of hierarchies where the law doesn’t work equally for everyone. The pandemic has proved to be a disaster for the migrants, the labourers, the farmers, the women and other marginalized communities.
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It is equally not surprising in a society like ours where most of these voices go unnoticed and unheard. Lived experiences of women from the ‘lovelorn’ North Eastern region of India, that too with familial issues are something that doesn’t get included even in the imagination of the majority of the people. We, as young women from the same region, present this piece as a small step in our endeavour to pervade the existing silences around women’s lives.
Shilpa Chaya Mazumdar is currently pursuing her Ph.D in Development Studies in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Guwahati. You can find her on Facebook.
Roshni Brahma is currently pursuing her Ph.D in History in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Guwahati. You can find her on Facebook.