Hindu men from Bangladesh marry Muslim women

Bangladesh: Discriminatory family law exacerbates poverty among women

(New York) - Discriminatory marriage, separation and divorce law in Bangladesh results in women and girls being trapped in marriages with violent partners. If their relationships break down, women are at risk of poverty, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In many cases, the laws contribute to homelessness, hunger and health problems, or separate women from their children. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Food Program (WFP) have identified significantly higher levels of food insecurity and poverty in households led by women.

“Bangladesh is world famous for programs against female poverty. Yet for decades the country ignored the fact that its discriminatory family law drove women into poverty, "said Aruna Kashyap, Human Rights Watch expert on women's rights in Asia and author of the report," given the countless women who live in precarious circumstances and daily with them Fighting food, Bangladesh should immediately reform its family law and the competent courts and give poor women state support. "

Human Rights Watch urges the government of Bangladesh to urgently reform family law and make women's economic rights a key concern. The country's legal commission has just started reviewing marriage, separation and divorce law and recommended that it be revised in 2012. Women's rights activists and scholars contributed to this process and have long campaigned for reform. The government of Bangladesh should press ahead with this process and end legal discrimination against women in marriage. It aims to ensure that women enjoy equal rights to marital goods, that proceedings before family courts are accelerated and that women have better access to social support.

The 109-page report "'Will I Get My Dues ... Before I Die?' Harm to Women from Bangladesh's Discriminatory Laws on Marriage, Separation, and Divorce" documents how the discriminatory and archaic family law affects many women who are separated or divorced , drives them into poverty and keeps others in violent marriages because they fear they will otherwise become penniless. The existing law deprives women of their equal right to marital property. The limited rights provided by existing laws are poorly enforced by family courts and local government arbitration tribunals. Households run by women and women affected by domestic violence must struggle for the necessary government support and social benefits. Taken together, these problems mean that women have little economic protection or security if their marriages break up.

In Bangladesh, more than 55 percent of girls and women over the age of ten are married. The UN agency in the country has identified "marital instability" as a major cause of poverty in women-run households. The Planning Commission for Bangladesh has also found that women are more at risk of poverty if they lose a male family member who contributes to the income, either because the man is no longer available for the household or because a divorce ensues. By adhering to discriminatory and pro-poverty laws, Bangladesh is undermining its own efforts to reduce poverty in line with the Millennium Development Goals.

The report is based on interviews with 255 people. Among them are 120 women who have experienced the discriminatory consequences of marriage and family law, as well as judges, lawyers working in family courts, women’s rights experts and members of the government.

The different civil law systems for Muslims, Hindus and Christians have not been reformed for decades. Reform processes were and are often problematic, especially when opponents invoke discriminatory interpretations of religions.

The different laws for Bangladesh's Muslims, Hindus and Christians discriminate against women massively and in a similar way. In all legal systems there are barriers to divorce and no economic equality during and after marriage. None of them provide that women have equal rights to marital goods.

Muslim family law
Muslim law is discriminatory because it allows polygamy for men, makes it difficult for women to divorce, and provides only limited maintenance claims. Under Muslim family law, women are no longer entitled to alimony 90 days after divorce (or after having a child if they are pregnant at the time of divorce).

Shefali S., a Muslim woman, lived with her husband and in-laws. She worked in the family's fields and did all of the housework. When she was pregnant with her first child, she learned that her husband was going to remarry and confronted him. He kicked her and made her stay naked on a cold winter night as a punishment. He once beat her unconscious. Eventually he disowned her and married another woman. Shefali lives on with her in-laws and endures their beatings because her parents are too poor to support her and she believes that there is no other way to support herself.

Even the limited procedural guarantees for women from the 1961 Decree on Muslim Family Law are often not implemented. The law stipulates that a husband must obtain the consent of his first wife before marrying again and that a local arbitration tribunal must approve polygamous marriages. In addition, a formal divorce procedure has been set up. Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 Muslim women in polygamous marriages, and in no case has an arbitration board been called to approve another marriage. In addition, activists and lawyers acknowledge that many husbands disregard divorce recognition procedures with impunity.

"Gender inequality is woven into our religiously shaped family law and means that many women are destitute," says Sara Hossain, chairwoman of the human rights organization Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust. "The government must press ahead with its reform projects and ensure that all actors in the judicial system orient themselves to these changes. At the same time, it should raise the awareness of women and girls for the existing legal protection and enforce the laws."

Hindu family law
Hindu family law also discriminates against women. It allows male polygamy and restricts support claims for women. Hindu women can separate in court, but the law does not recognize divorce.

The Hindu Namrata N. worked in a hospital and gave all her savings to her husband because he wanted to start his own business. He squandered the money and became violent when she asked him to repay her share. Finally he got her to drink acid and fled. Namarata's esophagus and stomach are corroded, so she now has to feed herself through a tube that is directly connected to her intestines. She has not eaten for more than two years, and the smell of food depresses her. Namarata wants to divorce her husband, but this is not possible under the Hindu law of Bangladesh.

In May 2012, the cabinet passed a bill that would allow Hindus to officially register their marriages. However, the text does not respond to many demands from women's rights activists who advocate a specific law to regulate marriages and divorces of Hindus. Necessary reforms that are not covered by the new law include the prohibition of polygamy, the admission of divorces and the obligation to register marriages.

"For more than a century, Hindu law has kept women in - sometimes violent - marriages because it does not provide for divorce or economic security," says Nina Goswani, deputy director of the human rights organization Aio-o-Shalish Kendra. "It is time for lawmakers to change colonial law and protect female Hindus."

Christian family law
In Christian family law, divorces are possible for men and women for a limited number of reasons. However, these are far more restrictive for women than for men. Men can get divorced if they accuse their wives of fornication. Wives, on the other hand, have to prove that their husbands cheat and have committed other acts in order to be able to get a divorce. Such acts include conversion to another religion, double marriage, rape, sodomy, atrocities, abandonment of a wife for more than two years, or cruelty. In the conservative society of Bangladesh, the allegation of fornication is particularly humiliating for women.

The Christian Joya J. did housework at 5:30 a.m. every day in the household she and her husband shared with their in-laws. When she took a break, even when playing with her young daughter, her mother-in-law would get aggressive. Joya has fled several times because she could no longer bear the abuse by her mother-in-law and her husband. She sought protection in the church or with her parents. Both these and members of the Church urged her to return to her husband. Because she had no money, she finally turned to a friend who had to sleep either on the porch or in the bathroom because her friend's husband refused to support her. Meanwhile, her husband's family spread rumors that she ran away with another man.

"Couples often accuse each other of cheating because they are desperate to get a divorce. But such accusations are very dangerous, especially for women," says Dr. Faustina Pereira, head of the BRAC-Human Rights and Legal Aid Services. "There is a consensus in all camps that change is necessary. Nothing should stop the government from reforming Christian law."

The contribution made by women is not legally recognized
An essential blank in all of the family law systems mentioned is that women do not have equal rights to marital property after a divorce. In fact, the laws ignore the extensive contribution women make to the marital household. This void is partially filled by a landmark 2010 law against domestic violence by allowing women to continue living in the marital home after a divorce. This law is a significant step forward, but does not establish completely equal rights to marital property.

Married couples in Bangladesh can take steps to establish a common acquis. For example, they can give countries or houses a title that includes the names of both spouses. This is even possible if there is no legal provision that goods acquired during a marriage belong equally to both partners. However, only a few couples take this route. A 2006 World Bank survey found that the names of less than 10 percent of women surveyed are recorded on documents relating to marital property, regardless of whether they were rented or purchased.

"Married women 's household chores and their contribution to family businesses, field work, real estate and their husbands' careers are not legally recognized," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad human rights organization. "Overall, the government needs to do far more to ensure equal rights to marital property for women. It should begin to implement the limited economic rights already contained in the law against domestic violence."

The obstacle course through family courts and the failure of social support
Bangladesh has taken the important step of establishing specialized family courts that deal with separation, divorce and alimony claims. But women and lawyers criticize that filing maintenance claims in these courts is like an obstacle course. They describe delays at all levels of the process. Maintenance decisions are not enforced and it is very difficult to obtain the necessary evidence. Some women also face offensive counterclaims from their husbands.

Women whose husbands are too poor to pay maintenance or who do not have marital property must be supported through social welfare programs and women's shelters. Indeed, there are some welfare programs in Bangladesh that could benefit women who are at risk of poverty due to separation or divorce. For example, women “abandoned” by their husbands can receive 300 taka (€ 3) a month if they meet the necessary criteria. However, none of the many women Human Rights Watch interviewed who could benefit from it actually made use of this program. In addition, not a single social assistance program takes into account the multiple burdens of women due to disability, illness, old age or broken marriages.

"Even if women finally have equal rights to marital goods, the situation of many poor women will not improve," says Khushi Kabir, coordinator of a local non-governmental organization. "The government of Bangladesh should immediately ensure that poor women know about welfare programs. It needs to disseminate the most important information both in different parts of the country and in the family courts."

Bangladesh violates international human rights standards by maintaining discriminatory family law and by not ensuring that women have access to legal remedies and welfare. Expert bodies from the United Nations have called on Bangladesh to reform its discriminatory divorce law and guarantee women equal rights to marital goods.

Central recommendations
In particular, the government of Bangladesh should take the following steps:

- It should reform all laws in order to remove discriminatory elements, in particular polygamy, grant men and women equal access to divorce, abolish hurdles to securing livelihoods and ensure that women have the same right to marry in marriage and after a divorce Enjoy possession.

- It should disseminate information about the protection claims under the law against domestic violence in various media, also in a way that it is accessible to disabled people, and monitor the implementation of the law.

- Review and reform procedures in family courts to reduce delays and ensure that judges order provisional maintenance payments without delay in urgent cases.

- It aims to strengthen social support programs, in particular giving poor, divorced, separated or domestic violence women access to women's shelters.

"For decades, Bangladesh ignored the fact that its discriminatory civil law was causing women to become impoverished," said Kashyap. "Bangladesh can demonstrate its advocacy for equality for women and against poverty by promptly complying with the demands of its own women's rights activists and reforming the law."