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Doubly Difficult Abroad

Non-resident Indian wives facing domestic oppression need protection from their host and home governments.

The problem of non-resident Indian (NRI) women trapped in situations of domestic torture a great distance away from immediate family and living in a culture that is at best unfamiliar and at worst alien, is not new. However, the issue has gained an urgent edge in recent years. With increasing emigration from across India’s socio-economic strata the number of such women too has increased phenomenally. Last week, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) released figures that show that one NRI wife calls back home every eight hours (this translates into three calls daily) seeking rescue from a domestic nightmare. Between January 2015 and November 2017, the MEA alone received 3,328 complaints. The actual number of victims would be much larger and include those who have not sought help from family or official agencies, or have turned only to family or elsewhere. 

While the women labelled “NRI brides” represent a myriad of different backgrounds, official as well as other studies show that Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Gujarat register the highest number of complaints. Each of these states, among others in the country, has a backlog of pending cases filed by abused/cheated women. The complaints range from abandonment after marriage (either in India or abroad), bigamous unions (the man already has a wife abroad), false information about the man’s job and earnings, harassment for dowry, domestic violence, and ex-parte divorce based on false documents. These cases predominantly are from the United Kingdom, the United States (US) and West Asia where most of the Indian diaspora is based. The women hail from different educational backgrounds, ranging from semi-literate to engineering and computer technology graduates. Most of the complaints from the US are from the wives who are H4 visa holders, financially dependent on husbands who are holders of the H1B visa. Women holding H4 visas were not allowed to work until the Obama administration allowed them to apply for work permits in 2015. However, given the current political dispensation in the US, this may not be easy.

Underlying the problem, which subsumes a host of socio-economic and cultural complexities, are two main factors. One is the anxiety of Indian parents to marry off daughters, even highly educated and potentially economically independent ones, in the belief that an unmarried adult daughter is a social embarrassment if not a stigma. Second is the near-obsessive aspiration to seek “greener pastures” abroad whether through marriage or emigration. For a majority of Indian women, the former is considered the best channel and hence the efforts by parents to find an NRI husband. There are other factors that come into play and which could be sociocultural in nature. The reluctance to probe too closely into the potential bridegroom’s antecedents for fear of angering the “boy’s side” is a major one. Another factor is the general assumption in Indian society across communities and classes that a wife is necessary to run the house and “look after” the husband’s parents or family. As studies show, this latter reason is accepted by the bride-to-be’s parents as a reasonable one for the bridegroom to marry their daughter. There are innumerable cases where the woman finds that she is not really a life partner as much as cheap domestic labour and caregiver in foreign countries where such services cost an arm and a leg.

In the Indian imagination, NRIs occupy an enviable role. The remittances from them help the economy apart from their families and their number is increasing (nearly 15.6 million Indian-born immigrants live abroad). The present National Democratic Alliance government has been particularly active in engaging the NRI community in terms of its money and influence.

The Indian government needs to be more proactive rather than wait for complaints to deal with the issue (the Punjab state government has set up police stations to handle such complaints). As of now, one of the main obstacles faced by the law and order agencies is that it is very difficult if not impossible to get the accused to come to India and face legal prosecution. A committee set up by the present government has recommended the cancellation of the passports of NRIs found harassing or deserting their wives, inclusion of cases of domestic violence in the scope of extradition treaties, and increase in financial assistance provided to the women by Indian missions abroad. It has also called upon state governments to compulsorily register all marriages, including NRI ones, until a central law to this effect comes into force, besides entering all the bridegroom’s legal details on the marriage registration form and setting up a national mechanism to deal with complaints.

This is an issue that cannot be seen in isolation from the various aspects outlined above. The government and, of course, all agencies and departments involved must prepare a multipronged strategy to deal with it. It is a natural outcome of the larger issues that Indian women face and that prevent them from not only leading their lives with dignity, but also from contributing to society at large.

Updated On : 10th Feb, 2018


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