When dreams turn to dust

Via The Telegraph, India

The government plans on setting up a
gender cell that will address the problems of girls who are abandoned
or abused by their NRI grooms, reports Bishakha De Sarkar in The

Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social
Research (CSR), led a session on gender issues at the fourth Pravasi
Bharatiya Divas in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.

“When the session started, the hall was overflowing with people,”
Ranjana Kumari recalls days later, sitting in her Delhi office. “For
two years, we have been trying to persuade the government to discuss
issues relating to Non-Resident Indian (NRI) women. We had suggested
that there be three sessions. Finally, there was just one — but it was
such a success.”

Quite possibly, Smriti was at the back of Ranjana Kumari’s mind
when, as the president of WomenPowerConnect (WPC), an umbrella body of
groups seeking to lobby on gender issues, she approached the government
to include the problems of NRI women in its annual Pravasi Divas
meetings. “A lot of women come as delegates or spouses — but all that
the government organises for them are bazaars,” says Kumari. “We wanted
it to address the many serious issues that concern women.”

Issues, for instance, that confronted Smriti, a Delhi-based
journalist who had worked with CSR for a while. Daughter of a colonel,
she had been married to an NRI groom 10 years ago. Her father paid for
all the wedding expenses, including the travel costs of the groom and
his family. The groom spent one night with his wife and left for home
in the United States the day after. He took her jewellery as well,
stressing that it would be safer with him. She was supposed to have
joined him a month later.

But once the groom was gone, he never got back to her. Smriti and
her family made frantic enquiries. They got in touch with the place
where he said he was employed — but were told he had never worked
there. The home address didn’t lead to the groom or his family either.
“Smriti was in a curious position. She had spent a night with her
husband and believed that she was married to him and had to find him
somehow,” says Kumari.

Her family did all that it could do to trace him. Finally, Smriti
left for the United States some years ago in search of her elusive
husband. Kumari hasn’t heard of her since then.

At the Hyderabad conference, though, there were several women who
had similar stories to tell. Abandonment by NRI husbands was a common
complaint. Some men did it for money, some because they felt their
wives wouldn’t be able to adjust to the West, and some because they had
been forced into marriage by their parents.

The Indian Government responds

But the government — aided by the WPC and the National Commission
for Women (NCW) — now hopes to put an end to this trend. Plans are
afoot to set up an NRI gender cell which will deal with issues such as
marriages and abandonment. “The government is very serious about going
ahead with this,” says Malay Mishra, joint secretary, ministry of
overseas Indian affairs, the organisers of the Pravasi meets.

Married life for NRI women in the West, the activists seem to
stress, is not necessarily an El Dorado. “There are some genuine
problems that Indian women living abroad face,” says Girija Vyas,
chairperson of the New Delhi-based NCW. “There are three major problems
— that of married women being abandoned, trafficking and the plight of
domestic workers,” she says.

The problem of wives being abandoned by their NRI husbands is
rampant in the north and in cities such as Hyderabad — regions from
where men migrate to the West, or the Gulf, in large numbers. According
to one estimate, some 70,000 Indians migrated to the United States in
2001 alone.

“There are many cases of men demanding a dowry from the bride’s
family in India,” says Vyas. “And these are some of the reasons we need
a regular gender cell which people can approach when they face
problems,” she says.

Domestic violence is another problem among NRIs. Recent studies
conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom highlight the
fact that south Asians living there are subject to domestic violence.
Women’s groups have questioned a particular study — the National
Violence against Women (NVAW) survey — which, after contacting some
16,000 people on the telephone, said only 12.8 per cent of south Asian
women faced physical assault.

“Some doubt is cast on the NVAW survey by two in-depth studies of
domestic violence among south Asian women in the US, both of which
found high levels of abuse,” says the CSR. One of the studies —
conducted in 2000 — found a lifetime prevalence of violence in 77 per
cent south Asian women. The other — carried out in 2002 — said 41 per
cent of south Asian women it had interviewed in Boston had faced
violence from their partners, leading to physical or sexual injury.

The cell — once it does come up — may ultimately look at issues
such as domestic violence. Right now, though, the three subjects it
seeks to take up are marriage, adoption and employment — issues that
were discussed in Hyderabad.

The government is planning to start a national consultation from
next month on the role of a gender cell. “The cell is very much on our
agenda,” stresses Sandhya Shukla, director, social services of the
ministry of overseas Indian affairs. “We are going to look at different
views and then conceptualise the cell,” she says.

WPC believes that a booklet — listing all the dos and don’ts of a
marriage — would help both men and women. One of the complaints heard
in Hyderabad, for instance, was from a middle-class girl who had been
married abroad and had found, much to her dismay, that she was expected
to clean the house and wash dishes. “We had to tell her that this was
the way of the West. A booklet would also explain that is not just a
woman’s chore, but is shared by men,” says Ranjana.

The cell, the group hopes, would make people aware of their rights
and the laws that are applicable to them. WPC also hopes that the US
government would bring about a change in some visa rules. The spouse of
a person working in the US on an H1B visa, for instance, does not have
the protection that the Violence against Women Act gives to other
immigrant women.

There is a plan to rope in the Indian missions abroad as well.
“For every marriage, there should be a system under which a potential
groom would have to submit his social security number to the mission,”
says Ranjana. “Marriages would have to be registered. And all this
would curb fraudulent marriages,” she says.

Smriti, wherever she may be, would be pleased.

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