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Abused wives in India pin hope on anti-violence law

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

NEW DELHI -- Like many Indian husbands, Sanjay Kumar never saw himself as a wife-beater. The punches he landed on his long-suffering wife were, he insisted, nothing more than routine marital discipline.

Now, two weeks after India introduced its first laws against domestic violence, he sees himself as the victim.

"It's a noose around my neck, and the end of the rope is in her hands -- to pull or not to pull," he complained, as he and his wife, Maheshwari -- still badly bruised -- attended a compulsory marriage-counseling clinic in New Delhi. "Men have no power left. At this rate, we'll be wearing bangles."

The new Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act gives courts sweeping powers to help abused wives. The culture shock to India's male-dominated society has galvanized new recruits for a counterlobby group -- the All-India Harassed Husbands Association.

"The law is so lopsided that a future generation of men might not get married for fear of losing their property and income," said one member, Akhil Gupta.

The new law recognizes physical violence, marital rape and all kinds of abuse -- emotional and verbal -- as crimes. It also bars men from forcing wives to watch pornography, refusing to let them work or banishing them from their houses.

"I didn't want to file a case against him, but it was becoming unbearable," said Mrs. Kumar, 28, who has two daughters. "The last time, he almost strangled me. This law will let me live at home and stop him torturing me."

Hundreds of wives have registered cases under the new law -- the product of a decade of campaigning by women's groups.

A 2005 U.N. Population Fund report found that 70 percent of married women in India were victims of beatings or rape. Even trivial "misdemeanors," such as burning the dinner, can provoke male violence.

Yet many men fear the law will be prone to the same misuse as India's stringent anti-dowry laws. The regulations are meant to protect women from husbands and in-laws who torture them for more dowry after marriage, but are sometimes used by women to harass innocent husbands.

Mahesh Tiwari, 35, a New Delhi lawyer, began fighting for husbands when a client hanged himself in jail after being falsely accused by his wife of demanding more dowry.

"He was a gentle person married to a witch," he said. "No evidence is required under the law."

Since the new law on domestic violence was passed, about 20 anxious husbands a day have sought the advice of the Save Indian Family Foundation, which campaigns for reform of the anti-dowry laws.

"Women are using psychological violence with this law as a new weapon," said Swarup Sarkar, a foundation member.

But the All-India Democratic Women's Association has little time for this.

"Why don't they be honest?" asked Brinda Karat, the general secretary. "They want to hold on to their birthright to beat up women."