For several years, Santosh Chauhan felt trapped in her violent marriage. Despite suffering physical and verbal abuse from her husband for delivering a female child and not meeting dowry demands, her lack of economic independence compelled her to remain in a miserable union.
But a new law passed by the Indian parliament last October has offered Ms. Chauhan some reprieve. After filing a case against her husband under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, a court awarded her rent for a new home and maintenance payments from her husband. She was also swiftly granted physical protection by the local police.
The progressive law has emboldened thousands of Indian women to exercise their new legal option to leave marriages in which they are both physically and emotionally victimized, say lawyers and human rights activists.
It's still too early to estimate the number of cases filed under the law. But the Delhi-based Lawyers Collective, which works for minority rights, says that for the past five months, inquiries poured in from women who are locked in bad marriages all over India.
"This is a comprehensive stop-violence law," says Indira Jaisingh, a senior Supreme Court lawyer, who pushed for the law to be cleared by the parliament. "Now, physical violence is not the only crime for which perpetrators can be tried."
Before the act came into force, Indian law required that accusers furnish physical evidence of abuse in order for the crimes to be tried. The old laws, women's rights advocates say, encouraged a culture of impunity for spousal abuse. Now, for the first time, verbal, emotional, and economic abuseare punishable under the umbrella of domestic violence.
The act also closes loopholes that previous offenders were able to exploit in laws meant to protect against dowry abuse. Instead of assuming that women are abused only as wives and daughters-in-law, the new law also includes daughters, sisters, mothers, mothers-in- law, sisters-in-law, and even live-in partners under its purview.
The punishment is also more stringent, demanding a fine of Rs. 20,000 ($450) and imprisonment up to a year.
Domestic violence against women is an endemic crime in characteristically patriarchal Indian households. Most Indian …