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Bangladesh is world famous for programs meant to reduce women’s poverty, yet for decades it has ignored how discriminatory personal laws drive many women into poverty. With many women precariously housed or struggling to feed themselves when their marriages break down, Bangladesh should immediately reform its personal laws, fix its family courts, and provide state assistance to poor women.
(New York) – Bangladesh’s discriminatory personal laws on marriage, separation, and divorce trap many women and girls in abusive marriages or drive them into poverty when marriages fall apart, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. In many cases these laws contribute to homelessness, hunger, and ill-health for divorced or separated women and their children. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have recorded significantly higher levels of food insecurity and poverty among female-headed Bangladeshi households.
“Bangladesh is world famous for programs meant to reduce women’s poverty, yet for decades it has ignored how discriminatory personal laws drive many women into poverty,” said Aruna Kashyap, Asia researcher for women’s rights and author of the report. “With many women precariously housed or struggling to feed themselves when their marriages break down, Bangladesh should immediately reform its personal laws, fix its family courts, and provide state assistance to poor women.”
Human Rights Watch said that Bangladesh’s government should urgently reform the country’s personal laws, making economic rights for women a key focus. The Law Commission of Bangladesh has recently taken important steps to review personal laws on marriage, separation, and divorce, and recommended changes in 2012. Women’s rights advocates and academics contributed to this review process, and have long pressed for such reforms. The Bangladesh government should take this process forward and end legal discrimination against women within marriage, ensure women’s equal right to marital property, streamline family court procedures, and improve access to social assistance programs.
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 country’s discriminatory and archaic personal laws impoverish many women at separation or divorce, and trap some women in violent marriages because they fear destitution. Current laws deprive women of an equal right to marital property. The limited entitlements these laws offer women are poorly enforced by family courts and local government arbitration councils. Female-headed households and women facing domestic violence struggle to access critical state support and social assistance. Together, these problems mean there is scant economic protection or security for women when marriages break down.
In Bangladesh, more than 55 percent of girls and women over 10 years old are married. The UN country team in Bangladesh has identified “marital instability” as a key cause of poverty among female-headed households and the Bangladesh Planning Commission has said that women are more susceptible to becoming poor after losing a male earning family member due to abandonment or divorce. As Bangladesh strives to meet its poverty reduction targets under the Millennium Development Goals, it is undermining its own efforts by leaving discriminatory and poverty-triggering laws on the books.
The report is based on interviews with 255 people, including 120 women who experienced the discriminatory effects of Bangladesh’s personal laws, as well as with judges, family court lawyers, women’s rights experts, and government officials.
Bangladesh’s personal laws for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians have not been reformed in decades. Personal law reform has often been fraught with problems, with some opponents invoking discriminatory interpretations of religion.
The separate personal laws for Bangladesh’s Muslims, Hindus, and Christians discriminate in overlapping but distinctive ways. Each erects barriers to divorce and economic equality during marriage and after, and none of the laws provides for women’s equal right to marital property.
Muslim Personal Law
Muslim personal laws are discriminatory in their embrace of polygamy for men, their greater barriers to divorce for women than men, and their limited provisions on maintenance. Under the Muslim family laws in Bangladesh, women have no right to maintenance beyond 90 days after notice of divorce (or birth of a child, if the woman is pregnant at the time of divorce).
Shefali S., a Muslim, lived with her husband and in-laws. She worked in the family’s fields and did all the household work. When she was pregnant with their first baby, she learned of her husband’s plan to remarry and confronted him. He kicked her, and made her stand naked throughout a cold winter night as punishment. On one occasion he beat her to the point of unconsciousness. Eventually he abandoned her and remarried. Shefali continued to live with her in-laws and endured their beatings because her parents were too poor to support her and she felt she had no hope of securing maintenance.
Human Rights Watch found that even the limited procedural protections for women under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961, were often not implemented. The law provides that a husband should seek prior consent of his first wife for remarriage, requires that local government arbitration councils approve polygamous marriages, and establishes formal procedures for divorce. Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 Muslim women in polygamous marriages, and in no case was an arbitration council convened to approve a subsequent marriage. Similarly, activists and lawyers stated that husbands often flouted divorce notice procedures without penalty.
“Gender inequality embedded in our religion-based personal laws leaves many women destitute,” said Sara Hossain, honorary director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust, a Bangladeshi human rights organization. “The government should press ahead with the reform agenda, orient justice system actors on these changes, and simultaneously improve women’s and girls’ awareness of existing legal protections and implement these laws.”
Hindu Personal Law
Hindu personal law also discriminates against women. It recognizes polygamy for men, and contains significant barriers for women accessing maintenance payments. Hindu women can seek judicial separation, but the law does not recognize divorce.
Namrata N., a Hindu, worked in a hospital and gave her life savings to her husband to start a business. He misused the money and turned violent when she demanded he return the funds. Eventually he tricked her into drinking acid, and absconded. With a burned food pipe and stomach, Namrata is dependent on a feeding tube connected to her intestine. She has not eaten in over two years and the smell of food depresses her. Namrata wants to divorce her husband, but cannot under Hindu law in Bangladesh.
In May 2012 the Bangladesh cabinet approved a bill providing Hindus the option of registering marriages. The bill still falls short of the many demands of women’s rights activists in the country who are campaigning for a separate law governing Hindu marriages and divorce. Necessary reforms not included in the bill include a prohibition on polygamy, allowing divorce, and compulsory marriage registration.
“For over a century Hindu laws have trapped women in marriages – some of them violent –
without allowing for divorce and economic protection,” said Nina Goswami, senior deputy director at Aio-o-Shalish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organization. “It is time our lawmakers changed these colonial-era laws and protected Hindu women.”
Christian Personal Law
In Christian personal law, divorce is allowed on limited grounds for both men and women, but the grounds are far more restrictive for women. Men can divorce if they allege their wife committed adultery. Wives, on the other hand, must prove adultery plus other acts to secure a divorce. Such acts include: conversion to another religion, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, desertion for two years, or cruelty. Charges of adultery are particularly humiliating for women in Bangladesh’s conservative society.
Joya J., a Christian, did housework in the home she and her husband shared with her in-laws from 5:30 a.m. every day. If she took a break even to play with her young daughter, her mother-in-law would get angry, she told Human Rights Watch. She escaped from her marital home several times because she could not bear the abuse by her mother-in-law and husband, seeking refuge with a church and with her parents. Church officials and her parents pressured her to return to her husband. With no money to support herself, Joya turned to a friend for shelter, where she had to sleep on a verandah and a bathroom because her friend’s husband begrudged the help. Her husband’s family spread rumors that she had run away with a man.
“Couples often trade false allegations of adultery, desperate to get a divorce. But these are especially damaging for women,” said Dr. Faustina Pereira, director of BRAC-Human Rights and Legal Aid Services. “There is broad consensus from all quarters for change and nothing should hold the government back from reforming Christian laws.”
Women’s Contributions Go Unrecognized in Law
A glaring gap in all the personal laws mentioned above is the absence of the equal right to marital property upon divorce, which means the extensive contributions that women make to their marital homes are ignored. This gap has been partially filled by the landmark 2010 law against domestic violence, which gives women a right to reside in the matrimonial home. The domestic violence law represents a vital step forward, but does not fully address the equal right to marital property.
Married couples in Bangladesh can take steps to jointly own property, such as by putting title to land or houses in both spouses’ names, even without any legal presumption that property and assets acquired during marriage are co-owned. But this is rarely the case: a 2006 World Bank surveyfound that less than 10 percent of women surveyed had their names on any marital property documentation (rented or owned).
“Married women’s burden of house work and contributions to their family businesses, fields, homes, husband’s careers go unrecognized in our laws,” said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a Bangladeshi human rights organization. “While the government should do a lot more to give women an equal right to marital property, it should forge ahead with implementing the limited economic rights in the law against domestic violence.”
Family Courts’ “Obstacle Course,” Social Assistance Failings
Bangladesh has taken the important step of establishing specialized family courts that deal with separation, divorce, and maintenance cases. But women and lawyers told Human Rights Watch that seeking timely maintenance in these courts is akin to an obstacle course. They described delays at every stage, non-execution of maintenance awards, and evidentiary challenges. Some women face harassing counter-suits by husbands.
Women whose husbands are too poor to pay or who have no marital assets need to be connected to social assistance programs and shelters, Human Rights Watch said. Bangladesh does have some social assistance schemes that could benefit women impoverished by separation or divorce, including one offering 300 takas (US$4) per month for “husband-deserted” women who meet need criteria. But among the many women interviewed by Human Rights Watch who could have qualified for this program, none had accessed it. Human Rights Watch also found that the social assistance programs do not address women’s multiple vulnerabilities such as disability, ill-health, old age, and marital breakdown.
“Granting equal right to marital property will still leave many poor women out,” said Khushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, a local nongovernmental organization. “The Bangladesh government should urgently connect poor women to social assistance and develop information booths in different parts of the country and inside family court complexes.”
By maintaining discriminatory personal laws and failing to ensure access to judicial remedies and social assistance, Bangladesh is in violation of its obligations under international human rights law. United Nations expert bodies have called for Bangladesh to reform its discriminatory divorce laws, and ensure that women have an equal right to marital property.
The Bangladesh government should take the following key measures:
“For decades Bangladesh has ignored how discriminatory personal laws impoverish women,” said Kashyap. “By immediately heeding calls for personal law reform by its own women’s rights advocates Bangladesh will demonstrate its commitment to women’s equality and poverty eradication.”