FEATURE - Domestic abuse plagues India's upper crust
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - With stylish sunglasses on her head, brightly painted nails and dressed in black designer gear, the woman sitting at a trendy New Delhi cafe might not look like a battered wife.
But the woman, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her identity and that of her children, was abused for years by her husband, a lawyer.
"He strangled me, he spat on me, he slapped me," the woman, a 37-year-old mother of two who grew up in a wealthy London-based Indian family, told Reuters in an interview.
She is among millions of Indian women, from all classes, who are abused by their husbands. A recent government survey said one in three Indian women were victims of domestic violence.
Her education and status among India's elite gave little protection against her well-heeled and well-connected spouse.
After years of abuse, she took her husband to court under a landmark domestic violence act meant to protect battered wives and give stiff penalties to abusers, but so far to no avail.
"This law, which is enacted by the parliament in 2006, has not been taken seriously," her lawyer, K.K. Manan, told Reuters. "On one pretext or another, the case is being adjourned".
A total of 185,312 crimes against women were reported in India in 2007, compared to 164,765 in 2006. Rights groups say many more cases go unreported.
Domestic violence has long been in the public eye and the media regularly features cases of wife-beating over issues such as dowry, as well as torture and killings of women, especially in poorer households.
India's economic boom has brought a rise in affluent women, often with careers, who enjoy greater freedom than their parents' generation. They dress in Western clothes and visit restaurants, bars and night clubs.
These changes sometimes clash with hardline elements of what remains a largely conservative society. Even among India's upper crust, women's freedom can be superficial.
MONEY AND POWER
The domestic violence act was meant for the first time to give protection and compensation for all kinds of abuse in the home, including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic.
Previously, for example, husbands could not be prosecuted for raping their wives, unless the wife was under the age of 15. The new law aims to pass sentence within 60 days of the first hearing.
But more than a year later, the woman's case is still bogged down and in early March she had to make yet another appearance at a special Delhi women's court.
From her lawyer's cramped chambers, she walked past a low colonnade of clerks who still use typewriters, up a grimy staircase to a crowded, tiny courtroom for her case to be heard.
"Women are not being safeguarded from this act," she said. "Any woman who is a victim of domestic violence has to face lengthy court cases, hence exorbitant lawyers' fees ... It's all about money and power in this country. You can buy anyone."
Once more, her husband and his legal counsel did not turn up at court, but the judge hears the case in their absence. Come June, she is still waiting for the next court appearance.
Often cases are adjourned if the accused is not present. One member of her legal team says few sentences have been passed against abusive husbands, partly because of such delays.
Long-held attitudes towards domestic violence in India are slow to change and justice can be murky and remote. A recent government survey found 54 percent of women, against 51 percent of men, say wife-beating is justified in some circumstances.
Also, there is a still a commonly held opinion in Indian society that women lodge false complaints of abuse, Manan said.
"There is always a stigma attached ... to a divorcee, to a woman who goes and reports against the family," said Kumud Sharma, vice chair of the Centre for Women's Studies.
"This notion of family integrity or not speaking against the family or family members, prevents many women from going and reporting about it."
BRIBE AND LIE
One of the woman's friends has tried to divorce her abusive husband, a wealthy developer whom she wed in an arranged marriage when she was aged 19 even though she had major doubts.
When she tried to leave him after 11 years of physical abuse and after he had an affair, his family dragged her back.
"I was physically forced back into a car. They then locked me in a room when I got to his house," the friend told Reuters, as her young daughter, whom the husband refuses to help take care of, quietly doodles with crayons next to her.
The woman, who also asked for her name to be withheld to protect her and her daughter's identity, eventually managed to leave her husband. Her legal case has barely moved forward because, she said, the system is "slow like a snail".
The battered wives of Delhi's rich say husbands use their wealth and influence to delay court cases and muddy proceedings.
Bribery is a common trick, they say, another is to hire private detectives to follow wives around and get false evidence of the wife's 'adultery' by photographing them near random men.
"Initially (her) husband was roaming around with some other lady," lawyer K.K. Manan said of his client. "To come out of that situation he is now making false allegations."
Poor women suffer most as they often don't have the means to leave their abusive husbands, but activists say domestic abuse can affect any home, rich or poor.
"I would think it's pretty much rampant across classes," said Nandita Bhatla of the International Center for Research on Women.
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