MUMBAI — 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 women in violent marriages stay out of fear of reprisals or ostracism from society at large. Of the 155,553 crimes committed against women registered by India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2005, 68,810 were domestic-violence cases.
The Bureau registers a case of cruelty by husbands and relatives every nine minutes, and one dowry-death case every 77 minutes. In 2005, a UN Population Fund Report found that 70 percent of married women in India between ages 15 and 49 were victims of beating, rape, or forced sex.
"A woman subject to domestic violence [was] afraid to seek remedies to end the violence – in law or otherwise – for fear of being evicted from her household or being denied access to funds necessary to maintain herself and her children," says Mandeep Tiwana, from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi.
Despite the useful provisions, challenges remain in the law's implementation. Activists have expressed concern that India's police force and the general public are not well-informed enough to tap the law's provisions.
In widely publicized past cases, the police have ignored reports of domestic abuse.
The law also has its detractors among men's rights groups, who have called it one-sided and vulnerable to fraud.
"The law assumes that only women are abused," says R.P. Chugh, a lawyer who heads Man-Cell, a men's rights group. "I get a number of complaints from husbands who are frustrated with their wives' atrocities. Women take undue advantage of such strict laws."
Even before the new law came into force, says Mr. Chugh, there were widespread reports of misuse of another law meant to protect women from dowry- related crimes. In 2005, India's Supreme Court termed such fraud "legal terrorism" and urged lawmakers to introduce requisite legal safeguards. Those changes are still being considered.
To make such laws egalitarian, some lawyers suggest replacing "husband" or "wife" with "spouse" in all related laws.
Despite a few flaws, say lawyers like Ms. Jaisingh, crimes against women have always been dramatically higher than those against men.
"The aim of this law isn't to go against men," she says. "It's to stop violence in homes."