The supreme court of India made a landmark decision on the 22nd of August, to strike down the controversial practice of triple talaq (divorce by uttering ‘Talaq’ thrice to the wife in person, or at times over Whatsapp message or a phone call) in Muslim communities. However, another important issue affecting millions of women in the country across religions and communities remains to be addressed, the issue of ‘abandoned women’, where men simply walk out of the marriage without even uttering these words or any other formalities: legal or otherwise.
There are 2.3 million separated and abandoned women in India, the number is huge, approximately two times the number of divorced women as per the last census. There are close to two million Hindu women who are abandoned and separated; this number is 2.8 lakhs for Muslims, 0.9 lakh for Christians and 0.8 lakh for other religions. However, no concrete steps have been taken to support these destitute women.
The problem of this scale has its roots in cities as well as rural India. One such story is from a fishing village in the southern tip of India where a mother and both her daughters have been a victim of this sort of abandonment. Amudha and Selvi were just 2 and 5 years old respectively when their father left their mother for another woman. Little did they know that history would repeat itself.
Muthukaraupayi, 52 was abandoned by her husband 24 years ago for another woman without any legal divorce or compensation. She has been working as a fisherwoman to support her two daughters.
Amudha,26 and Selvi,29 were only 2 years and 5 years old when their father left them. The daughters, without any protection of a father, struggled all their lives to survive.
The village is a Hindu dominant village and they belong to its most backward caste ‘mutharaiyar’. With limited education opportunity, the girls are married before the legal age of 18, and hence parents don’t register the marriage in the court. Most of the marriages involve dowry from 2 lakhs to 10 lakhs, following the age-old traditions. Later, if there are any issues in the marriage; there are no legal proceedings due to lack of a legal binding, money and awareness; and the village leaders solve these cases on their own outside courtroom.
In this village, there are almost 10% women who are either abandoned or divorced as per the village head. Chellathurai, who has been the leader for the last 35 years, is an example of historical patriarchy and narrow mindedness still prevalent in India’s villages. For instance, he believes that any woman who marries outside her caste should be immediately outcast and not allowed to stay in the village. However, the same rule does not apply to men. Such rules and thoughts particularly affect women who are deserted by their husbands. They experience higher levels of marginalization due to such widely accepted cultural and societal norms. To add insult to injury, the inheritance rights of a female child holds no meaning here. Any rules related to property or lands are not well defined which further heightens their vulnerability.
Women have always been an integral part of fishing; they are actively involved once the men hit the shore. From sorting the net to selling the fish in the market; apart from their daily chores of cooking and taking care of house hold responsibility. Amudha and Selvi (on the right) reach for work early morning.
Selvi started to work with her mother when she was 8 and could never go to school. She fell in love with a neighbour at an early age and was pregnant at the age of 14. She was abandoned by the guy after a temple marriage was arranged to settle the case out of the court.
Selvi waited for his husband to come back for almost 3 years while he was working away in Dubai and then later fought her case for almost 8 years in court for divorce. Finally received a compensation of Rs. 50,000, half of this amount was already spent on lawyers and official proceedings.
During the trial, Selvi gave birth to his son Nambudivin, who is now 14 and never asks about his father. Usually, boys get involved in fishing at an early age in the village; but Selvi wishes to keep her son away from the hard and unpredictable life of a fisherman and rather get a job in an office.
Selvi unbinds the rope from her waist. Approximately 200-meter long rope is being used to support the heavy weight of the net.
The family is dependent on the daily earning for buying their grocery for the day. Even one day of loss might mean no food on the table. Amudha cooks on a wood stove, which is extremely unhealthy.
Unlike Selvi, Amudha, 26 (on the right) went to school and studied till class 8th. She wanted to study further but the family's financial situation didn't allow her to do so.
Amudha started to work in place of her mother when she wasn't strong enough for the job. She earns daily wages of 50-100 rupees by pulling the fishing net from the sea, at times the net could be as heavy as one ton or more.
There is a discrimination when it comes to wages. The men earn by sharing the weekly profit, which can vary from season to season but sums up to approximately 4000-10,000 Rs. in a week. While the women receive daily wages of 50-100 rupees for their efforts.
Amudha got married when she was 20, a marriage arranged by the family and conducted in presence of the village Panchayat. She now has two children Munisbavya, 5 and Munistarun 3.5. Amudha’s husband is also a fisherman and works for the bigger boats in Mandapam as a daily labourer. Her husband left Amudha almost two years ago, due to their frequent dispute about his excessive drinking habits.
Amudha and Selvi are the only two women in their work group. Amudha's husband often complains about she works with other men and might be having an affair.
Women usually work till late night in the isolated areas without any protection. They walk a few kilometres in the backwaters to reach the shore.
Rameshwaram jetty, where the women come to sell their daily share after their late night/ early morning catch.
The fish is then sent to market for the sale and women also receive their share of fish to cook at home which they often opt to sell at their market for some extra money.
Most of the girls stop their education after class 8th, as there are no affordable services to commute to the nearest secondary school in Rameshwaram.
The life of fisher women is harsh and vulnerable in Dhanushkodi. While the marriage of a girl is seen as the most important aspect of her life, the abandoned women receive no respect in society and hardly go for a second marriage.
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