India: Abandoned brides fight for justice
Neelam Rani was married to Gaurav Kumar for only 45 days before he left for Germany without her and took all of her cash and jewelry with him.
Eight years after being abandoned by her husband, 37-year-old Neelam now lives with her elderly father and younger sister in the city of Gurdaspur in Punjab.
Rani recalled her husband's promise to immigrate to Germany together as a married couple — but shortly after the wedding, her life suddenly went downhill.
She told DW that her husband used to physically assault her. He blamed the abuse on not getting "enough dowry."
She described "torture" at the hands of her in-laws that led to a miscarriage.
After years of reflecting on her abusive marriage, Neelam decided to file a case against her husband and his family.
With help from her father, she has been seeking justice by going around police stations and courts, without success.
"I haven't got justice till now. My body is frail because of the daily violence and torture," she told DW. "My only goal is to get my culprits punished by the court of law and want my earlier life back."
DW contacted Neelam's husband for comment but received no response.
Neelam's story is not an isolated one. Several women in the neighboring towns and cities in Punjab have similar stories of abandonment, abuse and cruelty.
Santosh Kaur, who lives in a cramped house in the town of Ludhiana, was married for only 15 days when her husband left for the United States.
Her parents had mortgaged their house in order to raise enough money for her wedding ceremony and dowry. Now, she is struggling to pay back the loan and also suffers from a heart condition.
"My whole family went into depression," she said. "People used to make fun of me by asking when is your husband coming back and when are you going with him."
In India, more than 40,000 women are duped into marrying non-resident Indians (NRIs) who live abroad in wealthy countries like Australia, Germany and Canada.
India's northern state of Punjab is the country's epicenter of abandoned brides. These women are stigmatized by society.
Every year, thousands of Indian men immigrate in search of a better life abroad, but they eventually face pressure from their families to return home and get married.
In India, where most marriages are still arranged by families, many parents favor their daughters marrying NRIs in the hope that they will have a better life abroad.
But this does not always turn out to be the case. Oftentimes they are left behind in India by their husbands who return to their expat lives without them.
Helping abandoned wives
Satwinder Kaur, who runs the NGO Abb Nahi Social Welfare, provides legal and financial support to help abandoned wives. She also has personal experience dealing with many of their issues — Satwinder's own husband left her in 2015 after which her in-laws threw her out of the family home.
She and her team now help more than 400 abandoned wives to document their stories and pursue legal cases against their husbands, which can include having the men's passports revoked.
"Our NGO has witnessed an increase in the number of cases and we receive calls every day from different states," said Satwinder.
"And the government is not helping these women. If they would help, you wouldn't see these women running with elderly parents around the courts and police stations every day."
To address this issue, the Punjab government has now set up the State Commission of NRIs to help women track their runaway husbands and revoke their passports.
Rakesh Garg, who formerly headed the commission, told DW that there are many obstacles along the road to justice.
A lack of extradition treaties with other countries makes it difficult to pursue the absconders.
Garg is pushing for stricter laws passed to make NRI husbands accountable. However, his efforts are complicated by the fact that the commission has not had a chairman for the last two years.
"Indian government and state governments are taking steps to address the concerns but the lacuna lies in the investigation process, which is faulty in most of the cases. We need to improve this," Garg added.
For these distressed women, frustration and helplessness have become part of their everyday lives due to the constant setbacks and delays in getting justice.
Traumatized by the sudden and unexpected collapse of their marriages, women like Neelam and Santosh are plunged into debt — with their hopes resting on the government who, at best, appears apathetic towards their plight.
Edited by: Keith Walker