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Help at hand for estranged Indian wives of NRI men
June, 09th 2008

Young Indian women who have followed their non-resident Indian (NRI) husbands abroad sometimes find that a matrimonial dispute can leave them without the wherewithal to contest a divorce case or file for custody of their children. In some cases, the distressed women are unable to fight for their rights because of some lacunae in their immigration papers.

Anuradha, a mother of two children, who was divorced by her husband while she was in India on a visit, has not seen her son for the past three years. After a lot of effort and heartache, Anuradha has finally been able to file a suit for custody of her son and has now been called to make a personal appearance in the American court. Anuradha is fortunate to be one of the first beneficiaries of an Indian government scheme to provide distressed Indian women the means to prepare legal documents and file a legal case.

Anuradha did not have the resources to look for a lawyer in America to file a case for her. She was also debarred from going to the US because of visa complications, but eventually last year she managed to get in touch with SevA Legal Aid Foundation, a US-based legal assistance agency.

The Indian government scheme gives the initial money required to file a case and to prepare the legal documents. Anuradha's case is coming up for hearing later this month. According to Anu Peshawaria of SevA, Anuradha has also filed for a waiver of the illegality of her visa status in the United States and is likely to be able to leave for San Francisco shortly for her court appearance.

Anuradha had lived with her husband in San Francisco on the basis of his permanent resident's visa, but her husband had never initiated the process of getting Anuradha's visa status regularised. It is the husband's responsibility as the permanent resident to file the application for permanent residency for his dependent wife.

He, however, sent Anuradha back to India with their daughter, while their son stayed on with the father. During this period Anuradha's husband obtained an ex parte divorce from a Californian court and she was effectively prevented from going back to America since she did not have a resident's visa. The husband and his parents, who lived with him in San Francisco, kept the young boy while the husband cut himself off from his daughter in India. Living in Delhi, Anuradha had no means to file for alimony or child support and custody of her young son. After filing the case in San Francisco court, Peshawaria came to know that Anuradha's husband had re-married and had divorced his second wife Sheetal. Sheetal, an NRI who lives in London, has since filed a case against her former husband.

The Indian government scheme for giving legal or financial assistance to women deserted by their overseas Indian spouses is available for Indian citizens whose marriage was solemnised in India. It would be available in instances where the spouse has filed for divorce within five years of marriage or obtained an ex-parte divorce within 10 years of the marriage. The assistance is meant to meet the initial cost and incidental charges for documentation and filing of the case and is to be paid to NGOs or other associations empanelled on a list maintained by the government or the embassy. The government would provide a sum up to $1,000 which can be made available for deserted women living in India or abroad through credible women's organisations and NGOs, which could provide the legal assistance.

Women's associations and NGOs have been taking up the cases of women deserted or maltreated by their husbands while living abroad. But the case of a woman who is in India while proceedings for a divorce and child custody case are being held in a court in another country is even more distressing since there is no remedy available in Indian courts and the woman is not in a position to file a case in some other country.

She is also not in a position to get information about her husband if he moves to a new city or shifts to a new home. The legal aid agency SevA was set up by Peshawaria to provide free legal services for those in need, on matters pertaining to immigration issue and Indian matrimonial law.

Lack of information and plain ignorance of the simple steps taken to regularise their residency status in the US have often led to situations where immigrants find themselves on the wrong side of the immigration laws. As Peshawaria explained, a large number of people are not aware of their rights as immigrants in the US. Anuradha relied on her husband to handle all the documentation and later found herself in a situation where her son was taken away from her. She can now hope to see her son and expect some respite from the court in America.

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