By Naunidhi Kaur, Womens Feature Service
Guneet Saini (name changed) is fair, petite and has been fighting a divorce battle for the last two years. She was married to her husband for six years during, a period in which she suffered emotional abuse from her in-laws and husband on a daily basis. After a difficult pregnancy her husband asked her to move out of the house with their two-month-old daughter. A rich businessman, who could afford a BMW car and all inclusive vacations to Europe every other year, he is not willing to pay Guneet a fair share of child support and other entitlements.
“As a self-employed businessman he never declared his complete income and now I have to prove that he earns more for the child support to be adequate,” says Guneet. In cases of divorce, the spouse who looks after the child is entitled to support that is calculated on the basis of the other spouse’s income.
Guneet’s husband is paying her $350 per month, which does not even cover the childcare fees of $970 she pays for her daughter each month. “I have moved in with my parents and put them under financial strain,” she says with tears in her eyes. “He asked for joint custody after he came to know that he would have to pay less in child support,” she adds. In the initial separation papers, Guneet’s husband had given up his rights of custody for the child.
What goes against Guneet is the fact that in six years of marriage she did not have a joint bank account with her husband, did not make any investment in mutual funds for her retirement and the house that her husband purchased – with the dowry cash she got – legally belongs to him and her in-laws. “I was always been kept in the dark about financial decisions, as my in-laws and husband controlled everything,” she says.
Throughout her marriage, Guneet’s parents kept sending her money, which she deposited in her savings account. “Because of those savings I am not even entitled to legal aid,” she informs. Legal Aid, an independent but publicly-funded and publicly-accountable non-profit corporation, helps people with low-income access legal help. “Now I am finding it hard to pay the legal fees to fight for the right to my daughter,” she says. Guneet’s husband had not allowed her to work and now she is forced to look for minimum-waged job to support herself and her daughter.
Guneet’s predicament is similar to that of many women who are contemplating divorce or going through it in Canada’s South Asian community. It also typifies the financial position of the South Asian women, which slides considerably after a divorce, even while that of men goes up.
Lawyer Kavita Bhagat, based in Brampton, Ontario, specialises in family law. She says that she has to help her South Asian women clients on several fronts. “Even though the Canadian law and systems are in place to help them they do not know about some of their basic rights,” she observes. Kavita says that many South Asian women find that because they did not have any financial control in their marriage, their husbands end up manoeuvring all the finances to their advantage. Some of the ways in which this is possible is using up their Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs), owning properties by themselves, and giving their former spouses a hard time while settling child support, spousal support and other entitlements.
The implications of financial strains are multifarious. “For women, divorce is not only about moving into a cheaper apartment and letting go of some of the so-called luxuries in life. It is about the stress that follows from being pushed into new roles after the divorce,” emphasises Zarina Sherazee, Manager, Family, Health and Volunteer Development at South Asian Family Support Services (SAFSS). A Scarborough, Ontario-based charitable organisation, SAFSS, provides assistance to women suffering abuse.
Some of their new roles include being a financial planner, disciplinarian and the breadwinner of the family. “Instead of two incomes the woman has to survive on one. So earlier if she was meeting all the requirements of her children now she has to pinch corners to spare cash for them and when she says no, she has to face some resentment from the children as well. Other times she has to move in with her parents or friends. Often this experience translates into feeling like an outsider in the surrogate household,” she reveals.
What makes the situation difficult for many South Asian women is the fact that they are not aware of their legal and financial rights. In her practice, Kavita regularly come across cases in which women have fled from their abusive partner without even charging him for abuse. By law, an assaulted wife has to charge her husband within 90 days of the battering. “But most women have little information of their legal rights and are not educated on getting the help available to them,” she says. As a result, divorce settlements are often lengthy, and not in their favour. To change this, Kavita inevitably goes beyond providing legal help to the women by getting them in touch with women shelters, counsellors, government housing and even fighting their case pro-bono.
Aside from the changed family dynamics, other factors often complicate matters. Spouses can get caught in the immigration process, complicating matters for them. Many times the abusive husband withholds his wife’s immigration papers and controls her movements. Vancouver, British Columbia-based not-for-profit group, the BC Institute Against Family Violence, reports that immigrant women sponsored by their husbands are particularly vulnerable to abuse or intimidation because of fears of having their sponsorships withdrawn.
According to immigration laws, husbands who sponsor their wives’ immigration are in-charge of them for three years during which time they have to financially support them. During this time, many abusive husbands make sure that the wife has no control over the finances. The dowries that these women bring inevitably go towards the down-payment of a house where the wife is not even acknowledged as a property holder. For such women, divorce is even more challenging, as they are caught in the vortex of immigration problems, as well as dealing with a failed marriage.
However, Zarina emphasises that not all aspects of divorce go against women. After the divorce women often end up being stronger persons, who are aware of their varied abilities. “This is because divorce forces them to tighten their belts and face the world on their own,” she says. Women identify their strengths and find employment or even start building their skills by honing their academic knowledge to get ahead in their careers. According to Zarina, the important thing is that women need to give themselves time to heal after a divorce.
Says Zarina, “You can mourn the death of your husband. Similarly you can mourn change in your life because of divorce. In my experience, it takes anything from seven months to a year to move towards a new life.”