Content Warning: This article discusses topics including suicide that may be of concern to some readers.
The apparent suicide of an Indian woman in the US has shocked her home country and the global South Asian community, drawing attention to the abuse and abandonment of thousands of women accompanying their husbands overseas.
Shortly before her death in Queens, New York on August 3, Mandeep Kaur posted a video online in which she tearfully accused her husband of beating her and having extramarital affairs during their eight-year marriage. Kaur, who was 30, reportedly married her husband in India before leaving for the US with him.
The case resonated with so-called non-resident Indian (NRI) brides trapped in similar situations across a wide diaspora — from the US, UK and Australia to the Persian Gulf. Kaur’s death also drew national attention to how many complaints were filed.
Typical cases are arranged marriages, where women are sent abroad to meet their husbands. There are also cases where couples get married in India and after collecting the dowry, the husband goes overseas promising to return but never does. The dowry system remains widespread in India despite longstanding legal prohibitions.
Ministry of External Affairs records show that one NRI wife calls home for help every eight hours. From 2017 to 2020, the department received 3,955 complaints of domestic violence from NRI wives, while over 50,000 criminal cases were filed in NRI marriages for alleged cruelty by the husband or his relatives.
Lawyers say there are various legal avenues available to women in such circumstances. These include the local laws of the countries where they live, as well as Indian legislation such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, and several sections of the Penal Code that criminalize domestic abuse.
In addition, the ministry offers an online forum called Madad (“help” in Hindi) that provides access to financial and legal support. Victims can also file a complaint at Indian missions abroad or ministry secretariats.
Despite these options, experts say wronged NRI wives rarely find justice.
“Though thousands of abandoned brides have started filing complaints… the actual number of women who get justice is negligible,” said Delhi-based marriage counselor Pratibha Jalota. “Police apathy, victim-shaming, geographic distance and parental pressure to ‘fit in’ with a husband, no matter how bad the marriage, make these women’s lives miserable.”
Getting NRI spouses to appear in Indian courts is a big challenge, lawyers say, because of the limitations of current laws. Victims may not necessarily have better luck in local courts.
Lalitha Kumari, a Delhi High Court lawyer, pointed to the high-profile US case of former Apple executive Neha Rastogi, who in 2016 filed allegations of domestic violence against her then-husband Abhishek Gattani, the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup. .
“Despite not protesting against the abuse of his pregnant wife, Gattani walked out of jail within days,” Kumari said. “What message does that send to potential abusers?”
Kumari noted that India had joined the Hague Conference on Private International Law in 2008. “This helps the [Foreign] Department and the courts to contact other countries that are signatories to this conference, such as Australia, Canada, Germany, the US and the UK. they mean little to the poor victims their abusive husbands claim,” she said.
Women are often threatened with having their visas or other permits revoked if they complain to the police or refuse to drop charges. Complicating matters is the fact that some marriages are fraudulent and unregistered, which Kumari says makes tracing spouses even more difficult.
Legal hurdles are only part of the problem. Activists say most Indian women hesitate to seek help because of feelings of shame.
“Families also discourage survivors from speaking out, and there is pressure to stay in an abusive relationship because leaving the home brings a bad name to the family,” said volunteer Sakhi Saheli, a non-profit organization that promotes women’s empowerment. “This keeps the abuse under wraps.
Even so, several groups have been formed that try to help NRI wives.
Satwinder Kaur (no relation to Mandeep) founded the organization after experiencing her own ordeal. Originally from the northern state of Punjab, she married in 2009. Soon after, her husband left to work as a foreign student coordinator in Ukraine and promised to return. That day never came. Kaur’s in-laws wanted nothing to do with her.
“My parents spent about $30,000 on my dowry and marriage, which was really about my husband and his family,” Kaur, now 41, recalled. She took her husband and his family to court in 2016 and only got a divorce earlier this month — but not before racking up about $10,000 in legal fees.
Along the way, Kaur created “Abandoned Brides by NRI Husbands International Social Welfare Society” for women like her. “To date, our organization has helped more than 900 women seek justice in cases of abuse and abandonment,” she said. “We provide free legal aid as well as marriage counseling. 37 brides have also been reunited with their husbands through our intervention and counseling in the US, Canada and India.”
But experts say real reform will require a broader shift in thinking, starting with education.
“We need to challenge entrenched discriminatory attitudes and beliefs and provide quality education to our children,” said Jalota, a marriage counselor in Delhi. “This can play a vital role in sensitizing both genders to their social and legal rights, responsibilities and mutual respect so that women like [Mandeep] Kaur do not end up the way they did.”
What, who and how to ask for help in such a situation?
According to a Ministry of External Affairs document titled “How to Address Issues Related to Marriages of Indian Women to Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin (NRI/PIO)”, there are several possible situations and how to address them. is explained.
The document suggests that one should check the proper background of NRI/PIO before getting married. In this process, local Indian associations/authorities/NGOs etc. in the country can be approached to check his background.
In case of dowry demand, abuse and ill-treatment by their husband, the woman can seek help from the nearest Indian Embassy/Consulate for help/advice, lodge a complaint with the local police regarding harassment, abuse, violence etc.
If an NRI husband has abandoned his wife in India, he can lodge a complaint / FIR under 498A IPC on the premises of cruelty at the local police station.
Even if the same happened abroad, the document describes, “offences committed outside India would be deemed to have been committed within the territory of India under Section 188 IPC. Hence you can file a complaint for the same in India.”
Further, the woman can also approach the local police and contact the Indian embassy in that country, her husband’s employer or local Indian associations and networks of Indian citizens.