Destigmatising divorces in India, how lawyer Vandana Shah is a solicitor of hope for women in bad marriages
India’s leading divorce lawyer, author, senior counsel with the National Commission for Women and columnist Vandana Shah, spoke about lifting the veil of silence and enabling women to navigate the rough terrain of divorce and reclaim happiness, only at HerStory’s Women on a Mission Summit 2022.
India continues to be the country with the lowest divorce rate in the world, a mere 1 percent of the population is reported to be divorced in a country of 1.38 billion people. From domestic violence (DV) constituting physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, and economic abuse against women by a partner (or a family members), to intimate partner violence (IPV), neglect, loss of love, dignity, kindness and hope in marital relationships, the reasons for seeking divorce could be many. And yet, research suggests that informal separation is the dominant form of marital dissolution in India.
Does this point towards the sanctity of marriage as an institution, still exercising its cultural reign holding back people in bad marriages? Or is it owing to the lack of education, access to legal resources and awareness about rights, lack of financial empowerment, and the fear of being labelled in a society that still stigmatises divorces?
Meet the leading divorce lawyer of the country, Mumbai-based Vandana Shah, a voice of change, making it her mission to make divorces more accessible.
“We never choose divorce, divorce chooses us,” began Vandana, as she dived into her past at the HerStory Women on a Mission Summit 2022.
“I'm very proud to say my father was in the Indian Air Force. He was the first feminist in my life,” said Vandana, adding that she disagrees with the view that a man can’t be a feminist.
“I don't come from a traumatic background,” said Vandana, as against any popular notion of childhood trauma being a baggage or precursor to future marital woes.
Spreading awareness and shaking biases
“I was married into a very wealthy family. And you know, once you get married, everybody says, ‘Your life is now set, you got married, that is nothing to worry about, and the family is wealthy. And once you have one child, a second child, you will have your car, your driver, and so on and so forth. We have a lot of marriage preparations, but no one ever tells you, what if a marriage fails… That is one taboo in India, which continues to persist,” asserted Vandana.
Today, the pioneering lawyer doesn’t use the term ‘divorce’ anymore, instead she chooses to say ‘Born Again Single’.
Vandana’s own ‘Born Again Single’ journey started when she was pushed out of her marital home in the middle of the night with just Rs 750 in her bank account.
Vandana penned her experience of marriage in her book, Ex Files: The Story of My Divorce, published by Penguin under the Shobha De imprint. She, however, categorically didn’t want to make the book about her husband/his family, instead she documented her own journey, her own realisations and learnings.
Perpetrators of abuse are very “clever”, reminded Vandana. “They are able to hide it. Outside of the house, no one would ever believe it,” shared Vandana, resonating with the everyday reality of a vast majority of women who find it difficult to make themselves be heard and believed.
Such experiences led Vandana to spearhead India's first divorce support group ‘360 Degrees Back to Life’. She is also the author of the award-winning book 360 Degrees Back to Life: A Litigant’s Humorous Perspective on Divorce, endorsed by the iconic feminist Gloria Steinem.
Enabling women to break out of abusive, or simply unhappy marriages, the support group has encouraged women to discuss their court cases and envision a happier future, in short, act as a non-judgemental friend who is willing to listen to them.
A St. Xavier’s College alumnus, Vandana fought a 10-year-long legal battle, studied law and rebuilt her life during this period. In 2017, she launched DivorceKart, an app that answers all legal questions relating to divorce instantly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. DivorceKart was launched to help make the navigation of divorce easier and accessible.
Spotlighting Vandana’s crusading efforts the BBC documentary titled Invisible Women of India gives an account of her work. With Vandana’s work gaining visibility, she has ensured to give women hope to rebuild a life as mostly divorced women tend to be invisible in public life.
“I think people sign out of marriages, when they feel there is no hope forward,” said the lawyer who has had several high-profile Bollywood clients. “I always say that I may be one of the biggest divorce lawyers in India today but I'm different because I was a litigant once. So I always look at the social legal perspective in a divorce, because I've been to the other side,” she surmised.
The need for empathetic workplaces
The hidden cost of divorces, the ordeal of legal process and their implications on the mental and financial health of employees and workplace efficiency in the long run make it imperative for organisations to be more sensitive to employees.
“There needs to be a separate subsection within HR (human resource), which only deals with employees going through marital issues, keep it confidential, have trained counsellors on board,” advised Vandana, sharing how several big organisations have contacted her, and much to her dismay they don’t have a divorce lawyer on board.
On a parting note, Vandana termed “financial empowerment, spiritual empowerment and friends” as the three top things that she would recommend women going through or planning to go through a divorce.
A shout out to the sponsors of Women on Mission Summit 2022, an Initiative by HerStory, by YourStory - BYJU'S, the presenting partner, and other sponsors - Kyndryl, Sequoia Spark, Zilingo, Atlassian, Akamai, Freshworks for Startups, and Netapp Excellerator.
Edited by Ramarko Sengupta