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While divorce is becoming more common, divorced women in India still carry a stigma and face challenges at the workplace.
The Indian government recently proposed an amendment that would allow for irretrievable breakdown of marriage as a cause for divorce, if only for Hindu marriages. No doubt, this confirms the anecdotal evidence that divorce in India is on the upswing, at least in urban areas.
While no official data is available, it has been estimated that 11 of every 1,000 Indian marriages end in divorce. Naturally, Indian workplaces now include more people with a divorce behind them or in the process of getting divorced.
Divorced women in India are no longer a rarity – after all, divorce has been around for decades now. But they more common than before, which would lead us to think that it is no longer worth remarking on. Not so. Setting out to explore the issue, we found that divorced women in India still have to contend with a host of perceptions and situations that most folks would not begin to imagine.
From extra work being dumped on them to increased travel, from having to fend off personal questions to sexual harassment, divorced Indian women have to contend with various issues.
Says Rupa K*, HR manager with a multinational firm, whose divorce came through last year, “I did need to tell my superior that I was undergoing a divorce, because there was a custody battle for my daughter. Plus, my demand for alimony and my share of the house we had bought together; all this meant court dates needed to be attended, and therefore leaves. My superior was very cooperative, but word did spread around the office, and I was shocked to find colleagues thinking nothing of coming up to me and asking me why my marriage broke up.”
…word did spread around the office, and I was shocked to find colleagues thinking nothing of coming up to me and asking me why my marriage broke up
While one difficulty is the intrusiveness of colleagues (Read, challenges for those new to the Indian workplace) who think nothing of asking for details on what is a highly personal subject, some working women in India face a worse horror – that of sexual harassment which starts when male colleagues and superiors realize that they are separated or divorced.
“A colleague had a relative by marriage who is also related to my ex-husband’s family. He got to know that I had filed for divorce from my husband and was now living on my own. He promptly began pestering me with lunch invitations, seductive smses and the works. Finally, I had to take the issue to the HR department who had to ask him to stop harassing me,” says Malini W*, 32, Accounts Manager with a pharmaceutical company.
While some colleagues might stick to sending out feelers of interest, others get down to outright sexual harassment. “My boss would pile me with extra work and demand I finish it the very same day, which ensured I would be back at office after working hours, when he would come sit on my table, and behave indecently,” says Toral M*, account planner at an advertising agency. “Finally I just quit cold turkey, and took a short break before searching for another job.” At her current job, she has invented a fiance who works abroad to keep the wolves at bay.
“Till I was married, I was considered off limits, because the men assumed I had a husband who would protect me. The moment I was divorced, I became this ‘open for all’ invitation to them in their minds. It was disgusting,” says 29 year old Kavita G*, a fashion merchandiser. Studies in the Indian context have noted the issues divorced women face with sexual harassment, both in the workplace and in their personal lives. (Read, Sexism at the Indian workplace)
Another problem that divorced women with no children face is the assumption that they will be open to taking on out of town postings, or extra traveling assignments because they have no so-called ‘responsibilities at home’. “Whenever there was a requirement to travel on site for client meetings, I was always the one who was deputed, because apparently, I didn’t have children or a husband to be ‘responsible’ to. While I didn’t mind it, and it did put my career on a fast track, at times I did feel resentful that I was the only one amongst the female staff being picked for such trips,” says Ramya M*, Marketing Manager with an Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company.
For those with custody of children, they have to shoulder the complete responsibility for child care. They may also need to bear the financial burden of paying for all living expenses, given that payment of maintenance is not enforced strictly in India. This automatically lowers their standard of living and adds to stress. For working women in India with children, managing work timings can be a big problem. (Read, flexi-working and Indian industry).
Most divorced women agree that keeping one’s personal life absolutely off limits from the workplace helps.
Most divorced women agree that keeping one’s personal life absolutely off limits from the workplace helps. This includes not discussing one’s divorce, reasons for the divorce or one’s search for new partners with colleagues in the office. Riya P*, a media professional says, “At times, I would be an emotional wreck after a screaming match with my ex-husband and rather than sit at my desk and cry, I would take off for a quick round of the shops and return only when I felt I was composed enough to work professionally. If I couldn’t take off at that point, I would ensure I went into a bathroom at least. At my desk I ensure I was always composed and professional.”
We are currently a society in transition where divorce is becoming common but not exactly acceptable. Traditional norms see marriage as a sacrament that must be upheld at any costs, and Indian women who opt out still bear a stigma. While change is happening, it is slow to come, and workplaces are no exception to the trend.
Popular mommy blogger and Author of The Reluctant Detective.
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