Men who beat, threaten or yell at their wives or live-in girlfriends could be jailed and fined under a law that took effect Thursday and specifically targets the often-tolerated problem of domestic violence in India.
The law also applies to men or their families who harass wives for larger dowries, the government said.
The measure aims to prevent cases in which a husband or his family kills a wife because her family did not give a big enough dowry.
The Domestic Violence Act defines abuse broadly, including verbal, physical, sexual, emotional and economic mistreatment. Violators face up to a year in prison, a fine of $435, or both.
"We have been trying for long to protect women from domestic violence. In India, around 70 percent of women are victims of these violent acts in one or another form," said Renuka Choudhury, the junior minister for women and child development.
Attitudes toward women, especially among educated city dwellers, have changed considerably in recent decades. But much of the country remains conservative, and many look the other way when husbands abuse wives.
The framers of the law made provisions for abused women to complain directly to judges instead of police, who often side with men and rarely act on abuse complaints by women.
Now, when a woman files a complaint the onus is on the man to prove that he did not abuse his wife. The law also ensures the woman-s right to stay in the family home.Women-s rights activists and civic groups welcomed the law.
"It-s a victory for the women-s movement in this country which has been fighting for years for laws that protect the basic rights of women," said Ranjana Kumari of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research.
However, she said the law needs to be backed by adequate implementation funds to allow federal and state governments to pay for protection officers and provide legal aid and counseling.
"While this is a giant step forward, it will only be meaningful if government sets aside funds to provide shelter and protection to a woman against further abuse if she files a complaint," Kumari said.
Describing the legislation as a "tool in the hands of millions of women in India," she said women-s rights groups would soon launch a campaign to educate women about the law.
A U.N. Population Fund report said up to 70 percent of married women aged 15-49 in India are victims of beating or coerced sex.
By NIRMALA GEORGE Associated Press Writer