Should women cheer now that the Union Cabinet has approved the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill 2010? If it becomes law, women will have the right to an equal share of property acquired after marriage and divorce will become easier. The additional ground of “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” has been added and there is a shorter waiting period when both parties want to end a marriage.
Most television talk shows have focused only on the urban, educated, middle class women. There is an assumption that divorce and partition of marital property affects only them. There are also crazy scenarios being created about a “divorce epidemic”.
In fact, we have to ask whether such a change in law will make any difference to the majority of women, especially those living in villages. Most women do not know that under law they are granted many rights. Even if they do know — such as the right of daughters to inherit a share of their parents' property — they are forced or persuaded to sign away their right. A recent study by the Rural Development Institute (RDI) of women's land rights in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar noted that more than half the Hindu women surveyed had signed away their right to land they would have inherited.
Inheriting property or land is crucial for many women seeking some form of economic security. Yet, this is precisely where their lack of knowledge or ability to exercise the right forces them to continue living in abusive and violent marriages. To walk out of such a marriage means walking into destitution. But if they fight for their right and succeed in getting their share, they are ostracised by their own community. Nothing has changed the entrenched belief that a woman, once she leaves her natal home, has no right to anything there and that the dowry she carries with her is adequate compensation.
The other side of ignorance about rights is the absence of supportive structures to help women claim their right. According to the RDI study, 61 per cent of women said they had never gone to a revenue office and of these 99 per cent said this was because men handled such matters. Of course, it did not help that the majority of the lower level revenue officials were also men. A simple step like appointing more women to such posts might begin to make a difference.
Several studies have shown that women who have the ability to stand on their own feet are less likely to tolerate an abusive marriage. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule as is evident from the searing essay written by the young poet and writer Meena Kandasamy, “I Singe The Body Electric” (http://www.outlookindia.com/ article.aspx?280179) where she speaks about the abuse she suffered within the first four months of getting married. Economic independence did not protect Meena from domestic violence but it gave her the courage to walk out.
What about women living in villages, in highly patriarchal societies, where the majority of women accept that beatings and abuse are part of what marriage is all about. In such societies, inheriting property can become a double-edged sword.
A fascinating study on the link between economic independence and domestic violence is by feminist scholar Prem Chowdhry for UNWomen (http://www.unwomensouthasia.org/ economic_security.html). She could not have picked a more appropriate state for such a study. Haryana has one of the lowest female sex ratios in the country. It has become known for the horrendous incidence of so-called “honour” killings where young men and women are murdered merely for marrying a person of their own choice. According to the National Family Health Survey-3, 27 per cent of married women in Haryana have seen physical, emotional and sexual violence and 46 per cent of women and 33 per cent of men felt that a husband beating a wife was justified in certain circumstances. In such a State, where girls are not allowed to be born, can women escape such violence if they assert their right to a share of property?
As in the States surveyed by RDI, in Haryana too women tend to sign away their right to parental property. But now this has begun to change. With the spread of urbanisation, property prices are hitting the roof. Girls are now demanding their share, often egged on by their in-laws. Of course, there is no guarantee that they will have control over the money if they manage to get it. But the study cites many instances where the situation of women, and even of their daughters, has changed dramatically once they have money or property in their own name.
Studies like the one by Prem Chowdhry and many others firmly establish the link between women's economic independence — either by way of property or an assured income — and a reduction in domestic violence. Even as laws are changed in the name of empowering women, we have to take the first steps — of informing women of their rights and creating the supportive structures that will guarantee that they can exercise these rights.