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Dec 9, 2014

Gender parity needs to begin at home with mother’s guardianship rights!

Suraiya Tabassum

Posted Dec 5, 2014 by Suraiya Tabassum

For as long as I can remember, applying for educational institutions, jobs, bank accounts, driving licenses or for official documents requires filling up forms with a column specifying the father’s name for the purpose of identification. It’s a pity that while Indian society eulogises motherhood, a mother does not have equal guardianship rights even though she may have single-handedly raised the children with the biological father being absent.

Admitted, the government has taken some measures in the last couple of years to establish a modicum of legal gender parity. In this respect, the Aadhar Card (issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India) makes it mandatory for children below five years to mention details of “father/mother/guardian”. Schools and university admission forms today require information about both parents. Legally too, some measures have been taken. In 1999, the Supreme Court amended relevant sections of the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956 and the Guardian and Wards Act, 1890 that violate the equality provisions of the Constitution and ruled that mother can also be the legal guardian of a minor child.

But the mindset has not changed as I got to learn the hard way. I recently went to a local Aadhar Card Centre and was expecting some semblance of a gender-aware system there. Instead, the data entry operator at the counter was visibly offended when I asked him to scroll down to the guardian/next of kin column and tick the ‘father’ option. The young man glowered at me and then stumped me with a barrage of rude questions: “You seem old enough to be married by now? Why do you want your father’s name in place of your husband’s?” When I asked him what name would be filled out in my husband’s application (that of his mother, father or spouse?), he did not hesitate in replying “His father”. A bit discomfited at finding himself on the losing end of the argument, he was nonetheless unwilling to get off his moral high horse; he then proceeded to lecture me about being too demanding, causing unnecessary confusion and wasting time, before rushing through the rest of the application on his computer.

Such androcentric (a privileging of male experiences and perspectives) views are reflective of the prevalent patriarchal norm in Indian society of male-dominated households, and men holding primary power in terms of political leadership, social privileges, moral authority and control of property. The only exceptions to this rule are the matrilineal societies of the Nairs of Kerala and the Garo and Khasi tribes of Meghalaya in the northeast, where children take their mother’s surname and married men live in the homes of their mothers-in-law.

The subjugation of women is not limited to exclusion from decision making and resources; its reach is much wider with females being subjected to repression right from the cradle (or rather, the womb) – female foeticide, female infanticide, child marriage, dowry, bride-buying, domestic violence, acid attacks honour killing, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace, human trafficking, rape, the list goes on.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2013[1]:

  • an increase in the number of rapes in India was reported from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,707 in 2013.
  • 8,083 dowry deaths (Sec 304 B IPC) were reported.
  • 70,739 cases of assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (under Section 354 of IPC) were reported.
  • 2,579 incidents under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, were reported for the year.

These official crime figures form only the tip of the iceberg, as many crimes go unreported for the NCRB to keep count. The crux of the matter is that the statistics for violence against women keeps rising year after year and some tangible measures need to be taken to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. It is also high time for women along with responsible citizens to come together and pitch in to build safer, more gender-friendly families, communities and the society at large.

The author is with programmes and advocacy, Oxfam India

[1] http://ncrb.nic.in/

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