Borrowed from Portuguese law, the civil law in Goa entitles both spouses to an equal share of each other’s property after marriage
How important are laws if they are not implemented? Or if they fail to deliver justice? Of course you have every right to feel that they are terribly important, even if just in theory, because laws are supposed to frame our conduct in society, and hold together the nation and its values. But I am a little tired of launching new laws then falling back exhausted, not putting them to much use. A law defines right and wrong, legal and illegal. And anybody who thinks he or she has been wrongly treated according to that law has a right to seek justice through the legal process. Sadly, that is where our courts fail us.
Take the long awaited, much touted and hugely welcomed Domestic Violence Act. A very well constructed law, it promised to deal with several kinds of domestic abuse and violence within the family. It would make life better not only for wives and daughters-in-law, but also widows, sisters, daughters and others in a household, it would in effect make the home a safer and kinder place to be in. Sadly, it has failed rather miserably in having any effect.
Take the situation in Delhi. According to a recent news report, of the almost 15,000 cases filed in Delhi under the Domestic Violence Act, not one person has been convicted. In fact not a single case has been settled in court. Almost 2,000 of these cases have been withdrawn by the applicants, and the rest have been hanging in there, waiting for justice. By law, these cases are expected to be settled within 60 days. Some of these 13,000 cases have been waiting patiently since 2007. And not one person, man or woman, has been held responsible for the abuse the victims faced, not one person has been convicted. So how has this law changed the situation for women? Notionally, yes. But in real life terms, inside the home, it may as well not exist. At least that seems to be the case in the country’s capital.
And now the government is thinking of another groundbreaking new law apparently to protect women further. The Ministry of Women and Child Development has started discussions on a proposal to give salaries to housewives. Well, they stay at home and work day and night, aren’t they entitled to some reward? Of course they are. So who will give the salary? The husbands, of course. If the husband is the earning member in a marriage, and the wife is taking care of the home, she would naturally have to be paid by the husband. At least that is what the government thinks.
Now this is a bit of a thorny issue. Women’s work in the household has been a perpetually neglected area, it never gets the respect it deserves, and most of the time it is not even acknowledged. A ‘working woman’ deserves respect, she is a woman who works outside the home. But the woman who works endlessly inside the home, taking care of the family, rearing kids, helping them with their school and homework, keeping house, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, packing off husbands and kids to office or school with clean clothes and a packed lunch, supervising the maids’ work and forever following up on nitty-gritties, is merely a ‘stay at home’ wife. Not only is there no respect for the enormous amount of work she does, there is also no awareness of it. Or of the fact that without her, the fulcrum that moves the home, the importantly ‘earning’ husband would be in a blue funk, the future generations would be rudderless and there would be very little left of society and family values.
So yes, there is much to be said about valuing the housewife. Financial security can go a long way in women’s empowerment. And women’s rights activists have been talking of putting a concrete value to women’s work for decades. But is becoming a paid domestic help in your own home, a servant of your husband, the way to women’s empowerment? How can financial freedom for a wife mean financial dependence on her husband? And let us not even get into the methods of monetizing the caring housewife’s endless fussing over every detail of housework, or the mother’s love that nurtures the child every step of the way. Categorising the cost of services at home or the cost of career opportunities that the wife forsakes doesn’t even come close.
Sadly, in spite of all our constitutional guarantees of gender equality and equality of opportunity, in India the home is specifically the woman’s responsibility, which very often deprives her of the opportunity to go out and earn a living. And within the home, her designated space, she is usually merely a worker, and not a decision-maker. From which kitchen device will be bought to which schools the children will go to, every non-trivial decision is taken by the husband or some other designated home authority, usually male.
Even earnings do not ensure freedom or empowerment for women in our country. Husbands routinely appropriate the wife’s earnings. According to the National Family Heath Survey (NFHS) survey of 2005-2006, only 20 to 24% of married women control their own earnings. For the rest, ie almost 4 out of 5 women, her earnings are controlled either solely or largely by her husband or others. So financial independence is not easy even for earning women, and empowerment is much further away.
To get a fair idea of what we need to address, let us first look at the institution of marriage. Marriage is about equal sharing, where the husband and wife are equal partners. Where the family earns as a whole, even if only one member goes out to work. I firmly believe that for financial empowerment of married women we need to ensure that she has equal rights and access to the husband’s money, investments and property. And the same goes for the husband of an earning wife.
There is one little pocket in India where this equality within the family is respected in concrete terms. Goa. I was told about the Communion of Properties law by Murlidhar Bhandare, Governor of Orissa, senior advocate in the Supreme Court of India and a keen promoter of gender justice. Borrowed from Portuguese law, this civil law in Goa entitles both spouses to an equal share of each other’s property after marriage.
I wonder why a government enthusiastic about financially empowering women, especially homemakers, is not exploring this possibility for all of India.
(Antara Dev Sen is Editor, “The Little Magazine”. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)