//A blow for women

A blow for women

This International Women’s Day, March 8, the so-called weaker sex will have something to cheer about. The Supreme Court has asked the Centre and states to frame and notify the rules for mandatory registration of marriages from April 1. Usha Rai on how this provision can prevent exploitation

Married  at 14 and widowed at 17, Mohra of Krishnasar village of Lunkaransar tehsil, Bikaner district of Rajasthan has been reduced to a frail old woman living on the edge of penury. Neither her
in-laws nor the maternal side of her family wants to keep her or look after her. Her life would have been infinitely better if her marriage had been registered and there was legal proof of marriage to entitle her to a share in her husband’s property.

The recent Supreme Court order on compulsory registration of marriages therefore comes as a beacon of hope to hundreds and thousands of women like Mohra who are illiterate, widowed or abandoned are unable to fight for their rights.

Indian society may traditionally have been caring and nurturing for women, but it is no longer so. Mohra’s is a classic case of what could happen to a woman who is not empowered and has no legal sanction for her rights. Mohra’s marital home in Luniabas and her maternal home are just 35 km apart in Lunkaransar district. Like thousands of young girls she had no say in her marriage. On attaining puberty, she was left at her sasural with band baja. Her bright ochre odhni and the silver jewellery of a new bride were ceremoniously removed when her husband died and she became a widow. For five or six months her in-laws treated her well then, the discrimination and cruelty began.

Ganga Gupta of the Hunger Project, a resident of Bikaner working for the empowerment of women through panchayats, says Mohra’s in-laws had plenty of land and she was entitled to the 50 bighas of land that should have been her husband’s share of the property. When she moved to her maternal home unable to cope with the barbs being heaped on her, her five brothers-in-law grabbed her share of the property.

At her mother’s home, Mohra was at the beck and call of the entire family. She was the backbone of the domestic chores. Eight years ago when, through a women’s collective, she learnt that she had a right to her share of the land even in her maternal home, she asked her brothers for it. They immediately retorted if she wanted the land, they would not let her stay in the house. This unnerved Mohra. Frightened to live alone, Mohra went to the tehsildar and wrote off her share of the property to her brothers. Today she is not even with the family. She survives on the 20 kg of wheat she is entitled to as a person living below the poverty line and the small pension she gets as a widow. The  Mahila Samooh (women’s collective) took up her case and got her a
one-room tenement with kitchen under the Indira Awas Yojana.

Ganga Gupta even offered to help her get back her land. Mohra, however, pointed out that even if she got back her land, her brothers would not allow her to till it. And if by chance she was able to grow a crop, they would release their cattle into her fields and there would be nothing left to harvest. "Mohra would not have been reduced to this state, if she had not been married as a child and if her marriage had been registered," says Ganga.

On the obverse side, there is the story of Munnabai (name changed), a Kumawat caste Marwari women from Bikaner city, who a couple of years ago fell in love and married a young man of her choice. Since it was not a traditional wedding it was registered in the local courts. The young couple had a daughter and was extremely happy for a few years. Then the marriage soured. The young man threw Munnabai and her little one out of the house. Armed with her marriage certificate, Munnabai sought alimony and financial support to raise her child. She also got, through the courts, a share in her in-laws house. Though it was just a room, it did provide her and her child security and shelter.

Though India has been a signatory to international laws, including CEDAW (Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) and is committed to registration of marriages, it is the recent Supreme Court ruling on a transfer petition that has put pressure on the government to make marriage registration mandatory, says Shruti Pandey of the Human Rights Law Network. Seema’s husband wanted to divorce her but there was no document to prove the wedlock so the Supreme Court asked the Centre and states to frame and notify the rules for mandatory registration of marriages in three months. It said that all marriages, irrespective of religion, would have to be registered. In an April 2005 petition against child marriage too, the Supreme Court had ruled that even for implementation of the Sharda Act that seeks to prevent child marriages, registration of marriages is compulsory.

Dr Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research (CSR), says the women’s movement has been demanding for a long time now the compulsory registration of marriages as well as births and deaths. This should be done at the level of panchayats itself because, she says the panchayats have their fingers on the pulse of the people at the grassroots and are the most legitimate body for registering marriages as well as births and deaths. In fact, all those interviewed were in favour of registration of marriages, births and deaths being left to panchayats instead of creating a new post for this responsibility.

Compulsory registration of marriages, she says, will not only enable women to acquire property but will check bigamy. Across the country there are men who have three and four partners. The women with whom they take the seven pheras are abandoned on the slightest pretext and they begin living with the next woman that catches their fancy. They heap their love and wealth on the new woman, often leaving the legitimate wife on the verge of penury and with responsibility for the children. Film stars like Dharmendra and Kamal Hassan have indulged in bigamous relationships and, because of their status as public figures, have given a form of sanction to these ‘glamorous, love relationships.’ There are hardly any cases of prosecution for bigamy in the country. If, however, registration of marriages becomes compulsory, there could be prosecution for bigamy too.

Another very important adjunct of marriage registration will be protection of young girls and boys from child marriages. Though it is not easy to overlook the social sanctions around child marriages, the fact that someone is looking at the age of the couples when they register their marriages, could deter families from solemnising child marriages. Under the new Act that seeks to protect women from violence in their homes, they have the right to stay on in their marital home. Videographs and photographs are not admissible in a court of law as evidence of marriages, says Ranjana Kumari but the legal marriage certificate could provide protection for women.

A large number of young women in Punjab and Haryana get married through traditional Hindu rites to Non Resident Indians who come into the country flashing their wealth, marry the girl of mama’s choice then go abroad and abandon them. A legal document of marriage could deter these NRIs, says Ranjana Kumari of CSR. Even if they forsake them there would be a legal document with which the women can get their rights to property etc. However, the trauma of an abandoned woman is not that easy to tackle. Take the case of Smriti, a journalist who had worked with CSR for a few years. Daughter of a senior army officer, Smriti was married to an NRI 10 years ago. Her family paid for all the marriage and travel expenses of the groom and his family. The groom spent one night with Smriti then went abroad saying he would send for her. But
he never came back and frantic calls to his work place revealed that he never worked there.

The registration of marriage has to be simplified and there should be wide dissemination of information on how and where marriages can be registered, says Ranjana Kumari. The law at present is cumbersome. While Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh have made marriage registration mandatory, Assam, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Meghalaya have laws for voluntary registration of Muslim marriages. The Special Marriage Act, the Parsi Marriage Act, the Christian Marriage Act and the Foreign Marriage Act provide for registration but it is voluntary.

The registration of marriages is at present cumbersome. It has to be in a local court in the presence of a gazetted officer who acts as witness. In villages it is difficult to get a gazetted officer who will act as witness to the marriage. If, however, the power to act as witness is given to a panchayat member and the marriage register is with the panchayats, the whole process gets easier.

But Ganga Gupta has a word of caution. Since there is social sanction for child marriages, panchayats could register even child marriages without any qualms. But if registration of births and marriages are given to the same organisation, it would deter them from registering a child marriage—there would be proof of age of the child in their own register of births.

Dr George Mathew of the Indian Social Institute maintains that equality of gender cannot be enforced in a patriarchal society without law. Property rights, right to maintenance and other rights in the family including the right over children need a legal base. Mandatory registration of marriages will restrain wayward men who have multiple relations and are disturbing the harmony in society. The victims are invariably women. Now their rights will be protected. With six state governments enforcing the two-child policy for those seeking elections to local panchayat bodies, there have been umpteen cases of men abandoning their wives when she is expecting her third child. This large scale disowning of wives to stay on in elected bodies has been recorded in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and the other states by Nirmala Buch, former Chief Secretary, Madhya Pradesh. When expecting her third child, the wife of a panchayat leader was sent off to her parents.

When he did not come to fetch her for several months after the birth of the third child, she rushed home and found he was living with another woman who he publicly claimed was his wife. Many women are compelled to abort the third child so that the man’s political ambitions can be met and he stays on in the elected office. Now with mandatory registration of marriages, disowning of wives for political ambitions will also be checked.

The biggest benefactors of the mandatory registration of marriages will be those who marry under the Hindu Marriage Act where there is no legal compulsion. Christian marriages are all registered in the church by the priest. So are Muslim marriages — the nikhanama has the signature of the Kazi. Parsi marriages too enter a book of records. However, all these registered marriages should be under the umbrella of a master register. This may well be the first step for working towards a Uniform Civil Code.

However, Shruti Pandey is not all gung ho about the Supreme Court order. What happens if a woman is not able to register her marriage and is not aware of the law. An unregistered marriage, she warns, becomes zero in law. So before the law comes into force it is important for the public — and women in particular — to have the information, education and empowerment to ask for the registration of their marriage. Does a village woman have the voice to insist on marriage registration? What are the consequences of non-registration? Does the marriage then become ‘no marriage’ because she has no paper to support her status? In a society where the government system works, marriage registration is fine. But it is not in a society like India where paper work is difficult, says Shruti. "A bad law is worse than no law."