Neha, with her eyes downcast, is sitting at the consultation table before me. Both her parents by her side seem equally forlorn. In hushed tones, her father narrates the story of how her match was fixed to Naresh seven years ago. The proposal seemed flawless—the kundalis matched and so did their family backgrounds. The lavish wedding, along with the dowry and gifts, cost Neha’s father his life’s savings. As an answer to my puzzled look, he proudly declares, “It’s our custom; we have to do it."

In accordance with her husband’s wishes, Neha gave up her well-paying job at a multi-national firm and became a full-time “home maker", raised her two children, and cared for her ailing mother-in-law. She also learnt to cope with the taunts and accusations, interspersed with bouts of physical violence. But nothing seemed to please Naresh. Seven years later, Neha lives with her parents, doesn’t have a job, has two kids and a broken spirit. She sits before me with a vacant and haunted look seeking advice.

Neha’s is not an isolated case. Everyday we come across women in similar situations.

While dealing with these cases, we are often intrigued by the genesis of the problem. The sad reality is that most daughters in our country are still raised as parayadhan—burdens to be offloaded at the earliest possible opportunity. Whatever be their educational qualification, income level or earning capacity, daughters are viewed as a liability upon their parents, as temporary members of their families. The large number of working women has not helped break this social perception yet.

Marriage is projected as every woman’s ultimate salvation. But marriage does not offer a level playing field. The 24x7 task of running the house and taking care of family members is almost always a woman’s job, an unpaid labour of love, even when she may be working and contributing to the income. According to United Nations reports, one in three women in South Asia face domestic violence.

A thought that often comes to me is what can parents do to safeguard the interest of their daughters.

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 (as amended in 2005) gives equal inheritance rights to daughters in ancestral and self earned property of their parents. But the harsh reality is that in most cases, daughters are compelled to sign away their inheritance rights in favour of their brothers at the time of their wedding. This is done to ensure that the sons have unhindered enjoyment of property rights and the sisters are not “brain washed" by their husbands to stake a claim to the property. But when the marriage breaks down, these girls are forced to return to their parental home, not as rightful inheritors but destitute.

At the same time, parents consider it a matter of great family honour that a daughter be married with pomp and show. Giving dowry to the groom or his family is an inherent part of marriage customs. The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, bans giving or taking dowry, but this is blatantly ignored by both parties. Instead of giving dowry, why don’t parents give the same as streedhan to secure the future of their daughter? Islamic law provides for mandatory payment of meher by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage. Meher is specified in the marriage contract and is for the exclusive use of the bride. Meher can be money, jewellery, household goods, a dwelling, or some land. However, this, too, has been reduced to a ritual and a meagre token amount is given.

The lack of safeguards or financial security measures put in place at the time of marriage when things are ‘good’ render women like Neha extremely vulnerable when thing go ‘bad’.

The only option before Neha now is a band-aid treatment to her problem. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, is one such measure. The Act defines violence as physical, emotional, verbal, sexual and economic. Thus, apart from physical violence, taunts, accusations, having an affair, not providing maintenance, and other such issues fall under the purview of domestic violence. The Act recognises a woman’s rights to live in her matrimonial home and to live a life free of violence. A woman facing domestic violence is entitled to protection from violence; she has the right to residence and maintenance, custody of her children and compensation for loss that she has incurred due to the violence. She can also ask for the return of her belongings.

Even as I suggest that we should approach the court to seek relief, Neha’s parents look at me shell shocked. “How can we approach the police or the court… what will society think?" The fact is that while there are a number of laws to protect women, the understanding is that ‘good’ women should never use the law. Despite our claims of ‘zero tolerance to domestic violence’, families prefer joint counselling and settlements to “save the marriage" even though such counselling has no legal sanction and nor do they offer safe-guards to protect women.

The choice before Neha is to break these barriers and demand for her rights as provided under the law or to quietly accept her situation and do nothing. Which means she has to speak up. Women who have managed to take the first step in this journey towards accessing justice, both from their husbands as well as their fathers, have gained immense confidence in the process. The legal battle is not always long and painstaking, and courts have often responded sensitively and expeditiously to ensure that women’s rights are safeguarded. But the most important aspect is for women like Neha to take charge of their lives and chalk out the future that they want for themselves. That in itself is true empowerment.

Audrey D’Mello, programme director, Majlis Legal Centre.

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