The fact that Indian women have very little say when it comes to taking decisions about marriage is well-known. Whether it is the lack of consent or familiarity with their prospective partners (as a Plain Facts piece published on Thursday showed) or dowry and domestic violence-related harassment, women in India face a multitude of problems in their marital lives. An analysis of census data suggests that women also have lower chances of remarrying than men.

At the all-India level, the share of widowed, divorced and separated women as a proportion of the female population is higher than the comparable ratio for men.

Men are allowed more freedom in deciding whether or not to marry in the first place, and in case the marriage does not work out (due to death of the partner or separation or divorce), they have relatively more freedom to remarry. This is based on the fact that a widowed or divorced person can come back to the currently married fold after remarrying.

To be sure, a contrary argument can be made. Since men have lower life expectancy than women in India, a case can be built that the share of widowed, separated and divorced men is lower than women is because this category of men die sooner than women.

Consider the old age category which is relevant because widowhood is more likely in later phases of life. While the overall sex ratio is 943 (943 women per 1,000 men), it turns favourable for women in the 55-plus age group.

Which of the two scenarios is a more plausible explanation of higher share of widowhood, divorce and separation among women than men?

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We look at relative shares which have been calculated by dividing the percentage share of widowed, separated and divorced women in their total population by the corresponding share for men. Hence, a value of greater than one would mean that widowhood, separation and divorce are more prevalent among women than men.

Across age groups, a higher relative share for women in the widowed, separated and divorced category across age-groups suggests that women might be remarrying less in India than men.

To be sure, data from the Indian Human development Survey (IHDS) shows that majority of the respondents seem to be in favour of widow remarriage. But the census numbers show a different picture.

Experts do not find these statistics surprising. Flavia Agnes, a senior lawyer and a co-founder of MAJLIS, a legal and cultural organisation, says it is natural that women find it more difficult to remarry given considerations about their children and even the social stigma across communities, which is associated with remarriage in India. Although, economic independence might be changing things, the magnitude has been slow.

Jagmati Sangwan, the general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Association and an avid campaigner against khap panchayats in Haryana, highlights the role of political economy in low remarriage among women. If women are allowed to remarry, there would also be a concomitant transfer of property from the family. This is not acceptable to most people.

While, financial independence helps a lot in empowering women vis-à-vis marital decisions, there is another factor which might lead to a rise in remarriages in India. As sex ratio deteriorates, the society might become more agreeable to remarriage. While, this does not necessarily lead to an improvement in the status of women, such changes are well underway in states like Haryana, Sangwan added.

Tadit Kundu contributed to the story.

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