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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  False notions of gender roles should be corrected early
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False notions of gender roles should be corrected early

It could take intervention at the school level for us to reform society in favour of gender parity

Photo: MintPremium
Photo: Mint

What does the recent tragic death of 24-year-old Vismaya Nair, who was suspected to have been harassed for dowry, reveal about the state of women empowerment in our society?

Vismaya was a medical student from a matriarchal culture in Kerala married to an educated man with a government job. Her dowry included gold, an acre of land and a new car. Despite a grand wedding and a grander dowry, Vismaya reportedly faced brutal physical violence from her husband, known both to her parents and in-laws. Despite her education and a relatively well-off maternal family background, Vismaya could not muster the courage to leave her year-old, violent and demeaning marriage. Instead, she chose death—by suicide, as it appears. It may have been murder, and an investigation is on, but it’s likely she could not see any other way to end her suffering.

Vismaya is not an exception. As many as 7,115 deaths were recorded as dowry-related cases in 2019—that is nearly 20 Vismayas every day—according to the records of India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Out of over 340,000 cases of crime against women in 2019 under the Indian Penal Code, 37% were of ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’, nearly 26% of ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty’, and 9% of ‘kidnapping and abduction of women for forceful marriages’.

For many women, the reality is this. First, education does not necessarily grant women much control over their life choices, especially on marriage or an honourable exit from a bad marriage. Second, access to economic resources is insufficient for women to exercise decision-making power. Third, education and wealth per se do not necessarily nurture a sense of self-worth. Fourth, entrenched social norms related to marital practices and gender roles can only shift when change occurs from within society.

Marriage by a certain age is considered a universal necessity in India. As per 2018-19 National Sample Survey data, 1 in 2 girls (and 1 in 3 men) in urban India and 3 in 4 girls (2 in 4 men) in rural India were married before the age of 25 years. By the age of 30, almost all women are married off. Endogamy and arranged marriages are still the norm.

In our interviews for a research project with women working in a leading textile company in Tamil Nadu for a research project, married women workers who have school-going daughters were saving in gold for their daughters’ marriages, while yet-to-be-married women workers were saving for their own dowry, apart from repayments of family debt and for siblings’ education. Almost all yet-to-be-married women reported having no say in terms of the timing of their marriage and whether they could continue to work after tying the knot.

Girls are conditioned to believe that a marriage must be permanent. Traditions such as a coming-of-age ceremony in the form of a social function after a girl’s first menstruation continue in many parts of India, emphasizing her primary role as a reproductive agent. Brought up in such an environment, it is not surprising that an ‘exit’ from a marriage or even raising a voice against abuse is rarely considered a viable or honourable option. This is so even if the women are economically independent.

Our research, based on a sample of over 21,000 married women in urban India from the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, suggests that prevalent gender norms may lead women who are in paid work to display guilt by not only accepting but even justifying spousal violence more than women who are not in paid work. As a result, an abusive husband can strengthen his marital control by using violence—27% of women in paid work faced spousal violence compared to 20% of women not in paid work.

Despite every fourth married woman facing spousal violence in India, the proportion of divorced or separated women among ever-married women was less than 1% in 2018-19. While many cases of domestic distress can be resolved amicably, it’s clear that Indian women rarely perceive divorce as an option even in extreme cases of violence. A divorce is stigmatized and seen to reduce family honour. Given this social context, education and economic resources may not raise a woman’s confidence in her abilities or self-worth, making it that much harder to escape marital violence.

How can social norms be changed?

A progressive legal framework is a necessity, but it may not produce enough change. Just as media portrayals of women who selflessly serve their families while men act as providers fosters gender segregation, promoting successful women CEOs and sportswomen as role models could alter people’s preceptions. Male role models who actively challenge gender stereotypes would be of help too. While good in spirit, however, this is unlikely to destabilize the wider practices and beliefs about women’s role in society.

In the aftermath of Vismaya’s death, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted: “To inculcate a culture of gender equality, Kerala’s school textbooks will be revised and audited to sieve out words and phrases disparaging women. Steps will be taken to turn our schools and colleges into spaces that embrace the idea of gender equality and equal rights." Indeed, the single most important policy initiative would be early-stage intervention to reshape gender attitudes among boys and girls alike. This is an approach that should be speedily adopted in earnest across all Indian states.

Vidya Mahambare and Sowmya Dhanaraj are, respectively, professor of economics at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, and assistant professor at Madras School of Economics

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Updated: 28 Jun 2021, 10:40 PM IST
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