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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The institution of marriage rests on equal partnership
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The institution of marriage rests on equal partnership

We must foster marital equality so that women get the freedom to make what they want of their lives

In sub-Saharan Africa, where woman’s family receives a payment for the bride, droughts can lead to early marriage. Photo: HTPremium
In sub-Saharan Africa, where woman’s family receives a payment for the bride, droughts can lead to early marriage. Photo: HT

A recent news story reported how Mauritanian society celebrates a woman’s divorce, how her family welcomes her back to the fold, and how she leads a new life free of any stigma of a failed relationship. This practice is reportedly common throughout North Africa and West Asia, where multiple marriages are often seen as a reflection of a woman’s charm and choice of suitors. Such a philogynist societal attitude perhaps indicates a shift in the ideas of family and marriage, as divorces have long been considered a challenge to patriarchal power.

Many societies worldwide still uphold the belief that ‘marriages are made in heaven,’ a sacred commitment not only between individuals but also their families; its violation is taken as sacrilege, a social evil. India is no exception, by and large. A 2018 survey of 160,000 households revealed that 93% married Indians had ‘an arranged marriage’, as against the global average of about 55%. The annual divorce rate in India is low, at 1.1 per 1,000 people annually. Of every 1,000 Indian marriages, only 13 result in divorce, and it is mostly initiated by men, as prevailing social norms discourage women from exercising this right. Even when women (usually in urban India) venture to overcome family pressure to keep their marriages intact, they encounter legal hassles and socio-economic isolation, as studies have confirmed. The low labour-force participation rate of Indian women translates to high levels of financial dependency, which often compels them to ‘adjust’ to bad marriages. Further, a recent analysis of data from matrimonial sites also noted that “there is clear misogyny in the matrimonial market, and that women who were employed received nearly 15 per cent fewer responses from male suitors relative to those who were not working."

Nevertheless, a United Nations overview of global marriage patterns recorded a doubling of the proportion of adults (in the age group of 35-39 years) getting divorced or separated from 2% in the 1970s to 4% in the 2000s, while the OECD Family Database from 1995 to 2017 revealed a mixed trend, with an increase in 18 countries and a reduction in 12 others. In the US, the divorce rate rose from 2.2 per 1,000 people in 1960 to over 5 per 1,000 in the 1980s. American economists such as Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers were of the view that the trend was “partly reflective of the changes in expectations within marriages with the women entering the workforce."

Let’s look at the gendered impact of the dissolution of a marital union. A longitudinal research project (1984-2015) that used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP) of 18,030 married and 1,220 divorced individuals to evaluate the consequences of divorce on economic, domestic, health, social and other aspects of life, observed that “women, generally, face chronic strains of divorces, as they suffer from disproportionate losses in household income, higher risk of losing homeownership, lower chances of re-partnering and also bear the greater responsibilities of single parenting, whereas such impacts are transient for men." A study in the US (Peterson, 1996) found that the resultant gender gap in the standard of living was wide: a decline of around 27% for women, compared with a rise of 10% for men. Divorce tends to hit women harder. Of course, in some countries, like Germany, welfare measures can aid women’s economic recovery; some studies also report that men tend to be more vulnerable to health declines and mortality, and that non-custodial parents—usually fathers—often face a challenge in maintaining contact with their children.

As against the contention that an increasing divorce rate is a sign of women’s social progress and society’s maturing, many sociologists also regard it as a debilitating factor in societal stability, given the adverse economic and socio-psychological fallout on divorced parents and their children. In contrast, some market analysts look at splintering families as a business opportunity for the increased demand it creates for homes and household products. Feminists contend that a systemic bias within the existing legal system works against women, even though it is purportedly gender-neutral. An Indian practising lawyer who deals with marriage laws described our legal framework in her book “as benevolent patriarchal patronage at its best" and also expressed anguish over the potential “threat of the re-emergence of a patriarchy in today’s India, sanctified by religious scriptures that were oppressive to women."

UNWomen, while assessing the scale and scope of transformations needed in family life to achieve gender equality, has urged all nations of the world to adopt family-friendly policies and workplace regulations that enable women and men to combine caregiving with paid work. There is also a growing sense among women’s-rights activists that unless conditions are created to enable families and their members to thrive, our achievements on women’s empowerment may suffer a setback. In Mauritania, increasing marriage break-ups led to campaigns that emphasized family harmony and child development.

There is no doubt that the institution of marriage, as a basic social unit, should be strengthened for the well-being of families. For this, we must recast our work policies and basic education system to foster equal partnership as a foundational value in marriage, so that we have less conflict, dependency and resentment, and we simultaneously support the right of women to participate in all walks of life. Let’s reset our goals accordingly.

Archana Datta is a former director general, Doordarshan and All India Radio; and former press secretary to the President of India. 

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Published: 17 Apr 2023, 10:27 PM IST
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