“During my pregnancy, my household responsibilities did not reduce as they were supposed to. They (in-laws) picked fights with me and refused me food – I don’t know how they knew it was going to be a daughter. Though everyone was around at the time of her birth, no one seemed too happy. They told me they had wanted a son.” Sumitra tells us.
Wanting a son is not unheard of in a country that has abysmal rates of child sex ratio. The preference for a male ‘heir‘ is one of the causes of gender-biased sex selection. To make matters worse, this patriarchal idea of son preference renders women and their daughters helpless, subject to violence, and denied of their right to property and a safety net. Shockingly, inheritance laws in India are not overarching – what rules apply to you depend on the religion you belong to. If you are among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, preference is given to men over women.
The lack of autonomy of a woman also renders her helpless in preventing similar treatment meted out with her “useless” daughter.
For Sumitra, like thousands of other women in similar situations in India, the battle started immediately after she gave birth to a girl child. “I was expected to resume household work after a mere 10 days post-delivery, whereas when my sister-in-law had a son, she was taken care of for 2 months! My husband’s family deemed me “impure”, and stopped eating the food I cooked. Small issues turned into big fights. If my little daughter dared to go out to play, they beat me for allowing her to step out. When she or I fell sick, they never took her to a doctor or took care of me; unlike how my sister-in-law’s son was attended to. All of them ill-treated me for the sole reason that I had borne a daughter. In fact, my husband went on to say that she was mad, and that they will not keep her in the family.”
“I had to come back to my parents’ house. My parents tried to talk to them a number of times, but they didn’t change their mind. And then we received a notice – my husband had filed for divorce. The reason he had cited? That I am mentally disturbed. Members of my family have been running around since then, trying to sort the matter out, but to no avail,” she adds.
Had Sumitra had her right to housing, it would not have taken away her ability to self-determine her present, and her future. If she had had something to her name and control, would she and her daughter be shunted from basic care, love and dignity?
“I want to go back. They haven’t been able to give any proof of my “sickness”. While proceedings are on to finalise the alimony amount, I don’t know what happened at the counselling centre. Right now, I’m taking sewing classes. My husband has come by a number of times, but never meets me. Or our daughter.” Sumitra adds, hoping for a better and safer tomorrow for herself and her daughter.
Inputs given by Sanskriti Pandey.