By Ankita Ghosh:
My friend Diksha (name changed) has never known her dad. Her mum has always made up for the absence of a male parent, very commensurately, alternating between twin roles of mother and father. Having been very close to the family I remember her as one of those rare few parents that sat her kid down when she was 11 and explained to her how babies were made while I was facing hell with puberty. Diksha understood with the unobtrusive innocence of a pre-teen that she was born ‘out of wedlock’, and while she could ask her mother on rainy nights about what Baba liked for breakfast, she never needed him around to make her any. Mother and daughter lived with surprising clarity until she had to go to junior school. There they had a hard time getting her admitted because the ‘father’ field had to go unmarked and reality hit home for the first time. Mrs. Roy was using her maiden surname without making apologies for it but when little Diksha asked her what a ‘bastard’ meant and why an older child from the neighborhood had called her that, Roy cried in her bed.
Single mothers are systematically shamed in a society that still goes by archaic patriarchal notions of identity. Single parenting is undoubtedly harder than raising a child conforming to the social institution of marriage and twice as much demanding. Studies reveal that it’s usually harder for lone mothers than single fathers as the former are more likely to be blamed, ostracized and face destitution. Globally one-quarter to one-third of all families with children have mothers as the sole care-givers including unwed, divorced and widowed women. And yet there are many women today that go ahead with childbirth and subsequent rearing, without a man, simply because they haven’t met one they fancy for fathering their child and won’t settle for someone only resembling Mr. Right. Several single women today are adopting children or opting for planned childbirth through surrogacy or Assisted Reproductive Technology, or simply making a choice against aborting a ‘love child’.
The Supreme Court in early July overruled the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956 awarding legal guardianship of children to their single mothers. This has been a laudable effort towards ensuring legal security to the likes of Mrs. Roy and a healthy psychological environment, where mother and child aren’t ridiculed. Anindita Sarbadhicari, a filmmaker based out of Kolkata who gave birth to a biological offspring through Assisted Reproductive Technology is glad because, “….it’s not just that our society has moved light years in terms of breaking taboos, but the state also validates this change.” The still pending ART bill can ensure a low cost-incurring and a favorable legal environment for commercial surrogacy in India and at the same time help single women/men or couples in live-in relationships to have kids.
The July ’15 judgment has marked a watershed moment as the Supreme Court cleared up the mire around rights of guardianship to single mothers that had up until then mandated disclosure of father’s identity. This was following a 2011 approach for appellate justice by a plaintiff, whose plea was ruled out by Delhi High Court, when she filed for guardianship without wanting to disclose the name of her child’s father. The judgment explains that an unwed mother can be legally authorized as her child’s sole guardian without bothering with the father’s consent. The ruling made explicit recognition of a woman’s fundamental Right to Privacy and withdrew mandatory requirement of father’s name on birth certificate, passport and school paperwork. Additionally Section 11 of Guardians and Wards Act seeks to repeal the stigma of ‘illegitimacy’ borne by children lacking one parent. The SC mentions that, “…Section 16 of the Hindu Marriage Act intends to bring about social reforms, conferment of social status of legitimacy on a group of children, otherwise treated as illegitimate…” hinting at children of live-in relationships. Despite this landmark decision, laws governing identity of children not born out of heterosexual/marital relationships still have operational ambiguity like in matters of inheritance, banking, investment and insurance.
While America fought Biblical opposition to abortion almost half a century ago, in India a woman’s rights have come to concentrate around the right to abort or terminate the life of an unborn child. Rights of a woman to willfully keep a child, despite the biological father having taken off, or to explore alternative ways to natural pregnancy are conveniently ignored. Adoption becomes a crusade through government offices, while adoption agencies prefer married couples over single women, and require a minimum of 30 years of age and a difference of 21 years with the adopted child. Legislations are only part of the battle won and with society’s searchlights trained on the two, the real trials begin once baby is united with mother.