In a country where the culture of arranged and forced marriage is the norm, marrying for love is an exception, and divorce or choosing to remain single is associated with social stigma; it can be argued that a financially empowered woman is better positioned to reverse these traditional social dynamics and bring about social change in the right direction.
However, the uphill battle for females to gain an education and financial freedom is an arduous journey. It is worth noting that merely gaining knowledge and earning a paycheck does not necessarily translate to having complete autonomy. Long-established egregious sociocultural attitudes and traditions continue to suppress and subjugate women to this day. According to the National Statistical Office (Government of India), the 2016 India’s poverty profile shows that 67% of Indians live in rural areas.
Accessing opportunities in rural areas is difficult, especially for women than men, who are significantly more privileged. A report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2018 has found that 39.4%of girls in the age range of 15-18 were not attending school compared to 35% of boys. Almost 65% of these girls are engaged in household duties, dependents, pensioners, beggars, etc. compared to 33.4% of the boys who are non-workers.
A girl child in rural India is thought of as a burden that must be unloaded at a young age. Higher education is considered wasteful because she is ultimately expected to care for the household and bear children. These cultural attitudes severely affect her education, health, and safety. Conventional cultural attitudes towards female autonomy remain challenging to shed even for the middle-class or upper-class sections of society.
Increasingly, financially stable families encourage their daughters to seek higher education and careers, but most parents’ goal remains to ‘give away’ their daughter in marriage. A daughter who is thought of as Paraya Dhan (someone else’s wealth or property) is ‘given away’ by her parents through marriage, to whom they feel the ‘rightful owner of that property’.
With the culmination of the marriage process, parents’ ‘duties’ of caring for their daughter are considered to have been fulfilled. After marriage, her husband and the in-laws pick up the baton as her ‘protectors’. This life-long surveillance under the guise of “care” is ingrained in our cultural psyche. Girls are besieged from birth by the entire machinery of patriarchy bent on restraining her from acting as an individual.
Our deeply patriarchal culture has been challenged by women, time and again, but it has not been substantial enough to advance towards a gender-just society. Men hold positions of power and prescribe the rules at all levels of society. The family unit, community, workplaces, law enforcement bodies, and the government are all charged by a patriarchal structure.
Moreover, the status quo of male domination is widely revered and accepted by society with little questioning or critique, thus holding women subjugated in the grip of slavery, disallowing her to exist and function as an independent being. The gender inequality in India impedes women’s access to vital resources such as education, healthcare, etc.
Various governments have introduced a slew of constitutional privileges such as Equality before Law (Articles 14), Prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (Article 15), etc. to promote equality to women, and well-meaning schemes (Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls – Sabla, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao) over the years, however, due to sloppy implementation of these ventures satisfactory results are yet to materialize. According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development, a total amount of Rs 43 crore was set aside for Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, in the fiscal year 2016-2017 only about Rs 5 crore had been utilized.
Other aspects like corruption, traditional male-dominated law and enforcement bodies, and society itself, hinder progress towards equal representation in all areas. Challenges stemming from our male-dominated culture have persisted through the centuries. In the matters of marriage or relationships, we have undoubtedly seen some progress, albeit slow, and certainly not adequate. In the last few decades, consumerism has been growing many-fold, and with that, people have an increasing desire to live more comfortable lives.
More men from lower-middle-class and upwards, prefer choosing women with careers. The burden of performing traditional roles of household chores, caring for children, the elderly, and so forth, however, falls mainly on the woman’s shoulders. Women working outside the home have little control over their earnings despite supplementing the family income. They often have limited autonomy over their well-being and decision-making on financial and other important family matters.
Despite a lack of equal footing, from time to time, we get to know of heartwarming stories of courageous women who confront the existing system and culture in commendable ways. The following are a few inspirational narrations by women who have chosen to live their lives on their terms.
“Had I not been financially independent and strong-willed before I got married, it would not have been possible for me to continue my relationship with Ahmad. I had a career and was staying away from my family. Considering my financial independence and conviction, I knew I was ready to manage things if situations did not work out.
After marriage, there was a tacit acceptance by my parents-in-law and others that I would not change my religion, my last name, and so on. If it were not for my resolve, I know that it would not have been easy for my husband and me to adopt our first child, a girl, and raise our children the way we decide. My husband’s siblings and their spouses have never had a say on any important issues.
They are all above 45 years of age but remain financially dependent on my parents-in-law. This ironically gives my parents-in-law a sense of power and control over them and all the decision making. In my case, being financially independent has not only helped me assert myself but also earning the trust of in-laws for my opinion on various important family matters.”
“I fell in love when I was barely 18 and in my first year of college. My family did not approve of my relationship, and they wanted me to either leave the house or get married to my boyfriend. I was a good student, and I had no intention of marrying at that time, but I caved to my parents’ pressure and ended up having a forced marriage.
I was financially dependent on my husband, who did not have a steady income, so we were rather poor for some years. The marriage was terrible from the beginning, but I pursued my studies and earned money in the evenings and during my summer vacation by teaching private tuitions to students and doing other odd jobs.
All along, I remained focused on my education. After completing my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I joined one of India’s premier institutions and worked for a few years. I also completed a year of course work for my doctoral degree but left it all when I had a baby. Later, I joined another institution and eventually worked my way to the top.
I was encouraged by my husband to take up a job offer in Singapore, so I left thinking he would join me in a month or two. He did not join me. I was stuck there with very little money, and it took me a few years to recover emotionally and financially. After a few years of hard work, I became the CEO of a small company. Even after years of becoming financially independent, I did not leave the marriage, although I saw signs and had enough reasons to leave it.
Finally, after 16 years of marriage, I picked up the courage and asked for a divorce. I know the only reason I survived all of this is because of my education and career. Today, years later, I am a happy single mom. I teach English to young girls and single women and show them by example how important it is to lead their lives on their terms.”
“My family and extended family hold conservative values. The women are not educated beyond primary school. My mother encouraged me to study and become financially independent. Though going out to work was acceptable to my family, marrying someone of my choice was inconceivable and unacceptable. However, I was able to gather my courage and go against my family’s wishes and get married to someone I met at my workplace.
After a few months of my marriage, my parents met my husband, Suresh. They slowly took to liking him. My husband and I initially went through a rough phase when we had a child, and I was the only one earning a paycheck. It was a very stressful time for us, but eventually, hard work paid off, and my husband was able to set up a successful business.
Now, I am happy that I am not only able to keep track of my family expenses and investments. I also manage business accounts. Not only that, but I am also able to provide for my ageing parents as well without having to feel any guilt or being questioned by anyone.
Some of my friends, working and non-working, who desire to take care of their old parents cannot take a stand. The men make all the family decisions, and my friends do not have a say. I have noticed that many men believe that only the son must care for the parents, not the daughter.”
“My parents were eager to get me married off at an early age. My father was a dominating man, and my mother, a housewife, being fearful of him went along with whatever decisions he made for the family. I remember even as a young kid, and they were saving for my wedding, like buying gold jewellery and other typical items that a daughter-in-law is expected to bring to her in-law’s house after marriage. They began looking for eligible men when I had barely finished high school.
Growing up, I always felt that they thought of me as a burden they needed to get rid of. I had big dreams of being a career woman but felt lost without any guidance or encouragement. I also had low self-esteem, was not self-motivated, confused, and lacked role models or mentors. After a string of forced engagements and break-ups, I met Sharath through a friend.
For the first time, I felt comfortable talking to him and felt like I was being appreciated and respected for the person that I am. Our friendship turned into a romantic relationship, and I went against my parents’ wishes and got married to him. After marriage, I saw a whole new perspective of life that I had not known before.
I was a below-average student throughout my school years and considered myself a dumb person. With Sharath’s immense patience and encouragement, I understood many things that I always had difficulty with. I completed my undergraduate degree, and for the first time, I was able to aspire for myself.
My husband mentions that he is relieved that if something were to happen to him, I would be able to continue my life without being dependent on anyone. This year, I completed 20 years working outside of the home, making a decent salary.
I feel a sense of pride that I was able to put my children through good schools and colleges and be a role model for my children. I learned with the help of my husband’s encouragement that I have an equal say in all aspects of our decision making.”
There are many positive takeaways from the above stories – Reena, Poonam, Samina, and Uma, in one way or more confront the prevalent cultural attitudes towards women and serve as role models for others. No matter what their backgrounds and experiences; they hold onto their identities. Reena was earning her living before she got married. She had the confidence that if her relationship did not work out, she would be fine. Reena was also able to successfully negotiate, gain respect, and be an equal partner in her marriage.
In Poonam’s case, she experienced a forced marriage at a young age and struggled in her 16 years of marriage. All the while, she did not stop empowering herself. Her courage and determination finally allowed her to leave her bad marriage and live her life on her terms. Samina benefitted from having a support system, her mother, who encouraged her to study and earn a living. Her mother’s encouragement ensured Samina a stable future and set a precedent for future generations.
Samina asserted herself in different ways, including monetarily supporting her elderly parents. Breaking with the tradition of only the son being responsible for the care of elderly parents can drastically reduce and end a whole host of issues about the girl child, such as female feticide, infanticide, honour killings on. Men have a critical role in facilitating women to make decisions through their independent mind and personal reflection. In Uma’s case, her husband provided guidance and support that she lacked while growing up. In due course, Uma became an astute and self-reliant woman.
To attain a gender-just society, our well-oiled patriarchal structures that have been running relentlessly for centuries should be brought to a complete halt; left to rust and crumble and become a part of history. The menacing aspect of male domination that is firmly entrenched at all levels of society must be rectified.
People have the crucial task of dismantling the status quo. Prioritizing and investing heavily in girls’ health, education, and safety; mandating equal pay and representation in the workforce; providing financial literacy programs; engaging women in planning, spending, and investing; will all help in closing the economic inequality gap and help create a just society. Women will not only seek and maintain healthier relationships; they will have control over their future.
It is also in the country’s best interest to empower women for better economic growth and create a robust civil society. The famous African saying, “When you educate a man, you educate an individual; when you educate a woman, you educate a generation” rings particularly true. Disclaimer: The names and identifying details of specific individuals have been changed to protect their privacy. The author, Shailaja Rao, Virginia, USA, is a core member of an NGO, Dhanak of Humanity.