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The legal rights of women need to be taught early on, so that our girls know what they are entitled to, and how to safeguard themselves.
Anita is a 28 year old house-help working at the house of a retired couple. She belongs to an Adivasi family of the tea community. She has an 8 year old son from her marriage to a man she thought she loved and eloped with once.
She is an only daughter of ailing parents who are dependent on her for finance and support. Couple of years ago, she had tried to reconcile with her husband but since he had no intentions of forgoing his drinking and philandering ways, she gave up.
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They are separated now, but not divorced and he still tries to pinch off from the money she saves for her son. Legal separation requires expenses and for that, she needs time.
Anita started working at an early age. Her father having taken ill, she and her mother (well, mostly her) ran all errands and took care of the family. Before she could fathom that a romantic escape with a rogue would do no good, she was pregnant with his child and became a mother at a very young age.
She grew up thinking she could achieve no better, since she had laid waste her life and future after getting married to her husband and then leaving him. Her parents offered no support and rather expected her to compensate for the trouble she had caused. She cowered under the pressure and believed that her only hope was her child and she would have to compromise for his sake.
Her parents are taking care of her son while she works to make a living, and without intending malice towards them, I can say for sure that they are also reaping a selfish harvest out of their service. “Get gifts for relatives”, “Buy this and that”, “Pay for renovation” etc., are common demands she gets from them. With an economic acumen, she is managing all that quite well, for now.
If you didn’t know her story, she would come across as any other smart young woman you meet every day who works diligently, earns a respectable living, is meticulous about her health and is street-smart. She is quick in catching popular vocabulary that conveniences her to speak to people from all social classes. She is saving money every month for a brighter future and is now considering completing her graduation too.
We often meet women like Anita, but we are too busy in our own lives to do anything more than sympathize with them. True enough, when educated women are fighting for their own way of life, how can we expect those in the lower rungs to have their woes heard?
To make women more independent, an initiative like ‘Beti bachao, Beti padhao’ does give encouragement. A 100-crore core fund, to save female fetuses and teach little girls to get jobs when they grow up, sounds rosy. But if you look closely at the lower income strata of the Indian society, you’ll find that women are facing much more than a lack of regular education. Wife-beating, illegal usurping of wife’s income and ration, life threats to wife and children, fear of social abandonment or disadvantages of underprivileged divorced women, lure of better jobs leading to trafficking, etc.
Of course, our governments of different eras have taken notice of that too. So we have organizations like the National Commission for Women (NCW), State Commissions for Women (SCWs), Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) and such others which have profound mission statements on their website and not many updates about their achievements.
For the north-eastern states of India, where majority of pressing issues involve men (read: extremism, militancy, insurgency) or an entire population (read: illegal immigrants), cases involving women like witch-hunting, rapes and murders scroll on anchor news pieces of prime-time TV, after having lost their initial surprise.
In 2014, The Free Press Journal reported that the SCW of Assam had solved only 570 of the registered 1,145 cases in ten years, which is less than 50%. In such a situation, a problem like Anita’s is often at the bottom of the pile. How can she even have the gumption to put up a case when she knows it would be sleeping for a decade?
As a woman trying to find a foothold in patriarchy myself, I believe we ought to learn our legal lessons at a younger age. At least for people like Anita, who might lose even family help in matters of law, awareness of her legal rights and their assertion to keep nuisance at bay, is of paramount importance. Along with teaching the betis grammar and numbers, it would also be very responsible if they are taught how to deal with adverse situations legally – like whom to approach, how to file a complaint, how to nip in bud relations that could go awry, how to fight back when an indecent brute tries to seize your hard-earned money and more.
These are smaller issues compared to rape, trafficking or murder but important all the same. To live a life of dignity, a woman also needs to know her way around law. Our country seems to take pride in making procedures of law, rocket science. But for the fruition of complete economic growth and to achieve the shiny glamour of women empowerment that adept advertising campaigns tastefully show, we ought to know a lot of these little things from an early age.
I don’t know how much of that is taught by our well-meaning NGOs, but rest assured that they have to; because the mothers of these daughters have grown up in social malnutrition and they won’t know any better than to surrender to fate. And because, the state and national organizations will take time to sift through their already pending cases to take new ones.
Image source: wikicommons
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