By Prof GB Reddy, G Rishichandra Reddy March 8th every year is celebrated as International Women’s Day to commemorate the event when in 1910, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, tabled the idea of an international women’s day to assert women’s demands. It has been observed […]
By Prof GB Reddy, G Rishichandra Reddy
March 8th every year is celebrated as International Women’s Day to commemorate the event when in 1910, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, tabled the idea of an international women’s day to assert women’s demands. It has been observed as International Women’s Day since 1911.
Many events are organised to highlight the discrimination against women, and seek equality and justice for them. Several initiatives have been taken up too across the world and in India to ameliorate the conditions of women, which include legal, policy and administrative measures. An analysis of these developments reflects that certain equality has been ensured, though it doesn’t manifest in real-time action.
The 19th century’s social reform movement and the 20th century’s nationalist movements drew a large number of women to political activity; and led to movements against social evils like Sati, ban on widow’s remarriage and denial of property rights and education to women. Law became an effective instrument of social change and empowerment of women. One may refer to the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act, 1856, certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, Hindu Women’s Right to Properties Act, 1937, and Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939, to buttress this point.
When the Constitution was framed, the makers ensured that it contained special provisions for women in the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy. Some of the progressive developments that took place in recent times to empower women in India are discussed hereunder.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, was introduced in Lok Sabha on 21 Dec 2021 seeking to raise the age of legal marriage for women from 18 to 21. The Bill fulfils the spirit of the Constitution as its provisions will apply to all communities “irrespective of any law, custom, usage or practice governing the parties”. The Central government deserves compliments for bringing in legislation to raise the age of marriage for girls as this would empower women by providing them enough time to complete education and build a career.
Muslim women used to live till recently, with a perpetual fear of the unapproved form of Triple Talaq ie, Talaq-ul-biddat where the husband pronounced Talaq instantaneously three times without giving any scope for reconciliation. This practice was struck down as unconstitutional in Shayara Bano v. Union of India (2017) by the Supreme Court. Subsequently, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, was brought in to make triple Talaq illegal and void, whether spoken or written or by any electronic means and also imposed imprisonment up to 3 years on the husband.
The right of Hindu daughters to succeed in ancestral property got a fillip through the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1955. Their position was consolidated further by the Supreme Court in Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma (2020) as per which the Hindu daughters can claim their share in coparcenary even when such coparcener passed away before the commencement of the 2005 amendment. The best solution appears to be the abolition of the coparcenary system itself.
Slow but Steady Change
A slow but certain change seems to have commenced in the area of marital rape. Though the accepted and legal position is that a husband would not be guilty of rape even if he forces himself sexually upon his wife without her consent, in Independent Thought v. Union of India (2018), the SC’s division bench held that sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 18 is rape irrespective of whether she is married or not. This case arose under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. In a significant development, Adultery was decriminalised in India (Joseph Shine v. Union of India) in 2018.
The 2017 amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, provided that women employees are entitled to maternity benefits for 26 weeks for two surviving children and 12 weeks for more than two children. A similar benefit is given to a ‘Commissioning mother’ and ‘Adopting mother’ in the case of surrogacy and adoption respectively. These changes have been justified on the ground that maternal care to the child during early childhood is crucial for the growth and development of the child.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (POSH Act) was enacted in 2013, and the same year also witnessed the creation of new offences such as sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism, under the IPC. While the statute aims at providing every woman (irrespective of age or employment status) a safe, secure and dignified working environment, free from all forms of harassment, proper implementation of the provisions remains a challenge.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (PWDV Act) provides that every woman in a domestic relationship shall have the right to reside in the shared household and shall not be evicted from the shared household except through legal process. The Supreme Court in Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja (2020), overruled its earlier view held in S R Batra vs. Tarun Batra (2007) holding that the wife can claim right of residence in the shared household whether owned or tenanted by the husband singly or jointly.
However, in Ramachandra Warrior vs. Jayasree (2021), a division bench of the Kerala High Court held that a divorced wife would not be entitled to a similar right of residence, as this right is available only to a woman in a domestic relationship. In August 2020, the Orissa High Court extended the protection under PWDV Act to the ‘lady’ in same-sex couple living together.
In the saga of demand for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India as mandated by the Constitution, Firoz Bakht Ahmed, the Chancellor of MANUU, Hyderabad, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the government to constitute a judicial commission or a high-level expert committee to prepare a draft of the UCC, in January 2022. He wanted to weed out anomalies in the minimum age of marriage, grounds of divorce, maintenance-alimony, adoption, guardianship, succession, and inheritance-based patriarchal stereotypes. The matter is sub- judice.
An ILO publication relating to Empowering Women at Work (2021) emphatically states that no country has so far achieved gender equality, not even among the highest-income countries in the Group of 7. Achieving gender equality and building back a better future for all women is imperative. Let the equality of women be not only legal but also real.
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