Community Survey

#PropertyForHer: More Than Just A Room of Her Own

While we push for uniform civil codes, it is important to remember that everyday discrimination remains a significant barrier to #PropertyForHer

Tallulah was only two when her father passed away. Her mother was twenty two at that time, with two infants. Circumstances were so dire that Tallulah and her sister were separated and brought up by different sets of grandparents till her mother started working, a few years down the line. As a confident young woman, now married with her own child, Tallulah remembers the hardships only too well.  But even more, the injustice rankles with her. “We grew up hearing that we had no rights over the house and the property. My mother remarried—it was more of an arrangement to begin with because she had to bring up two children,” she says. Tallulah’s mother married her father’s friend. This fact has been continually deployed against the two sisters to deny them their rights. “Once my grandfather passed away, I couldn’t even visit the house where I grew up. We were made to feel so unwelcome!” she recalls. Today, Tallulah is no longer afraid to claim her rights—she has spoken to lawyers. Her natal family, however, is still unwilling to part with a large portion of the property, instead asking her and her sister and mother to settle for a small sum from the sale of a family owned bakery.

Tallulah is lucky that she hails from Goa. The state’s Civil Code, derived from Portuguese laws, is often touted as a model for a potential Uniform Civil Code across the country. The Goa Civil Code has unique provisions regarding common pool marital property that means that a married couple have equal share in each others property and they hold it jointly. Further, inheritance laws ensure that daughters cannot be given a lesser share or deprived of property. However, as Tallulah’s story shows, in practice this often does not translate to actual rights over property and women are left with little material resources. Despite robust legal provisions #PropertyForHer still eludes many women in the state as feminist activists and lawyers have repeatedly pointed out.

Why do property rights for women matter? Ownership of property has implications for everything from health to wellbeing. Women own disproportionately less across the world. In India, more than three quarter women earn their living from agriculture and yet less that 13% of the land is owned by them. Bina Aggarwal in her research found that women who do not own property, despite being educated and/or working, are more likely to face domestic violence. Her research from Kerala revealed that 49% of women who owned neither land nor a house faced domestic violence compared to 7% of women who owned both. Not owning property, therefore, has a direct causality to their subjugation and oppression. But how is this blatant injustice perpetuated even in the 21st century?

In rural Uttar Pradesh, 18-year-old Rajkumari diligently sets to completing the daily household chores from cleaning to cooking, from dawn to dusk. Her eleven-year-old brother, on the other hand, spends his day in school. Their father Bhagwati Prasad says with conviction “I sent her to school till the fifth standard. What will she do studying? In any case, she’ll go to someone else’s house [future marital home] and will have no relationship with us. She won’t earn or anything.” Paraya dhan. Across India girls are othered by their natal families from the time of their birth. Despite being outlawed the practice of dowry continues unabated across all communities irrespective of religion, caste or class. In Hindu marriages, the father is relieved of his kanyadaan–literally burden of daughter–by the groom. Dowry, therefore, is the incentive to groom’s family to take the “burden” off the shoulders of the natal family. Within this overarching patriarchal imagination of the girl child as a liability, she obviously cannot be entitled to property or rights.

The entire patriarchal system works by depriving women of all their rights. Substantive property rights that make a woman economically independent is counter to its logic. Take the case of Malati Mahato from Odisha, who was evicted from out of her in-laws marital home in rural Odisha for the grave ‘crime’ of referring to an elder of the family by his name. Today she’s an outcast forced to live in a hovel outside her village. Although the constitution of India does not discriminate between genders when it comes to owning property, various customary laws continue to do so. But more importantly, in practice, many women across socioeconomic strata, classes and regions are not aware of their rights and do not have the support system to strongly make claims.

A survey conducted across ten states by Community Correspondents threw up a surprisingly positive result. 90% of the respondents, 51% among them women, strongly agreed that girls/women should have claim to property. Over 48% said that women had claims over both marital and natal property.

In a video interview conducted during the survey, Sahnaj Bibi tells Correspondent Soriya Banu, “How can I not have a claim to property? I have to have my rights. Otherwise, how will I look after my children? Money might get over, but a piece of property is a guarantee of economic stability.” So far we mostly have heard of stories from women who are struggling for their right to property in a system stacked against them, legally and customarily. This International Day of the Girl Child let’s take the fight forward so that every girl child in this country has the right to #PropertyForHer.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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