Marriage and freedom: As girls in India become more independent, is society ready to respect women's choices?

A recent incident regarding one of their young daughters is still resonating in the village of Chamateri, tucked away in the Himalayas between Dehradun and Mussorie.

Sixty-year-old Bimla Devi, mother of four daughters and three boys, had made all the preparations for the tilak ceremony of her eighteen-year-old daughter Ranjana in an arranged marriage with a boy from Chamba in Tehri Garhwal. Eight members of the groom’s family arrived at their house but just as the ceremony was about to start, Ranjana blurted out something that shocked the gathering.

She did not wish to marry the groom as she liked another boy from her village. Bimla Devi and her three middle-aged and married sons tried to persuade Ranjana to no avail. Finally, the disappointed groom and his entourage left. Bimla Devi had no alternative but to accept her daughter’s choice.

When asked if she had been embarrassed by Ranjana’s behaviour, Bimla Devi said philosophically, "The world has changed. Young people have changed. They do not hesitate to express their feelings. I am a widow and I have to bend with the times. My sons felt humiliated but I told them they had to accept their sister’s decision."

Winds of change are blowing across the country with a younger and grittier generation determined to express their personal choices upfront. What is surprising is that a large number of these girls belong to the lower socio-economic group who, till just a few years ago, did not dare to appear before their family elders with their heads uncovered.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The Jaipur-based Dr Renuka Pamecha, heading the Pragatishil Mahila Samiti, describes these as 'family-based’ changes which are here to stay. Working in the field of women’s rights for the last four decades, she said, "Girls are demanding the right to exercise their choice. Partly, access to education is the prime trigger but access to films, TV and mobiles are also catalysts for change."

Of course, this has created a sense of apprehension within families and within the village community at large. This is where grassroot organisations, Pamecha believes, have a key role to play. They must be in the forefront in discussing gender issues with the villagers in order to keep tensions at bay. Wherever grassroot workers have succeeded in building up a rapport with the village community, as in villages around Udaipur and Ajmer, the voices of the younger people get heard but where they have no presence, this can create problems.

"That is why the first point we emphasised with the new Gehlot government was on the need to re-open the 3,000 or more government schools the earlier Vasundhara Raje government had shut down during her tenure as chief minister," said Pamecha.

Kavita Srivastava of PUCL is dealing with such cases all the time. "Rajasthan remains a feudal state where families do not hesitate to kill their daughters rather than see them marry outside their caste and community. There is a small sliver of hope for some girls. Two girls, one the daughter of a senior RSS member, chose to marry two Muslim brothers. That created a great deal of turmoil within their families but the younger daughter-in-law’s parents reconciled themselves to her decision and they meet each other freely," said Kavita, who feels a great deal of work needs to be done in this area.

Jagmati Sangwan, member of AIDWA and the Haryana Janwadi Mahila Samiti, believes that girls from the lower socio-economic status are determined to create a space for themselves. "Their growing self-confidence can be seen from the way they talk, the way they dress, the way they assert themselves. Earlier, they were shy and subdued and dared not open their mouths before the menfolk. Now the situation is altering," said Sangwan.

"Our organisation receives a large number of cases from across Haryana where young women tell us that they want to have an inter-caste marriage or marry a man outside their community. These girls do face societal pressure but many insist they are willing to take the risk. We counsel their parents and sometimes, the parents, however conservative, do see reason," said Sangwan.

Sangwan also accepts the catalytic role of education. Last year, girls from a school in Rewari in Haryana undertook an eight-day hunger strike demanding their high school be upgraded to senior secondary school and finally, the state government was forced to relent. "But I think internet and connectivity are crucial social triggers. Girls want to delay marriage. When they visit organisations like ours, they tell us that they want an end to social exclusion. 'We must be allowed to talk to boys of our choice,’ these girls tell us."

"Girls from villages and kasbas face the maximum amount of social pressures. But now, these same girls will put their foot down and tell their parents that you cannot force us to marry a man against our choice. Many object to giving dowry, others object to being forced to marry a man much older than them," added Sangwan.

Five years ago, Indu Dhawan, a social activist and assistant librarian at the Punjab University, Chandigarh, conducted an informal survey with 54 girls between the age group of 13-18 years belonging to the lower socio-economic strata living in urban slums around Chandigarh.

"My conclusions were disturbing. A large number of these girls were school dropouts. With drug abuse being rampant in Punjab, parents are scared that their daughters should not become victims of violence inflicted by young men hooked to drugs. Such a fear makes parents adopt an even more conservative approach and they will try and get their girls married off at the earliest," said Dhawan.

The situation on ground is changing but Dhawan believes the menace of drugs needs to be tackled on a war footing. "The apprehension that boys will misbehave cuts across all strata of society. But there is no doubt that as girls are becoming increasingly economically independent, they do start dictating choices within the family unit," she concedes.

Despite Bengaluru having the sobriquet of being the IT city of India, families in the poorer social brackets continue to be wrapped up in a traditional mindset. This is the view of social worker Tabassum who works for the Karnataka-based women’s organisation Vimochana.

"There is a great deal of migration going on into our cities and life in these urban slums is very difficult for the younger generations. Families are living in chawls and young girls are witness to a great deal of familial violence. To escape these pressures, they often get attracted to young boys who woo them with a lot of false assurances. I do a lot of counselling with parents to get them to accept their daughter’s pregnancy or else her decision to elope with a boy who is totally unequipped to become a husband," said Tabassum.

Tempers in these bastis run high. Young people have created a sub-culture of their own and Tabassum, like many other counselors, admits to having sometimes face abuse and even threats from belligerent fathers and other family members.

Pre-marital sex remains one of India’s best kept secrets. According to a survey conducted by the Population Council, an advocacy group in 2016, in Bihar, of more than 10,400 adolsecents (15-19 years) surveyed, 14.1 percent of unmarried adolescent boys and 6.3 percent of unmarried adolescent girls had premarital sex, from which 22 percent of the boys and 28.5 percent of the girls had premarital sex before 15 years of age.

The study found that 20.3 percent of unmarried boys and only 8.2 percent of unmarried girls used a condom consistently. Similar results emerged in the advocacy’s survey in Uttar Pradesh, where around 17 percent of the adolescent boys and around 6 percent of adolescent girls were found to be sexually active. UP and Bihar together account for 30 percent of India’s adolescent population of 253 million.

Even the three national health surveys (1992-93, 98-99, 2005-06) report an almost equal proportion of pregnant and adolescent mothers (59.1 percent, 59.8 percent and 58.2 percent respectively) and also a steady increase in the first pregnancy among adolescents, up from 11.7 percent in the first survey to 14.4 percent in the latter one.

Sunil Mehra, executive director of MAMTA, a Delhi-based NGO working on adolescent and reproductive health issues, confirms that Indian adolescents, like adolescents the world over, are sexually active but services for unmarried adolescents are practically non-existent.

Akhila Shivdas, heading CFAR, accepts that knowledge of sexual and reproductive health is a must for all adolescents. Her own organisation is working with adolescent girls across the country, imparting them with knowledge of menstrual hygiene. "Our team of counselors and experts have found that when a dialogue is started with the young people, they are keen to discuss subjects which earlier had been considered as taboo," said Shivdas.

Sujata Madhok, an activist who has a long record of working with construction and domestic workers, the latter organised under the banner of Nirmala Niketan, believes that migration in search of work has played a key role in breaking down social barriers.

"Girls who travel to the metros from Jharkhand, West Bengal and other states in search of work, often refuse to marry boys from their village who have been selected by their parents," said Madhok. "Often, this can create conflicts within families but the girl is now an important earning member, adding to the family kitty and so, her feelings are being increasingly taken into account," Madhok believes.

Pune-based Hutokshi Doctor, co-founder for the Centre for Communication and Development, believes there is an inter-play of factors at work. "No one can downplay the role of cinema and the tremendous impact movies like films Sairat and Masaan have had on youngsters. Youth today are becoming globalised," said Doctor.

Professor Ashish Nandy, a leading political psychologist and social theorist, believes it is difficult to make a generalisation about the extent of this change. "There is little data on this subject so far and perceptions differ from community to community. But there is a normal process of change going on, with society today getting more and more individuated and individualistic. Up to a point, this change is good because parents were exercising too much control over their children without giving any consideration to personal choices," said Nandy.

Nandy believes that in the mid-twentieth century, he himself knew of several families where women were allowed to exercise their choice in terms of education and job preferences. He cites his own example where as a student of medicine in the Medical College Calcutta, 35 percent of his batchmates were women.

"Somewhere along the line, women seemed to have lost their initiative but now, it is coming back. Such a trend needs to be encouraged," Nandy added.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 21:18:22 IST

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