Mizoram's new divorce law finally gives its women some hope
Mizo women are well-educated compared to the rest of the country. But Mizoram's divorce and inheritance laws have remained stacked against them. Now there is a ray of hope.
Christmas might have come a little early for women in Mizoram. The state Assembly passed a landmark legislation in late November regarding marriage, divorce and inheritance of property.
The newly enacted law called the Mizo Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance of Property Act, 2014 will allow divorced Mizo women to inherit property of their former husbands. This would also ensure protection to the women from being divorced at the drop of a hat by their husbands.
"We are very happy. After many years of fighting we have got some legal protection for women in the Mizo society. Although there are some lacunae in the bill, we hope that those would be amended later. But at least we have a beginning," All Mizoram Women Federation (AMWF) president Jane R Ralte told Firstpost from Aizawl. She is a doctor by profession.
For a society which is always known for its staunchly patriarchal attitude, this new law is an epoch-making event. It is ironic that for a state which has a comparatively impressive sex ratio with 976 females against every 1,000 males as per the 2011 census, half of its population have remained with few rights when it comes to issues like marriage and inheritance. This is all the more baffling because Mizoram has a high female literacy rate at 86.72 percent as per the latest census.
Although welcomed as a step forward, the shortcomings in the bill are unique. "If the husband dies and there is no will, the wife is not going to get the property automatically.In case, the children are major she will have to obtain a no objection certificate to be the head of the family," the AMWF chief said.
There is no doubt that women groups had to toil for decades to get this law passed in the state Assembly.
"Lots of women organisations came forward with AMWF taking the lead. Now over 10 women organisations are affiliated to AMWF making it even stronger. We organised seminars and many social awareness programmes. Everyone had a heartfelt requirement for this kind of a law as the social problem for women in the Mizo society was immense. The Panchayat Mahila Shakti Abhiyan formed by the Mizoram government in 2008 for political empowerment of women played a critical role to convince the lawmakers on the need of this law," said Lalneihzovi, AMWF vice president and head, department of Public Administration, Mizoram University.
Compared to their counterparts in many other Indian states, Mizo women are normally seen as modern and forward-looking. "But this modernity does not help much because women still don't have reservation in bodies like the district council. Participation of women in village bodies is poor. They work day and night to look after their family, manage household chores and even work in jhum fields. Still they have no say in public life," Lalneihzovi said.
The response to the bill from the men has been "mixed" says Ralte.
"There are certain sections of the society who are not responding positively to the development and there is the emancipated lot who are in favour of the legislation. There are men who are now apprehensive and fearful that the women might get much more leeway," Ralte said.
It is generally believed that after the advent of Christianity in Mizoram, the outlook towards women became relatively better than under the traditional tenets. But it does not mean the Church was any kind of haven for egalitarianism.
"To be honest even though we have some respectability, women in Mizo society are not in any decision-making capacity in the Church. Their representation in the evangelical society is almost nil. There are hardly any women pastor in the state," the AMWF president said.
Progress in the Mizo society has not been fast enough where women are concerned. Even after becoming a full-fledged state on 20 February 1987, Mizoram has no women representative in both Houses of Parliament till date. The scenario in the state assembly is hardly better. "We have a woman MLA almost after three decades," Ralte said. Mizoram Pradesh Youth Congress president C Lalawmpuii became the first woman to win the Assembly poll in May 2014 and that was after a gap of 27 years.
The doctor also rued the fact that even a youth body like the Young Mizo Association hardly has any women representation in the decision-making units. "Young girls are part of the forum but at very low level," she said.
The deprivation of women went to such an extent in the traditional society, that a divorcee female was only allowed to take back only those items she had brought to her husband's house as dowry.
"Suppose the wife was working and she bought a sofa set during the wedlock but she won't be allowed to take it back. It would remain with her ex-husband. And the moment she is divorced she would have hardly anything with her and must return to her parents' place. When the law gets formally adopted after it is published in the state gazette, the divorcees will have a legal option to claim for alimony," Lalneihzovi said.
The traditional norms are so strictly against women in the Mizo society that daughters cannot inherit their ancestral property. In case the daughter is the only child, "the property would go to the nearest male relative". "Thankfully some modern parents are slowly discarding this anti-women tradition and understanding the value of their daughters," the professor said.
While the ink is still drying on the new law, activists who pushed for it are hopeful it will usher in change. "In the new law there are specific guidelines for the dissolution of the marriage. We are hoping that women would come forward and use it. We are pressurising the government to publish it in the gazette as soon as possible and notify rules at the earliest," the AMWF president said.
The credit for the new law would also go to the 40-member state Assembly which is completely male-dominated barring one. Despite the proactive role of the government it is obvious that much remains to be done.
"We are trying to create awareness and engage at different levels with both men and women. It is equally important for the women to start questioning. ALL women need to step out, learn about the new law and utilise it. It is a matter of having a voice and having a say. The societal perception needs to change which will take time and this will need time and effort," Ralte said.
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