Monday, November 07, 2005

Progressive changes in Hindu family law: Towards a better future for women

A recent editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly describes the changes brought about by the Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005 calling it “groundbreaking legislation.” According to the EPW,

"Fifty years ago the Hindu Succession Act (HSA) 1956 was passed amidst opposition from India’s leading national figures, including our first president. Although significant for its time, it contained major gender inequalities. The 2005 act removes most of these inequalities. Some anomalies remain, but the achievements are substantial. … … …

These amendments can empower women both economically and socially, and have far-reaching benefits for the family and society. Independent access to agricultural land can reduce a woman and her family’s risk of poverty, improve her livelihood options, and enhance prospects of child survival, education and health. Women owning land or a house also face less risk of spousal violence. And land in women’s names can increase productivity by improving credit and input access for numerous de facto female household heads.

Making all daughters coparceners likewise has far-reaching implications. It gives women birthrights in joint family property that cannot be willed away. Rights in coparcenary property and the dwelling house will also provide social protection to women facing spousal violence or marital breakdown, by giving them a potential shelter. Millions of women – as widows and daughters – and their families thus stand to gain by these amendments.

On the negative side, the amendments will reduce the shares of the deceased’s widow and mother. It would have been better to abolish the Mitakshara coparcenary system altogether, and partially restrict the right to will, as suggested by some. Nevertheless the amendments are laudable."

The Editorial goes on to describe the process by which these reforms were brought about and concludes:

"Clearly even a small number of individuals and groups with commitment, supported by grassroot organisations from across the country, can be effective in improving the laws of the land, when the government has the political will to catalyse change.

This commitment and will is now needed for effective implementation. Parliamentarians and community leaders, grassroot groups and the media, all have a role to play in spreading legal awareness about the amendments and social awareness about the societal gains from women having equal property rights, in providing legal aid to women needing it, in gender-sensitising law enforcers and village officials (who record rural property shares), and so on. Such steps are critical for ensuring that the promise inherent in this landmark legislation does not remain only on paper."

As the EPW editorial notes, “this year has seen the passage of more progressive legislation than possibly seen in the entire previous decade.” The recent enactment of the Right to Information Act comes to mind. In many areas, our laws are in sore need of reform to bring them in tune with current social realities and needs. However, the Indian legal system is known for having some excellent laws on paper which have been under (or un) enforced. As the EPW editorial reminds us, “effective implementation” is indeed going to be the priority in the coming years.

The Indian Express carried an interview with the academic-activist Bina Agarwal who played an instrumental role in getting the reforms enacted into law, on the process by which this was achieved. In it, she provides a historical context to the struggle for their rights by Indian women in relation to the Hindu Succession Act. A longer piece by Bina Agarwal explaining the ramifications of the new situation was featured in the Hindu Magazine.

Click here for some extracts from the amending bill, including the full text of its Statement of Objects and Reasons. (There is a useful piece in the Economic Times which explains the legal terms, for those unfamiliar with terms like 'coparcenary').

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