FROM BEING an issue that was considered almost ridiculous just a decade ago, the campaign for land rights for women has gathered momentum in recent times, especially since the 2005 Amendment of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956. The Amendment establishes the rights of daughters and widows of sons to a share in ancestral agricultural land and includes daughters as co-partners in the Mitaksara joint family property. This means that they will have the same birthrights as sons — to share property, to claim partition and to become “managers” while also sharing liabilities.
The Amendment is the result of a long process of research, advocacy and grassroots mobilisation that began around 1992. Yet, much remains to be done in terms of other anomalies in the Act. There is a need to re-look at the Indian Succession Act 1925 which governs Christians and the Muslim Personal Law Shariat (Application) Act of 1937.
In a country where land ownership is highly skewed with small and marginal farmer households comprising 78 percent of rural families, will the sharing of these holdings with women make any real difference? Yes.
Consider this: If one includes the tiny houses and homestead, 89% of families own some land. Research establishes that even at this level, sharing of land with women has lead to increased welfare for the family in terms of food security, nutrition of children, a more efficient agriculture and sustainable use of land. Women spend a greater share of their earnings on family welfare, balance food needs with cash crops, take care of livestock and hold the key to conservation of seeds and biomass. Their role in agriculture is immeasurable, even if they are not allowed to use the plough! (The increasing migration of men has also led to a feminization of agriculture putting these women in a unique predicament of having responsibility of land and homestead without ownership.)
In an agrarian society like ours, land is the key resource. It determines not only income and access to food, but also dignity, status, vulnerability of women to sexual assault, ability to get credit, and bargaining power in negotiating wages when working others’ land. Depriving women and their dependants of these benefits while burdening them with the responsibility of taking care of land and family is hardly justifiable.
The argument moves beyond that to women’s empowerment vis-à-vis her family as well. Wherever women have owned property, their relationship with the spouse and family has been more equal. Girl children are treated better and not perceived as burdens. Recent studies by Eapan and others from Kerala have established that land/house ownership has made women less vulnerable to abandonment (and destitution) and domestic violence. And of course, when women own property much of the justification for dowry comes into question.
Despite all this, we continue to adhere to custom and tradition regardless of what the law recognizes. Embedded in customs are deeply held beliefs — that it is sons who are breadwinners and who look after parents in their old age. On the contrary, women are not only breadwinners but there is an increasing desire among parents to seek out their daughters as caregivers in their old age.
There are scores of counter arguments against “giving” women a share in land and houses. Firstly, that she will get married and “go away”. Men too get married, go away, and set up home independently or go away in search of jobs. If the son’s physical absence has never been an excuse to disinherit or deprive him, why this excuse when it comes to women? Besides, when a son marries into a fatherless/sonless family, his wife and mother-in-law often expect the son in-law to move in with them for security and convenience while he assumes that he will gain access to their property. If convenience and expedience can override custom, surely the entire family’s welfare can be allowed to take precedence over traditional practice.
A second set of arguments is that land reform is the answer, not the sharing of existing small holdings with sons and daughters as it would lead to further fragmentation. Praveena Kodoth’s 2005 enquiry into land reforms in Kerala has revealed that when OBC households received land, their status anxiety led to an increased seclusion of women as part of their attempts to gain social prestige. For the women, this meant now working on spouse’s land and depending on spouses for even minor needs instead of having their own wage incomes. More disturbingly, land titles in men’s names led to a sea change where the community moved from bride-price to paying huge dowries in a span of two decades. This eventually led to women’s families selling land acquired through reforms, to pay for dowries!
Finally, women themselves hold back as they are conditioned to be the “good” sister, mother, widow, daughter-in-law or wife. As those who feel responsible for peace at home, women often abdicate rights in favour of harmony. But is harmony to be built at the cost of family welfare? And is the infringement of anyone’s rights the kind of peace to be proud of?