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Marriages of convenience

MOHINI GIRI argues for an integrated approach to laws on marriage, dowry, divorce, property rights and maintenance.

Registration of marriages has certain advantages, most important being protecting the women.

FIRE is the most sacred witness to marriage vows. A few days after going around the fire, the bride is engulfed in the same fire. Why?

Is marriage a dangerous institution? It is the most celebrated event of life. Is it too much to ask from a marriage a piece of paper, a marriage certificate?

In India, laws will be meaningless if the social attitudes subjugating the girl are not removed. Till such time that we change the social fabric of the society, dowry will survive in a greedy consumer and commoditised society where girls are battered and harassed and even killed for a motorcycle or a car. Neeta, Sunita, Rita, Fauzia... each day innumerable young girls walk into my office, two months, three months or years after marriage. Crying over the bigamous nature of men, dowry demands, maintenance, property rights and innumerable such cases which disturb the family equilibrium.

Many minor girls are married to much older men only to be sold to the brothel keeper later. If only there was compulsory registration of marriages these girls would not have been married before 18 years and also would have had a legal marriage certificate and thereby cannot be sold. Matrimonial relations are part of the way society organises and regulates itself. This is true of all civil society regardless of the religion of the parties. Therefore there should be one law to govern the status of matrimony. It is necessary to emphasis that rights and duties within matrimony are part of one's civil rights and duties and subject to the overall law of the land, especially the Constitution of India. It is therefore necessary to have one law of marriage.

Devi was married to Selvam 18 years ago. Her husband works in the Airways and they have three children. Devi works as a domestic servant and lives in a servant's quarters. Her husband would waste all his money on liquor and torture her for not bringing money. Devi's sister-in-law would also torture and abuse her. Being a Catholic, she could not ask for divorce. Devi tolerated the abuse for 18 long years. Finally she came to our Family Counselling Centre in the Guild of Service and made an official complaint about the dowry demand.

After hearing thousands of such cases, the National Commission for Women recommended compulsory registration of marriage bill 1994. This was a result of wide consultation and deliberation. Unfortunately, this and other recommendations have been forgotten.

After great deal of debate and discussions, we identified certain concrete advantages for the compulsory registration of marriages: The certificate is a Government document, which provides valuable evidence of marriage; it is useful while accompanying wife/husband to foreign country;

If a person dies without nomination for bank deposit or life insurance policy, it will be useful to get such money in the name of husband/wife; Registration would prevent child marriages and thereby prevent sale of girls and trafficking.

Ironically, in our country, we register births and deaths but seldom see the necessity for registering marriages. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1954 makes a provision for registration of marriages, but it also has a provision that the validity of marriage is not affected by non-registration.

Non-registration affects women the most because they are the victims of bigamous and polygamous relationships, and property disputes. Moreover, marriages involving under-aged girls are rampant in those states where registration of marriages is not compulsory.

The High Court of Delhi has come out with the judgment that dowry law needs to be reviewed. We have to take a holistic approach when we talk about crimes against women. There has to be an integrated approach to the marriage law, dowry law, divorce law, property rights, maintenance and child custody.

After 50 years of independence, we are still struggling with gender equality. At least a few girls have had the courage to call off their marriages in protest against dowry. It is the Nishas, Vidyas, Farzanas of today who are going to change the patriarchal social order, which constitutes the mainstream of the model family of India.

Today, not surprisingly, much of the violence women suffer is within marriage. Crime statistics show that, within the family, crimes have increased so much that there is a bill pending in the Parliament to curb domestic violence.

In the process of socialisation, violence is a means by which discipline is enforced and values instilled.

In addition to this, self-effecting subservient attitudes are enforced through strictly prescribed norms and moral prescripts of "good" behaviour. These notions of subservience and seclusion prepare the ground for acceptance of subordination, within the family and outside. Thus, non-acceptance of these norms by a daughter-in-law would be seen as an act of "defiance" by a society which has for decades now put up with bride-burning on account of insufficient dowry. Young males imbibe wife beating and abusing women as inherited forms of consciousness/behaviour, along with other notions of macho image.

We have to work together the judiciary, the NGOs, the police, lawyers and National Commission for Women. Attitudinal change has to be brought out and last but not the least gender disparities removed from the cradle itself.

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