I co-facilitate in the Kalinga Fellowship, conducted by Bridge Institute. For the last couple of weeks we have been talking about women and girl children and our fight against child marriage. Perhaps that is why I couldn't help but write about this incidence that happened with me
A couple of weeks ago, my father was admitted in the ICU due to a seizure. During the episode he also happened to fracture his spine, due to which he was advised to take complete bed rest for 6 weeks. Of course, I came down from Mumbai and stayed with my parents to support them during this time.
Between my husband and I, we decided that I would continue to stay with my parents till my father recovered completely, while he would shuttle after every couple of weeks if needed. Since I had rushed to Pune, my 6 year old joined me after a week. Currently I am still in Pune and my daughter is with me for a couple of more days before she goes back to her father. This incidence that I am sharing happened during these days.
The neighbors and well-wishers, who came to see my dad, were "impressed' with my in-laws (and my husband) for "allowing" me to stay with my parents for so long. They couldn't hide their amazement at the fact that despite having an elderly mother in law staying with us at Mumbai, I could come and stay with my parents. My parents too (for all their unorthodox, open mindset) were very conscious of the fact that I had "left my home to take care of my father".
I tried very hard not to feel offended at these people. The 'freedom' that I took for granted, what I thought was 'common sense', is in fact not so common. Whether the society overtly says it or not, a married woman is the 'property' of the in-laws. Once the girl leaves her maiden home, it is 'understood' that her priorities would change. It is 'understood' that if a girl is a single child (like me), then her parents have to figure out different support systems because the girl may not always be able to support them. This support could be financial, moral, or physically being with them.
Let's look at this situation from an economic perspective (just to give it another lens). A family has both girl and boy child. The family has to raise both the children, cloth and feed them, bear costs for their education. When both the children grow up, the girl gets married and now doesn't look back at the parents at all. On top of that, in most cultures in India, parents have to bear the cost of marriage, of the first child birth, have to give gifts every time they visit her or she visits them. So from the parent's point of view, the "Return on Investment" on a girl child is almost zero, or negligible. Meanwhile the boy child earns for the family and is supposed to take care of the family. So the "Return on Investment" on a boy child is quite high (or so they think!). Now is it a wonder that families prefer boy child over a girl?
One may argue that this is not about economics, that a parent cannot think this way. But let's be realistic here. In a society where rich or poor, literate or not, everyone thinks that a girl is a 'burden', and a married girl is now someone else's responsibility, it all boils down to economics. When you have limited money and many mouths to feed, the first thing that you do is math. And it never adds up in the favor of the girl.
Often in India we talk about girl being 'Paraya Dhan' (Other's Wealth), of her in-laws home being "her home" and have practices like changing the first name of the girl post marriage (taking your husband's name is also very common) and giving her as 'daan' (alms) in marriage. Even today, a woman asking for divorce is frowned upon, and most families avoid having a single girl child like they would avoid plague. Marriage is seen as the ultimate goal of a woman's life, closely followed by giving birth to children (preferably only male children). Many families, till date, have practices where the girl doesn't come to her maiden home unless for festivals or occasions, and where parents of girl don't visit her (unless for festivals/occasions).
While talking about child marriage, this is an important aspect to think of. Until this attitude changes, there will never be a good enough reason for anyone to either have a girl child, or to 'invest' in her education, food and clothes. There will never be a good enough reason for her to be highly educated, if she has to eventually take care of the family. There will never be a good enough reason for her to be financially independent, if she can't take her own decisions.
I am not 'grateful' because my in-laws are so 'generous', or because they 'understand'. I am grateful to my mom in law because she is a very compassionate and gentle person, I am grateful to my husband because he stands by me when I need him to. We don't ask 'permission' from each other, we 'inquire' and 'prioritize'.
The real question is how do we change the mindset of a society when one group is seen as benefiting from it? How do we change, when any open mindset is seen as a 'threat' to the 'culture' and 'religion'? How do we change, when most think that change is not needed?