To many, the current generation is often hailed as the most progressive — with organizations and states forwarding efforts in expanding rights and social reforms in issues of race, gender, sexuality, and more. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that modern efforts have managed to rid countries of social problems in such areas. India is a country in which gender oppression and rates of child marriage continue to be prominent problems. This ongoing oppression can be traced to India’s colonial history, and it is a phenomenon that continues to shape the state of India today. While examining the implications of the issue, it is also significant to analyze the root causes and discourse that shape not only the actions and ideals of the state but also of the nation.

The Current Situation in India

“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women.”

The statement above was included in Article 16 of the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. From the outset, the Convention may be regarded as a significant stride towards the achievement of gender equality around the world — providing various guidelines for the protection of women’s rights in areas such as education, healthcare, employment, and marriage; up to 99 member states have ratified the convention, which legally binds them to the text and actions listed in the convention.

India, as a member state of the United Nations, was also party to the Convention and the resolution. Its government ratified the convention in 1993, signaling its efforts to the preservation of women’s rights in the country. However, if one were to take a closer look into the ratification, one will realize that India’s government made specific declarations and reservations upon their signature and ratification. An area of such reservation centers around Article 16, which is stated above. The article is aimed at protecting women’s rights in instances of marriage — emphasizing the right of individual freedom when it comes to marriages as well as underscoring the invalid legal status of child marriages. India declared that it will “abide by and ensure these provisions in conformity with its policy of non-interference in the personal affairs of any Community”, especially in terms of religious communities, and “that though in principle it fully supports the principle of compulsory registration of marriages, it is not practical in a vast country like India with its variety of customs, religions and level of literacy.”

From an international perspective, this signals the Indian state’s reserved commitment in addressing ongoing issues of child marriage, and gender oppression at large, in its nation. Today, India possesses the highest number of child brides of any country. As of 2006, the rate of marriages for girls aged 15-18 has increased from 26.7% to 29.2% in the country; this increase has also been met with concern from the international community. Though the state has taken legal measures to curb the issue, it has failed to address alternative contributing factors to the problem; experts have named the root causes of this growing phenomenon to include poverty, the desire for dowries, and the lack of educational opportunities for girls. These social factors that incentivize the continuation of child marriage in the nation require the attention of the state to enact tangible change; however, as the Indian government has already signaled its wish of non-interference towards its domestic communities, it is unlikely that such policies will be put in place. Factors of tradition and the religious culture within the nation also continue to drive the problem.

This situation is reflective of women’s overall status in India as a whole. Only 41% of women aged 14-49 have ever been in school, as compared to 18% of men. Perhaps, as a direct result of the lack of educational opportunities available to women, they also possess a much lower status in society. According to the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), the average female wage is less than 80% of the male average in urban areas, and less than 60% of the corresponding male wage in rural areas. Such numbers in and of themselves show that though the government claims to elevate the overall status of women in society, such results are not yet evident.

The History of the Nation

The origins of such cultural ideology can be traced back to India’s colonial era. India’s most prominent religious groups during the period of British colonialism — Hinduism and Islam — both share similar ideals of women. The system of non-interference established by the British was what allowed oppression to perpetuate among natives. The fact that the Indian government, today, claims the same non-interference approach on certain aspects of gender oppression thus raises concerns regarding the lack of state involvement. It brings one to consider the dichotomy between state regulated systems for justice and its provision of rights to freedom of religious practice. The British rule in the region adapted the already established caste system in the colonized society, thus, providing justification for the continuation of injustice. The British decision can also be regarded as a solidification of the gender divide. Various gender oppressive practices were allowed to be carried out, such as child marriage and female infanticide.

As mentioned above, the origins of the ideals behind such practices come from India’s national religions. According to Hindu doctrine, women were created by the Brahman, the absolute god of the Hindus, for the purpose of providing company to men. It would seem as though the purpose of a female was merely utilitarian– to facilitate procreation and the carrying out of a familial lineage. Similarly, Islamic teachings in the Quran have also regarded women as inferior to men. The religion endorses the practice of “triple talaq divorce”, which allows Muslim men to divorce their wives at will, simply by repeating the word “talaq”, or “divorce”, three times in a row. Such practice has recently been outlawed in India; however, the social implications that these religions ideologies have brought, in terms of both national discourse and practices, remain evident. The status quo shows one how political culture has essentially shaped policies and structures within India.

The Movement

As a response to the gender oppression, various women’s movements have been raised and founded. Such groups include the Women’s Indian Association (1917), the National Council of Indian Women (1925), and the All-India Women’s Conference (1927) that aim to expand rights for women in the nation. While these groups signal progress, critics have argued that some groups practice elitism and only represent Indian females from higher social classes. The All-India Women’s Conference is often considered one of the few groups that represent Indian women in a holistic manner; it also includes various subcommittees to contend with the involvement of women in labor, industry, education, opium, and child marriage. A more recent organization called the New Women’s Movement was also formed that focuses on the overall development of women in the country. All in all, these advocacy groups play a significant role in shaping the current government’s actions toward the issue.

The one state institution addressing the issue is legislature. In response to women’s rights movements as well as international pressure, India officially adopted the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2006. The Act officially defines child marriage as marriage of boys under 21 and girls under 18. In terms of punishments, the Act extended the maximum length of punishment for offenders to two years. In respect to enforcement of policies, the act led to the appointing of marriage prohibition officers in different regions of the country. Amidst these reforms, however, it is important to note that the Act does not make all child marriages void: it can only be applied in instances of violence such as trafficking, when the children are taken from their parents into the marriages. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act focuses primarily on the extortion of those who conduct child marriages, criminalizing these traffickers. However, the Act itself does not address the underlying reasons for child marriage, such as poverty and the lack of education.

Existent Obstacles

The overall implications of gender oppression and child marriages that still exist within the country affect various aspects of India as a state. The post-colonial state includes a nation that largely supports its traditional ideals of paternalistic “protection” for women; traditional legitimacy still functions as an extension of the family, caste, and community. Operating under the ideals of traditional legitimacy, nationalist may perceive modern women’s movements as an attempt to separate the group from an established national identity. Women are regarded as preservers of national culture and ideal; their “modernization” would be regarded as an attempt to undermine the nation from within. Using symbols, these groups draw on the image of the “ideal woman”, who is both an obedient wife and mother in the family. Though structures of India’s traditional legitimacy are still evident, new activism in the country still signal an important shift from old modes of governance; the increasing social involvement of the nation fuels the growing appeals to rational- legal structures in India. Such a change can be credited to changes in individuals’ perception of males– from “protector” to “predator”– in addition to an increased support for gender equality; this reflects a shift in the political culture of specific groups, especially of Indian women, who may now put a greater significance on their social statuses. This can be further explained using post-materialist perspectives: women are more likely to put attention on rights because their basic material needs are being met.
Next, the bureaucracy’s approach to the issue is primarily based on its use of legislature in preserving women’s rights; however, it is observed that very little of such legal regulations are in practice.

“If oppression could be tackled by passing laws, then this decade would have been adjudged a golden period for Indian women. […] [A]lmost every single campaign against violence on women resulted in new legislation.” (Agnes 1992)

Ultimately, new legislation on the protection of women’s rights are perceived as artificial and put in place to appease advocacy groups and to avoid backlash from the international community. The state justifies its lack of interference by stressing the significance of preserving religious and cultural freedom. The low level of enforcement may also be associated with the government’s stance of non-interference when it comes to the political ideology and practices of its people as a whole. To some, the Indian government’s inability to put its laws in practice, however, may signal the bureaucracy’s weakness and effectiveness in areas of enforcement.

Though the issue little influences the state’s territory, there are several points of interest that can be related to the role of land. First, one can trace the origins of these ideals to when India’s land was governed by the British forces; despite the significant changes in government and rule that have occurred, a largely paternalistic national culture has been preserved. In addition, the effectiveness of implemented laws targeting child marriages and gender oppression appears to vary region by region; the inconsistent regional enforcement of legislature essentially “divides” the territory.

Finally, one may relate the preservation of gender ideologies to an informal patriarchal sovereignty deeply rooted in the national culture of India. The state’s formal institutions take a position that supports the equality of genders; however, it is evident that the nation’s informal institutions of male superiority are significantly more dominant. From the viewpoints of many younger Indian women, however, this system of injustice may undermine the legitimacy of its bureaucracy; the effectiveness of the state’s legislature still raises questions not only within the nation but also on the international scale. Though India’s national sovereignty has been consistently recognized, its marginal progress in curbing gender-based violence, gender oppression, and child marriage rates reflect negatively on its national image as a whole. This is significant as a positive national image is essential to the state’s preservation of not only its internal sovereignty but also external sovereignty.

In conclusion…

India’s case is significant in examining the effect issues of social injustice can have on a state, as well as the political culture and historical context that fuels the discourse of a nation. Though the Indian government continues to stand by its stance of non-interference in the public sphere, the international community remains hopeful for further reforms that may be made in order to address the problem at hand. However, as the issue of gender oppression and child marriage are ones rooted within the social norms of the nation, which are put in service to its national ideology, the Indian government will be required to take strong, consistent action over time to enact any substantial change.

Post by Ginny Hwang – 2018.06.27


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