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Female Foeticide: Law of Inheritance is the Tap Root of this Social Malaise

Dr Sardara Singh

Female foeticide, as rightly observed by the Chief Justice of India, is not as much a legal problem as a social disease. Yet, this social disease does have, if not all its roots, at least its tap root in our laws of inheritance. We have refused to go deep into why this social disease has developed and why it is spreading its tentacles unabated. Earlier, by tradition, girls were not given any formal education and after marriage they were almost totally dependent on the earnings of their husbands and in-laws. This led to the system of dowry, which in the first place was given by the parents to create an economic space for their daughters in the families of their in-laws. Secondly, it was virtual indirect part payment and informal recognition of their share in the property of their parents. Occasional gifts, given by the parents and brothers’ families on festival days (teohars) were virtually the rent of their deemed share in the properties of their parents. The system did recognize, through social customs, the share of girls in the properties of their parents. This system did not adversely affect family bonds, rather strengthened the bonds between the married girls and their parental families.

The system worked very well, till the dowry demanded by the greedy in-laws of the brides, became excessive, burdensome and beyond the legitimate means of the girls’ parents. At times, the system became demonic in its character. The Hindu Succession Act, was purported to be in favour of the girl child through ensuring her share in the parental property. Yet, in its very character the law went against her interest. Social movements like pledges by young boys and girls not to take or give dowry and slogans like ‘dulhan hi dahej hai’ go pale in the presence of this Act. However, the damaging provisions of this Act could still be countered through wills executed by the parents in favor of their sons, and sisters foregoing their right in favor of their brothers by their statements before the courts of law. But, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005, has sealed that avenue also. Under this enactment, parents cannot make any such will and even the offsprings of married girl can claim their share in the parental property. With this Act and Amendment, dowry has been indirectly made a statutory provision in the form of their share in the parental property. And, the social disease of dowry still stands as such and is showing an uglier face day by day.

The questions that face the society and social reformers as well as policy makers today are (i) When the girls today are equally educated and are capable of earning incomes as good as their husbands, and, in many cases, are even better placed, why should it be socially obligatory for the parents to give dowries to their daughters, (ii) why should the parents of the groom carry an overbearing attitude and consider themselves superior and demanding, (iii) what is that they give to the parents of the bride that they act so proud, while the parents of the girl educate her, bring her up, give dowry, give expensive gifts to the groom's family, incur huge expenditure on marriage, often beyond their means, and send their daughter to the groom’s family, (iv) why still the society makes girl’s parents then feel several shades lower and why the bride’s in-laws come calling? The society has to correct its values, if female foeticide is to be checked and the girl child is to be given its due place in the society.

This Amendment in the Hindu Succession Act has further added fuel to the fire and has weakened the position of the daughter in parental preferences. In case of farming families, this Act and the recent Amendment is bound to play havoc on the farm economy of the country. In rural societies, the girls are not married in the same village. If this law operates in letter and spirit, with the passing of one generation, every land holding will get located in two villages, and with second generation in four villages. This subdivision and widespread fragmentation is going to play havoc with the agricultural economy of the country. Brides will be forced to demand and sell their parental land and they can be tortured to do so. In most cases, the parental families may not have required resources to buy these lands, and persons from outside the families would buy these lands that would create social tensions in the rural sector of the economy. Consequently, parental bonds will get snapped, and girls after marriage will be left to fend for themselves. In the matrimonial affairs, the boys’ families will look more for the property of the girl, rather than the bride herself. Education, particularly the high-cost professional education of the girl child will be affected adversely and land/property disputes will increase. All these elements and considerations would certainly prompt female foeticides and preference for sons over daughters. More propertied the parents are, lesser will be the preference for a girl child. This is one of the main reasons why the agriculturally richer states like Punjab and Haryana have skewed sex ratio.

The extant inheritance law does not put any onus on the in-laws after the girl is married. Under this law, parents of the girls are in fact triple-taxed instead, by way of expenses on bringing up, education and marriage and above that division of property and the child goes to another family. The recipient groom’s family is left with no obligations on this account. Recently, the Supreme Court of India has ruled that daughter-in-law has no right even to share the houseof the parents-in-law. All these provisions go against the interest of the girl child and are bound to prompt female foeticides.

Logically, the law should be such that as the girl is married, she becomes equal partner in the property of her in-laws, so that if they ever think of divorce, they have to part with the share of the bride. In this respect, Muslim Law with their system of mehar, is much better placed, because with divorce, husband is bound to pay the amount of money agreed upon as mehar at the time of marriage.

It is not, therefore, the social system alone, but the complimentarity of provisions of our laws, which exacerbate this social disease. People who attend seminars on this issue are not the people who indulge in female foeticide and those who do so, do not attend these seminars. They do not indulge in female foeticide in the knowledge of the people around. The society has to correct its values and amend its laws to create an encourging and conducive environment that gives respect and place to the girl child, which is her due. Social values and laws of the land operate in an interactive manner and are complementary to one another. We have to review our laws in this perspective. Social values will follow in footsteps.

 

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