I was lucky to be in India for International Women’s Day, March 8th. The country celebrated their many social advances and a law was passed requiring a minimum of 30% of parliamentary seats be occupied by females.
Unfortunately, women have held an inferior position in Indian society since the middle ages (some believe since ancient times). They were often relegated to roles as servants and property. However, over the last two centuries, things have slowly changed. I will discuss some of the changes below.
Childhood marriage was extremely common centuries ago. The youth of girls was sacrificed to please and pacify the man. Finally, in 1860, the government banned child marriage. Most people view it as illegal but it has remained a common tradition in some cultures. Currently, 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India.
Women and their families are expected to provide the man a dowry with marriage. If a woman’s family cannot provide a sufficient prize, the wife may be murdered (bride burning being the most common) or coerced into suicide. The practice is termed dowry death. Fortunately, many laws have been passed to curtail the practice, namely in 1961, 1983 and 2006, but the government continues to report between 6 and 8 thousand dowry deaths per year.
When a woman becomes pregnant, she may be pressured to have a male child. The practice of female infanticide was relatively common and modern technology brought about an age of selective abortion in the case of a female fetus. Currently, medical tests that may be used to determine the sex of a child are banned. However, some regions of India, the ratio of males to females has been reported to be extremely skewed.
Hundreds of years ago, when a husband died, the wife was expected to set herself on fire. Her death would purify the couple of their sins. If she refused, it may have been forced on her. This practice is termed sati. Fortunately, strict laws have banned the tradition and these events are now extremely rare.
Overall, India has come a long way regarding women’s rights….but there is still much more work to do.