Today’s women must educate themselves about their property entitlements and stand-up for what is theirs by right, advises Vimla Patil.
A recent tweet I read would bring a wry smile to the faces of many Indian women! It says: ‘Every woman is Rani Lakshmi Bai! In her parents’ home, she is the Rani. When she marries, she is called the Lakshmi of her marital home. But finally, she ends up being the Bai who does all the work for free!’
Yet another tweet says with equal tongue-in-cheek humour: ‘An Indian woman dedicates her life to keep the kitchen going, to decorate her home and to qualify as a superb home-maker. But she never gets a right to the home she builds with such love and hard work!’
Here is a guide to laws that determine what an Indian woman can or cannot own:
When a divorce takes place, they naturally keep the children and have to fend for them with or without an allowance as given by the court. They usually have to leave the maternal and matrimonial home and find their own residence. When the husbands remarry, their fate is further sealed.
There are no specific housing schemes dedicated to them. Thirdly, elderly women, who have lost their husbands, are dependent upon their children for healthcare and living expenses. Often, in giving their all for the children, they have lost their assets. More importantly, older women who live alone on the husband’s pension or interest, have negligible nest eggs and incomes. With the cost of housing and living going up like a gigantic balloon, they are handicapped and left to manage with a bare existence.
In this scenario, it is important for all Indian women to study and thoroughly know their legal rights to a home and an adequate livelihood.
The Hindu Succession Act 1956 wiped out all previous legal hurdles of laws, texts, customs or traditions and made women’s property rights clear and absolute, adding that daughters would be equal heirs in their fathers’ property and assets. In the absence of a will, the self earned property of a deceased man now goes equally to his widow, mother, son and daughter or daughters-in-law or their children in case they sons or daughters are dead.
The property of a Hindu joint family is dealt with separately and was more complicated. Some of the sections of the act still remained gender discriminatory. This is why the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act of 2005 was passed in the third phase. Under this provision, the property of a parent has to be equally divided between sons and daughters or their children in case they are predeceased. Thus, the 2005 Act now decrees that daughters can claim equal right in the self-acquired/separate property as well as coparcenary property left by their father.
Put it on paper
However, women’s groups continued to fight for an Indian woman’s right to a matrimonial home. Hitherto, while women were granted “a place in the home”, in truth, the home never legally belonged to them. Institutions working with battered women, discarded women, and poor women found that they still suffered the trauma of being thrown out with their children, often at night with no safe place to go to.
In the fourth phase, in 1975 (International Women’s Year), the Government Appointed Committee on the Status. of Women studied women’s housing problems. They said that while women helped to create wealth by their housework and childcare, their contribution was largely unrecognized. Most married women had no income and many gave up their job or profession to become home-makers and mothers. The committee suggested that legal recognition be given to the economic value of their work while determining ownership of matrimonial property. The committee also recommended that in case of a divorce or separation, the wife should be entitled to at least one-third of the assets acquired at the time of and during the marriage.
But these were only Policy Guidelines. The Government of India did not turn the recommendations into laws. But it has accepted the declaration in the Conference of Non-Aligned and Developing Countries on the role of women in development.
One of the resolutions in this Conference was to provide ownership of land and property to women. Women, it was recommended, should have control over capital assets with their income. However, the committee ended up only recommending that women should have joint ownership rights to all property acquired after marriage and that legislation could be passed to this effect. At this point of time, the recommendations are in the hands of state governments and some have accepted them.
However, India has seen a huge boom in high-earning women who are leading bankers, lawyers, doctors, finance experts, politicians and engineers as well as IT or media professionals. Such women are examples to all in the matter of building their own assets, including a home. Indian laws hold a woman a separate tax entity and her money or property wholly belongs to her.