Women's Day: Kanyashree Versus Rupashree? The West Bengal Anomaly
This article is part of The Citizen's International Women's Day special features.
During its budget session in the State, the CM of West Bengal announced a one-time grant of Rs.25,000 to parents of marriageable daughters whose family income is less than Rs.1,50,000 per annum. This sum was to help the lower income groups to fund their daughter’s marriage which is an expensive affair. The other condition is that the daughter should have attained the age of 18, at the time of her marriage. A corpus of Rs 1,500 crore has been proposed for this scheme and it will be extended to six lakh families initially.
There is already a scheme called Kanyashree initiated by the CM Mamata Banerjee which . won the United Nations Public Service Award in 2017. It promotes education among girls and works towards women empowerment. A one-time grant of Rs 25,000 is doled out to an unmarried girl on turning 18 and is engaged in an academic or occupational pursuit. While Kanyashree promotes education among women, Rupashree complements it with marriage assistance. “The objective of women empowerment perhaps fades out in these two schemes,” said academician and former principal of Presidency College Amal Mukherjee. “If a government wants to empower women, then there should be schemes to make them self-reliant, and not merely wives.”
On the one hand, the CM wishes to encourage girls to be empowered through self-reliance and on the other, she wishes to help the parents of girls who are 18 and are ready for marriage. How can these two contrasting ideologies work together to the advantage of girls and women? The intention to award grants under the Rupashree scheme is to relieve the burden of marriage expenses borne by parents of daughters belonging to low-income groups. What if these very same low-income parents force their daughters to get married even when they wish to pursue education or a career? Will this not create a conflict within the family and all for that carrot of Rs.25,000 which means a lot for these families? Is this not a kind of state legitimacy given indirectly to the custom of dowry which is in violation of the law statutes of the country? Is this also not an acknowledgement that a girl is a ‘burden’ on her low-income parents who wish to get her married but do not have the resources to do so? Does this also not play blind to the existence and steady increase in divorce, desertion, abandonment of married girls and women in the state? Does it also not make marriage the be-all and end-all of all existence not only for girls but also for their parents and kith and kin? Will this prevent the girl’s in-laws from torturing her with dowry demands albeit in various guises?
Note that parents of young men of marriageable age are excluded from this benefit. Why? What if the parents of would-be grooms, also from low-income families begin to take advantage of this grant and place pressure on girls’ parents to part with that sum and get the marriage done through registration and no feast or rituals? Don’t low-income group families have sons to marry off? Do such marriages not burden the parents of boys with expenses to be incurred before, during and after the marriage? If families with sons are not given this benefit, it leaves them free to demand cash, gold and furniture and so on from the brides’ families. This also goes completely against Article 14 of the Indian Constitution (1949) that ensures equality before the law. It states, “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.”
While Kanyashree promotes education among women, Rupashree contradicts it with marriage assistance. While Kanyashree encourages girls’ education, Rupashree encourages the parents of marriageable girls of 18 to get them married with State assistance via the grant. Let us get down to the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act 1984 that came into force on October 2, 1985. The main features of the Amendment Act are as follows: Any property given or agreed to be given in connection with a marriage to the bride or bridegroom or any other person is considered as dowry. It is not necessary to show that the same has been given as consideration for the marriage. It is also mandatory under the Act to maintain a list of presents received by the bride and bridegroom.
In spite of these amendments which make giving or taking dowry or abetting the same is punishable with imprisonment of not less than six months but which may extend to two years and with a fine that can extend to Rs.10,000 or the amount of the value of dowry whichever is higher, dowry deaths in the country are on the rise. The arm of the law is not long enough to reach the guilty party and punish it accordingly.
But the State Government has made this clear that the sum of Rs.25,000 is towards meeting the expenses incurred by the parents in the process of marriage – arranging the meetings, paying the parties associated with the marriage such as ,priests, decorators, caterers and so on and giving the girl and the boy some form of gifts for the marriage. It does not mention the word “dowry” that is a demand made by the groom’s party. But wait. Whatever the implications, this Rupashree grant clearly acknowledges that a girl, because her marriage causes a lot of anxiety and stress on her parents, is a liability and not an asset. This runs contrary to the Kanyasrhree grant that emphasises on daughters being empowered and thus turning into an asset for their parents and self-reliant unto themselves. How will the state reconcile these two radical opposites that will confuse more than clarify the position of girls of 18 who wish to study further but who the parents want to marry off to lay their hands on that precious Rs.25,000?
In this scenario, it will not be wrong to presume that ‘burden’ will certainly over-ride ‘empowerment through education’ so far as girls are concerned. Most parameters of violence such as dowry deaths, female infanticides, foeticides, child marriage stem from the conviction that daughters are basically a burden to be relieved through marriage to the “right guy” the definition of ‘right guy’ remaining ambiguous forever. Besides, families of low income groups are fixated on their daughters ‘settling down’ in marriage. Do they ‘settle down’ really? Or should they rather ‘settle down’ to a life of self-reliance where they can help their parents and also keep marriage on the backburner left to personal choice as and when?
I have problems with the term “rupashree” because ‘rupa’ means beauty which girls are protesting against being used as a measuring rod not only at the time of marriage but also within the sphere of the job market. Why should one use “rupa” with any grant for girls’ parents? Does this also not subtly suggest that beauty is an asset for all marriageable girls never mind the financial basis of the family? The Opposition in the State did not raise a voice to question, protest or criticise this anomaly. But the masses are rising against this. Women’s organizations are loud in their protests in the social media.
Similar marriage assistance schemes exist in states like Haryana, where female foeticide is rampant and politically restive Jammu and Kashmir. Kerala and Tamil Nadu, too, offer such bounties. But they do not have anything like Kanyashree in clearly articulated legal terms. Girls and young women will be able to liberate themselves from all social, cultural and economic dependence and discrimination only when they are empowered through some kind of economic independence achieved through training and/or education that is the only way to empowerment. This alone will strip marriage as an institution from its basically commercial associations.