AT FIRST glance, Chhattisgarh stands out for its unusually high divorce and separation rate as compared to neighbouring states in north and central India. But look closer, and the socio-cultural make-up of the state explains why. According to experts, the demography of Chhattisgarh, with close to 50 per cent of the population either Scheduled Caste or tribal, lends itself to a “more liberal outlook” — making separation less of a taboo than in many other states. Adivasis account for over 30 per cent of the state’s population, and tribal customs, though receding, still hold fort.
Arjun Singh Nag, an advocate and tribal rights expert based in Bastar, says that under the tribal customs in southern Chhattisgarh, women have more choice.
“In tribal customs, if a woman wants to end a relationship with her husband, she is free to do so, and it is not looked down upon. No concept of dowry exists, but there is a system of bride-price. If the woman were to remarry, or live with another man, the tribal panchayat would decide on a price to be given to the first husband, which could be in cash or kind like cattle,” Nag said.
Other experts said that women in Chhattisgarh occupy leadership positions within the household and, as an extension, more choice. The 2011 Census puts the sex ratio in Chhattisgarh as high as 991 — the fifth highest, behind Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Dr Amba Sethi, a counsellor in Raipur, says, “Generally, it is women who do most work in the household, even in terms of earning. The government provides rice, and the rest is taken care of by women, even when they have children.”
Over the past few months, it is the women social groups at the village level that have led movements and protests against the sale of liquor in districts such as Dhamtari and Balod. Experts point out that because of these factors, the ecosystem of suppression of women in a patriarchal set up, which sees marriage as a “duty” for the woman, does not exist in large parts of the state.
Other factors, especially in urban spaces, may also be pushing up divorce and separation figures.
Last week at the Family Court in Raipur, a 48-year-old woman said that she had approached the court for maintenance against her husband. “I wanted to ensure that he would support my children and me, but my lawyer advised that I bring this to court, file for divorce, and maintenance will follow. Before this, I had not thought about any of these processes,” she said.
But some experts have also raised doubts about the divorce rates cited in the Census. “There is good explanation for why separation is high, but divorce is a legal process. In most parts, among the SCs and tribals, even though there is a marginal increase, largely these matters don’t go to court,” said a government lawyer.