By: Neena Haridas
The court’s ruling on cohabiting couples should extend to single mothers.
The Supreme Court judgment which ruled that the children of a live-in relationship could not be termed illegitimate must be hailed as a landmark. By upholding a previous judgment of the Madras High Court, the apex court has done well to break the traditional link between children and marriage. Our society continues to act as though any childbirth that is not preceded by a wedding ceremony falls outside the pale.
But the time has now come to take the issue forward. For decades, feminists have fought the good fight for a woman’s right to choose. Fortunately, in India, abortion does not present major legal difficulties, so that fight has been largely won. But the Supreme Court ruling points us in the direction of a battle that has still to be fought: the woman’s right to give birth.
According to the existing legal and societal framework, the only children who are entitled to legal recognition are those who are born into a relationship between a man and a woman. (After the Supreme Court judgment, that relationship need not be one within the confines of marriage.) Children born to a single mother, however, still occupy a moral and legal grey area. Put simply, we are willing to grant a woman the right to have a legitimate baby with a man she is in a relationship with. But if she wants to have the baby without being part of a relationship then, as far as we are concerned, that is completely unacceptable.
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In this respect, we are behind the rest of the world. In much of the Western world — France, the UK, the US — both society and the legal system recognise the rights of the single mother. If a woman wishes to have a child without entering into a relationship with a man then she has every right to do so. How that child is born is largely her business.
In India, unfortunately, the concept of a woman’s right to choose has become a euphemism for abortion, for a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. Should she decide to carry on with the pregnancy without the involvement of the biological father, or to get pregnant on her own, society and the law both turn their backs on her. Even the simplest methods of raising a child are closed to her. If she seeks to adopt, most adoption agencies will be reluctant to give a baby to a single mother, preferring to ask a married couple to raise it.
Given that we recognise the woman’s right to choose when it comes to abortion and given also that the Supreme Court has now ruled that marriage has nothing to do with childbirth, there is only one explanation for this strange anomaly in our system: prejudice against women.
At some level, we believe that single women are incapable of providing a healthy environment for a child. So deeply ingrained is this prejudice that it flies in the face of experience and, if you think about it, is actually counter-intuitive. When a husband dies, we do not believe that the widow is incapable of raising her children. When a couple divorces, more often than not, the court will give the mother custody of the children, unless it can be demonstrated that she is unfit for the responsibility.
Considering that society already accepts at an intuitive level that it is mothers who raise children, why do we refuse single mothers the right to give birth? Why do we insist on the presence of a man in the relationship? Perhaps it is because we still see men as the providers and believe that single women will not be able to earn enough to adequately provide for the child. But this belief belongs to the last century. Experience has demonstrated that modern Indian women are as capable of earning a good living as Indian men. The old gender stereotypes are breaking down all around us.
So let us welcome the Supreme Court judgment and let us welcome the respect and legitimacy it grants children whose parents are not married. But let us not stop there. Let us take the battle forward. Childbirth is a woman’s right. And we must fight anyone who seeks to place curbs on it.
The writer is an editor with Marie Claire International