It is critical to challenge accepted gender norms and roles.
By Anuradha Das Mathur
Marriage is believed to be a solemn institution. However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that where there are marriages, there will be divorces. More so in contemporary times when the divorce rate has increased by a staggering 130 per cent over the last 10 years. A ‘mere’ 2.3 per cent divorce rate works out to be a huge number in a country like ours where there are 10 million weddings a year and counting!
Divorce proceedings become more complicated where children are involved, and the question of custody becomes paramount. Technically, both parents continue to be natural guardians till a final decision on the custody of the child is taken. And this decision is supposed to be determined solely by the welfare of the child.
According to a study by Denise Elrich, a leading family law and litigation lawyer, “In just over 51 per cent of custody decisions, both parents agree that the mother should become the custodial parent. In roughly 29 per cent of custody decisions, this is made without any assistance from the court or from a mediator.” While the mother is assumed to be the natural carer of the child, the father is seen as the financial provider. Is the role of a father limited to serving a financial function? Do we give fathers a chance to prove their parenting skills? Is there an unconscious bias in judgements delivered by courts around this delicate issue?
Let’s flip the situation. When women fight against unconscious gender biases at work, ‘equal’ policies and legal frameworks may be thrown at them to prove that there is no discrimination against women at workplaces, on paper. Similarly, there may not be a legal basis to show the difference in attitude in judging mothers versus fathers in child custody rulings, but men do become the victims of this stereotype in courts. In fact, because of the many men who may be willing to give up custody, the men who want to raise their children lose out. This is similar to the gender dynamic at work where the women who prefer jobs that don’t involve additional travel or long working hours, deny the opportunity to willing ones in the bargain.
While a single, working mother faces strong judgement by her neighbours and relatives, for ‘neglect’, a stay-at-home father is mocked by his own peer group for not being ‘manly’ enough. The custody decision affects both parents and children, and yet it is taken based on biased norms and preconceptions of gender. A father, no matter how caring, is unlikely to be acknowledged as an adept parent. At the same time, a woman who would rather be a professional will seldom be the natural financial provider for children and the family. But, of course, she is the better parent!
It is critical to acknowledge and challenge accepted gender norms and roles in parenting. The onus lies on women to be assertive of their roles and responsibilities in both the home and the workplace, and take pride in assuming the role of a financial provider. The onus lies as much on men to be break stereotypes that suggest men to be a less-than-adequate parent. As Nigerian author and feminist activist Chimamanda Adichie says, “When a man changes a diaper, the woman says thank you, but when a woman changes a diaper, no one says thank you.” She says she is tired of men being thanked for parenting.
Maybe there is a cue in this for men, women and the judiciary so that cases of custody are decided based on individual merit and capability, where the interest of the child is paramount – and not by age-old stereotypes that must be smashed anyway. Slowly, but surely.
(With inputs from Adil Mushtaq Shah)
(The writer is Founder and Dean of The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, a unique programme in management practice for young women. Recognised as one of 100 Women Achievers by the Government of India in 2015, she is also a Yale Greenberg World Fellow (2016).)
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