The daughters of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, face a vexing decision: Marriage or inheritance?
In 2006, when the state first recognized the rights of unmarried daughters to inherit family land, it simultaneously left millions of women with a dilemma. While ostensibly a step toward gender equality, the new law excluded married daughters, meaning that women who married would face the prospect of weakening or losing their rights to inherit land in their birth family. Daughters of the state were effectively left to choose between marriage and land ownership.
Earlier this year, a new amendment expanded on the inheritance rights of unmarried daughters to include unmarried daughters of a pre-deceased son as primary heirs. Married daughters, however, were again excluded from consideration.
As a researcher with Landesa, the global land rights organization, I was speaking to a group of adolescent girls about the recent changes to Uttar Pradesh’s inheritance laws. The girls all thought that if their brothers knew this change, they would want their sisters to get married off at the soonest so that the girls couldn’t claim inheritance rights.
The differentiation between unmarried and married women is driven by the underlying assumption that upon marriage women cease to have an inheritance claim within their birth family, and become claimants in their marital family. But this premise is fundamentally flawed, since women who join a marital family are not legally entitled to claim inheritance as a daughter-in-law, but only receive rights as a widow.
In addition, many argue that because daughters move to other villages after marriage, allowing them to inherit their parent's land will lead to the fragmentation of agricultural lands. But such concerns are not raised in the case of sons who migrate to urban areas or to other countries. These double standards emanate from a patriarchal belief system which gravely discriminates against daughters.
The Indian Constitution provides that agricultural land is a state subject, and the states are therefore empowered to formulate their own laws regulating the use of agricultural land. Most states follow the respective personal or religious laws for inheritance of agricultural land. The exceptions are the northwestern states – Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi – and the several northeastern states which have their unique customary laws. The listed northwestern states grant inferior inheritance rights to women as compared to men in their revenue laws.
Following independence, India’s states began to embark on land reform, with Uttar Pradesh’s Land Reforms Act enacted in 1950. The principle of land reforms at that time was ‘Land to the tiller,’ and a tiller was invariably seen as male. Thus, the inheritance provisions for agricultural land were even more discriminatory to women in a country where by default the inheritance rules benefit male heirs. This discrimination continues to be more pronounced in the northwestern states that have specific discriminatory provisions for the inheritance of agricultural land.
The Indian Constitution and India’s obligations as a signatory to several international conventions, including Convention for Elimination of all sorts of Discrimination against Women and Beijing Platform for Action, require the country to adopt rules that guarantee equal treatment of women. Besides being a fundamental human right, gender equality is an unequivocal Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) to which India has committed along with the global community. Undertaking reforms to grant women equal rights to economic resources, including land and inheritance, is an important target of this goal.
Evidently, the state of Uttar Pradesh needs to make urgent changes in law to grant equal inheritance rights to the daughters. Equally important is to make the revenue officials aware of the incremental changes and sensitize them towards the intent of such changes, so that they work towards social recognition of daughter’s rights and are able to support daughters’ claims. Efforts should also be made to make daughters aware of the value of these rights so that they can assert and benefit from these rights.
“We cannot accept a world that tells my granddaughters that equality must wait for their granddaughters’ granddaughters”, said Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General to the world leaders at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in 2019.
The daughters and granddaughters of Uttar Pradesh irrefutably deserve the rights that are granted to them as equals, and which do not go away with marriage.
Shipra Deo is Landesa’s Director of Women’s Land Rights, India.