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Shaping Legal Rights of Women in India by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pooja Paswan
April 14, 2022

I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”—Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an Indian jurist, economist and a Dalit leader who headed the committee that drafted the Constitution of India and served as the first Law and Justice minister of independent India. He fought tirelessly for the inclusion of rights for women in all different spheres of life. Through his speeches, thoughts and reforms, Ambedkar awakened in women the zeal to fight for social justice and their rights. His reformative measures came in the form of the Hindu Code Bill, meant to modernize the Hindu society which became unparalleled in its importance. 

The Hindu Code Bill

The Hindu Code Bill, introduced by Ambedkar as law minister of independent India, reveals his views on gender equality, and his strong stance against a caste-based society.

As early as the British Raj, laws to govern Hindu communities had appeared to help closed communities regulate themselves, and until as late as the Rau Committee in 1948, there was still no consensus on several key issues of a Universal Hindu Code.

Despite the presence of women in the Constituent Assembly, questions of gender did not come up in the Hindu Code Bill until they went to Ambedkar for his commentary.

After over two decades of meaningless debate, the Hindu Code finally included the right of women to divorce, the right of inheritance to daughters and the access of widows to equal property rights. Simultaneously, the regressive language around caste-specific rules was also deleted. This Bill later turned into a series of Acts including the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, and forms the legislative bedrock for women’s claims to shared property even today.

Bill granting paid maternity leave for women working in factories.

Ambedkar also worked to ensure that women were protected under labour laws. He was instrumental in reducing the number of working hours and improving working conditions. In 1928, as a member of the Legislative Council of Bombay, he supported a Bill granting paid maternity leave for women working in factories. He believed that if the employer was benefiting off of women’s labour, they should also, in part, be supporting women when they are on their maternity leave. The other half, he believed, should be paid by the government as it was in the interest of the nation. Ambedkar also believed that women have the right over their own body. He said that conception was a choice that women should make. He argued for reproductive rights for women, recommended that birth control facilities be made available to them and was a strong advocate of women’s reproductive freedom.

He also drafted the Mines Maternity Benefit Act which asked for equal wages and equal representation of women on the welfare fund for the coal mine workers, and emphasized equal citizenship and women’s rights to economic development as crucial for women’s rights in India. Between 1942 and 1946 he passed progressive legislation for women that dealt with equal wages for equal work, casual and privilege leave, compensation in cases of injury and pension.

Ambedkar’s Role in Enabling Indian Women to Have Full Property Rights & Right to Divorce

The legislation he proposed was intended to provide agency to women through freedom of choice, which in turn led to their empowerment. One of his most important contributions towards the cause of female empowerment was the introduction of the Hindu Code Bill, which accurately reflected his ideas of equality and his concern for the women of India. Through the bill, women—who earlier had not been allowed to sell property while they were alive, and after their death, their property would go to someone in their husband’s family—were granted ‘absolute right’ in matters of property.

Apart from reforming property rights, he also introduced two ground-breaking clauses—namely, the restitution of conjugal rights, and judicial separation. These allowed women the personal choice and freedom to file for legal divorce.

The bill was divided into four independent acts:

  • the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) which gave women the right to divorce, and maintenance in some cases
  • the Hindu Succession Act (1956) which gave them the legal right to inherit family property
  • the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act (1956) which allowed women to legally adopt a child
  • the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956) which allowed a woman to be the natural guardian of her child.

How Ambedkar Envisioned an Equal Society for All

His influence also led to the passage of various other pro-women acts like The Equal Remuneration Act of 1976, and The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 which legally entitled women to equal wages and criminalized dowry, respectively.

A revolutionary figure, a pioneer of social justice and a true reformer, Dr B. R. Ambedkar played a significant role in shaping the social, political and civic contours of India and fostering the advancement of society in general and for women in particular. He firmly believed that eradicating iniquitous gender relations and elevating women’s status were vital requirements within the process of social reconstruction at which he aimed his life’s work.

Author: Pooja Paswan is currently enrolled at the John.F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. She has Ph. D in Public Administration and specializes in Public Policy. She was recipient of the ASPA 2019 Founders Fellow. She has worked extensively in the area of development administration and policy. She can be reached at https://jmi.academia.edu/PoojaPaswan and [email protected]. Twitter @poojapaswan

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