Indian women faced several problems since the ages. Among them, child marriage, female infanticide, illiteracy, restrictions on widow remarriage, polygamy, concubine, sati and restriction on divorce were more severe. When the British came to India and they became ruler of the country, the Britishers passed some of the social legislations like the prohibition of female infanticide or sacrificing infants, sati, slavery and also passed the widow remarriage Act. But these acts ruffled the country and the British faced the uprising in 1857. The British then decided not to interfere in the social life of the people which was assumed by the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858. However, there started a social reform movement, which succeeded in securing some reforms in society and created social awareness among the people. The efforts made towards the emancipation of women can be studied as under :
1) Child Marriage
This was one of the problems faced by women. Initially, there was no minimum marriageable age was fixed. People used to marry their children at very young age, even at the age of two to five years, which generated other problems like Sati, polygamy and concubinage. In order to avoid the chain of problems, reformers like, B. M. Malbari, R. G. Bhandarkar and M. G. Ranade began to create awareness among the people. B. M. Malbari, a Parsi reformer fought against this custom prevailed in the society. That led the British Government to pass the Act of 1860, which raised the age of consent for marriage from ten years to twelve years.
The social workers in Maharashtra challenged the degrading custom of child marriage and forced the British to pass the Act in 1872 by which the early marriage was abolished, polygamy was declared a penal offence and sanctioned widow remarriages and inter caste marriages in the country. Despite this law, the people in Maharashtra continued with evil system of child marriage in the society. In 1880, B. M. Malbari, the editor of Indian Spectator had attracted the attention of people towards the child marriage and published has notes on enforced widowhood and infant marriages in 1884. He said that the Government should include the evils of child marriage in the school syllabus to create awareness at the early age among the people. Justice Ranade advised the Government to pass Laws to fix twelve years the minimum age of girls for marriage and amend the penal code to punish the people who infringed these laws. Although, some of the prominent members apposed to this, B. M. Malbari went to England to pressurise the British Government to get passed these legislations. Due to the hard efforts of B. M. Malbari, the Age of Consent Act of 1891 was passed. This was a step ahead in the emancipation of women. These legislations led all enlightened and English educated people in Maharashtra to work jointly towards creating better conditions for women in society.
Pandita Ramabai was one more pioneering personality, who worked hard towards the emancipation of women. Many orthodox people in Pune criticized her for her marriage to a non-Brahmin Bengali man. She was very much critical about the miseries of women at the hands of men. In order to support women in miseries Pandita Ramabai established Arya Mahila Samaj with the help of Prarthana Samaj. She was also supported in her efforts by Bhandarkar and Justice Ranade. Pandita Ramabai was harassed by orthodox Brahimns to such extent that she was forced to convert to Christiarity and leave for England and America for some time. She wrote a book and blamed the orthodox people in Hinduism for her troubles and sufferings. She established sharda sadan in Mumbai in 1889 and shifted it to Pune on the request of M. G. Ranade and Bhandarkar, who supported her in her efforts of solving problems of destitute women. In 1930, the Government passed the sharda Act which made a provision for fine and imprisonment to a person abating for marriage of the girl below fourteen years of age.
2) Female Education
Illiteracy was one more problems faced by Indian women due to misunderstanding, wrong notions, superstition and general backwardness of the society. tradionally, it was said that parents should spend money on girls marriage including dowry and other heads but not to spend any thing on their education. They should spend money on the education of boys only. This phenomenon was changed when the Christian Missionaries came to India and they established convent schools for education of girl child under the supervision of nuns. However, this effort was suspected that the missionary schools would be used to convert girls to Christianity. As a matter of fact these schools were open for all castes, communities, religions and groups but the above suspicion did not let maximum girls to take benefits of those schools.
Due to the spread of English education, some of the English educated people began to educate their girls. R. C. Majumdar, therefore says that there was no observance of purda system in the Mumbai presidency, which led people in the Presidency to educate their girls. The ‘Students literary and Scientific Society’ was founded under the banner of Gujarati Dyan Prasarak Mandal which began to support the cause of female education. The people like Dadabhai Naoraji, B. M. Malbari, P. C. Banaji and the Camas started educatina their girls and opened schools for female education despite opposition from the orthodox section of their community. The Marathi industrialists like Jagannath Shankar Seth and Bhau Dagi also contributed to the cause of educating girls in the Mumbai presidency. Among the social reformers like B. M. Malbari (who started Seva Sadan in Mumbai), Ranade, Bhandarkar and Chandawarkar, Mahatma Jyotiba G. Phule and Pandita Ramabai were prominent in the field of female education. in 1851, Phule started a private school for girls with the help of his wife, Savitribai Phule. Some other organizations also began to open schools for girls in Mumbai & Poona areas and spread the cause of female education. In 1891 Bipin Chandra, therefore, said that the Mumbai presidency was ahead in the field of female education. In the same way, Capt. Lester, the education inspector said that there was be no hurdle in establishing schools for female education in Mumbai presidency and its neighboring areas of Poona due to the lead taken by eminent social reformers like Phule, Gokhale, Ranade and Agarkar.
3) Widow Remarriage
This was one more problem faced by women since the ages. There was no-widow remarriage in the upper caste while the lower castes tried to imitate the upper caste and faced a chain of problems like committing sati or remaining widow for the whole life. Widow was not allowed to participate in any programme or religious function and she was to spend her life aimlessly in isolation. Many social reformers was tried to encourage widow remarriages and helped the Govt. to pass the Hindu widow remarriage Act in 1856. but the situation did not change much.
During the modern times social reformers like M. G. Ranade, Vishnu Shastri Pandit, D. K. Karve and Pandita Ramabai actively participated in encouraging widow remarriages and founded various societies for the same purpose. In addition to the foundation of Vidhava Vivaha Uttejak Mandal, the ‘Widow remarriage Association’ was established in 1893 and the ‘Anath Balikashram’ was brought up in 1896 near Pune for sheltering destitute widows. Among all social reformers who worked towards the cause of widow remarriage, Mahatma Jyotiba Govind Phule was very much concerned. He supported the widow remarriage and criticized the other social reformers who married spinters ofter the death of their wives and not allowed to remarry their relatives like sisters and daughters, when they lost their husbands in very young age.
It’s said that in Hinduism marriage was considered sacrosanct and solemnized in heaven. It, therefore became irrevocable in any case. Naturally, widow remarriage was not permitted. That led Hindu women to suffer for ever. In order to get rid of this orthoxy, the western educated people began to oppose it and advocated the widow remarriage based on the authority of the Vedas. Although, orthodox inhabitants of Pune submitted two petitions to the Government to oppose the widow remarriage and established a society to protect the Hindu Dharma, social reformers like Vishnu Shastri challenged the orthodox people to debate on the issue of widow remarriage and published several articles for creating awareness about the widow remarriage. D. K. Karve took a step ahead, he himself married a widow Godubai in 1883, who was his friend’s sister and set an example for other people to follow the suit. He also set up a ‘Widow Home Association’ based on the Sharda Sadan founded by Pandita Ramabai. M. G. Ranade and Bhandarkar helped a lot to the Association for a longtime. This led to create much awareness in the society which was crystal clear from the fact that D. K. Karve’s widow Home Association married twenty five widows in Maharashtra successfully and Indu Prakash and Social Conference became much more popular in the movement of social reforms in Maharashtra.
4) The Hindu Code Bill
Dr. Babasaheb rendered great service to all the women by his emphasis on equality. The preamble of the constitution of India promises to secure to all citizens justice. Parts III and IV of the constitution have provided these objectives which contain many provisions providing for preferential treatment for promoting social status of women and children.
Dr. Ambedkar was truly liberator of the Indian women. He as a Law Minister submitted a bill which raised the age of consent and marriage, upheld monogamy, gave women the right of divorce and treated stridhan as women’s property. However the conservative opposition to the radical proposals led to the postponement of the Hindu Code Bill. Dr. Ambedkar resigned in disgust due to attitude of the conservative members of the Constituent Assembly. Later sections of the Bill were passed as four distinct Acts, The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 made the daughter as the equal co-heir with son. Monogamy was made mandatory for man and women. Thus, Dr. Ambedkar devoted his entire life for the upliftment of all sections of society for the overall development of our country.