Marital Status

Muslim women and the surprising facts about polygamy in India

A look at the numbers to see how prevalent the practice is in society and whether the law could actually have any effect.

A fresh effort from a Muslim women’s organisation seeking to further codify the way Islamic law is applied in India takes an unusual position: it calls for a ban on polygamy. The law drafted by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, aimed at further codifying Islamic legal provisions regarding marriage, first set down after the famous Shah Bano case, would make all polygamous marriages illegal.

In calling for a ban on polygamy, the BMMA finds itself in unusual company. The Bharatiya Janata Party has for years been calling for a Uniform Civil Code that would replace all religious laws with one that governs all citizens. Chief among the demands of those who have called for the UCC is a ban on Muslim polygamy – whether out of belief in secularism or, as opponents allege, because they think having extra wives allows Muslims to have children at a faster rate than Hindus.

Muslims not very polygamous

But the numbers indicate that polygamy is not really that widespread among Indian Muslims.

Exact data on the subject is hard to come by, primarily because the 1961 census was the last one to look at marriages by religion and community. That survey, in fact, found that incidence of polygamy was the least among Muslims, with just 5.7% of the community likely to practice it. Hindus actually had a higher incidence rate of polygamy, at 5.8%, although other communities, including Buddhists and Jains, were proportionally even more likely to practice polygamy. At the top were tribals, 15.25% of whom were polygamous.



“It may be allowed by Muslim personal law, but the incidence rate is not that high,” said Ritu Menon, a feminist publisher and independent scholar, who worked on the subject as co-author of the book Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India. “This is true particularly in relation to Hindus, but across all communities, polygamy is not that common. Bigamy, on the other hand, is fairly common and that’s true across religions.”

Subsequent data seems to confirm this. A survey carried out by the government in 1974 put the polygamy figure at 5.6% among Muslims, and 5.8% for upper-caste Hindus. Research by Mallika B Mistry of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune in 1993, later recorded by John Dayal, also concluded that “there is no evidence that the percentage of polygamous marriage (among Muslims) is larger than for Hindus.”

According to the third National Family Health Survey carried out in 2006, 2% of women reported that their husbands had more than one wife. More than the religion of the parties involved, determinant reasons were not having a child or a male child from the first wife, education and the age of first wife. It found that a polygamous Hindu was likely to have 1.77 wives, a polygamous Muslim 2.55, Christian 2.35, and Buddhist 3.41.



Multiple marriages were most prevalent in the north-east, followed by the south and the eastern region of India. In north and central India, it was almost non-existent.

Crucially, all of these studies came after the Hindu Code bills were enacted in the 1950s, when bigamy and polygamy were outlawed for Hindus. Yet, the relative incidence rates across communities appears to be comparable.

“The Hindu Marriage Act is just like any other law. It can only accomplish so much. The law also prohibits child marriages, but those also continue to happen,” Menon said.

Nevertheless, the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is insistent that the Muslim community needs to have a law against polygamy, to move towards a society that treats women with dignity and equality.

BMMA co-founder Zakia Soman insisted that it would allow those fighting for gender justice to have the support of the law. “We don't imagine that just passing the laws mean things will change,” she said. “At the end of the day, there is no substitute for proper grassroots activism. But at least it is on the books.”

 
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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.