Depending on whom you talk to, the word ‘independence’ means different things. Freedom from slavery, freedom of thought, freedom to be who and what a person wants to be.
For Indian women, this independence can take on many shades. Ours remains a patriarchal society, even though we are over a decade into the twenty-first century. India is country where a person can hold the most regressive views on women and yet be at the highest positions of government and private enterprise. Even those with allegations of serious crimes against them, including rape, can sit in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. Lawyers and policemen, supposedly the upholders of the laws (which are quite progressive on many women-related issues) can frequently be the most misogynist of all.
Domestic violence is a sad reality. Dowry harassment still happens, from the high-rises of Mumbai to the hinterlands of Bastar.
So what freedom do Indian women have, then? For every happy housewife, content and proud to manage her household and raise her children, there could be another whose aspirations have been stifled, whose dependence on her husband prevents her from trying to escape a home that may long since have become a living hell.
This dependence comes in many forms, emotional, physical or psychological, but it would be fair to say that for most Indian women, the primary form of such dependence in financial. In many households the husband is still the sole earning member of the family, and this skews the power equations within the domestic set-up to no small extent. Even for an unmarried woman, financial dependence on parents leads to a narrowing of choices and scope. Choice of career, of spouse, or even at a more mundane level, of clothing.
This is not only unfortunate but in some circumstances, tragic. For when a woman is financially independent, she becomes a different person; the sole architect of her financial future, often more confident, more assertive and a more vocal member of society.
It does not have to mean earning more than her spouse, but simply a) Having her own resources and b) Being aware of how to manage them.
It is the second of these that is critically important here. This is the reason why financial dependence is not confined to housewives. A working woman who does not know how to handle her money, or entrusts it entirely to her husband, is as much dependent as the one who remains home-bound.
Every woman needs to do the following things to take the first steps towards achieving financial independence:
- Understand your cash flow – whatever the source, whether your salary or the money received from your husband / father, figure out how much comes in versus how much you need to spend
- Determine your goals, short and long-term – What is financial independence would mean different things to different people, so define what it means to you
- Eradicate personal debt, if any
- Protect yourself – ensure that a portion at least of your money is kept aside for your own use.
A woman who knows how much money she has, where it is, and what to do with it, holds power in a relationship that is not just critical, but essential. It enables her to take her own decisions, to stand up and assert her voice within her family, even to bargain with her family (unseemly as that sounds) when she feels it is necessary.
But most of all, at some stage, it gives her freedom to walk away. To carve out her own life, her own future, find her own choice of partner.