THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The school was red, English-looking and beautiful. A young mother stepped in, with many hopes for her little girl. But when she tried to enroll her child, she was told she’d need an NOC from the father. He was abroad. Aswathy Chitra Nair, then a little girl, remembered that day more than two decades later, when as a mother, she went to apply for her son’s passport. She was asked to get an NOC from the dad too.
Aswathy, finance controller of Dr Fixit at Pidilite, fought it for a bit and asked the passport officer what would happen if the father wasn’t in the picture. Apparently they hadn’t thought of such a picture. Mothers in the state find it tough to get a passport for their child or even an admission to school, when they go alone. Their parenthood apparently has little value without the father’s presence. The passport rule, however, has been relaxed in December 2016, and single parents could apply for their children’s passports without hassle. Aswathy’s comment came when she heard about a friend’s plight while admitting her little boy to school. The friend — Indu Lekshmi — had written an angry post on Facebook.
“I heard a funny thing that a mother has no right to take admission from any schools for her child. If she should in the absence of the child’s father, she needs an ‘authorisation letter’ from the father. And this is an accepted and respected system and the funnier thing is no one even finds anything wrong with it.”
On a phone call, Indu says more: “For the LKG admission at an established school in Thiruvanant-hapuram, I did all the paper work, but for the process to be complete, they needed the dad’s signature. The same thing happened for his first standard admission. I was writing my name in the column for ‘parent’ and they said it should not be mine, but my husband’s. When I said he would be back only by next Monday, they said I can sign in a corner and leave space for him to sign when he is back. They said ‘father inte alle vendathu’ (it should be the dad, right).”
A parent who doesn’t wish to be named remembers the speech by a school principal who said they didn’t want any single parents in the school, they only took in children who had mothers and fathers. “They say all that, but the mother’s signature is not asked anywhere!” the angry parent says. It is law, says Gopi Krishna, a lawyer. “The common perception is that a mother is the natural guardian of a child. But then according to the Guardian and Wards Act and the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, the father is the natural guardian. So they are quite justified in asking for the father’s signature. We talk about equal rights, but then this is the law. Of course, you can’t deny admission when the father is not in the picture – like if it is a divorced mother or a widow,” he says.
But then a divorced single mother had to go through a lot of trouble when she tried to apply for her son’s passport, before the rule was relaxed. “I have full custody of my child. He was then 15, but they insisted on the father’s signature. I had given all my documents including the divorce papers, the proof giving me custody of the child. Even then they wouldn’t allow it,” says the mother, a Technopark employee who doesn’t wish to be named.
“If you try to fill the online application it will automatically capture the father’s name as legal guardian. There was no way I could change it. It was only when I got a magistrate’s standing that it is ok to issue a passport to the child without the father’s signature that we got it. And now he is applying for college and many of the universities in India insist on knowing father’s and mother’s salary. And in that, father’s salary is a mandatory field as if it’s ok if the mother doesn’t earn but having an earning father is a must for the child’s education! I’d sometimes fill in “0” in such forms against father’s salary.”
It also seems a father going alone for his child’s school admission will not face the same challenges. Nikhil Gopalan, an IT professional, took his child to a school in Thiruvananthapuram, when his wife was away for work in Bengaluru. “They asked where she was and I said she had to be away for work. They didn’t have a problem with it, and my signature was enough.” Thomas Mani, vice-principal of Christ Nagar school, says in cases of divorce or death, a single parent will suffice. But otherwise they’d need both the parents to be present as otherwise certain issues may crop up from the side of the parent who was not present for the admission formalities.
Dr Beena Kayaloor, intersectional feminist says, “This is a sad situation. Mothers are often treated like an accessory rather than as a responsible adult. It is a way of infantilising women. This is a very important aspect that has not received much attention because it has been so normalised, people don't see the problem with it. That a mother is not enough when a child has to get admission in schools is a way of showing the mothers their place in a patriarchal society.”