India’s greed for dowries lies at heart of many abuses against women

September 19, 2014

Bride Kalpana and groom Bhavin Munjpara exchange wedding vows inside a hospital in Ahmedabad

The customs and traditions of our forefathers – performed during festivals and on special occasions such as births, weddings and funerals – can be beautiful, reminding us of a life past.

However, one custom in India has been exploited over the years so much that today it is directly responsible for the death of a woman every hour, and the mental and physical torture of countless others.

Despite being outlawed more than half a century ago, the custom of dowry continues unabated – promoting the view that girls and women are a liability and resulting in abuse, discrimination and murder.

Dowries – traditionally gold jewellery that parents give to their daughter when she marries – have turned into a commercial enterprise in India, with the groom’s family demanding “gifts” in return for marriage.

The demands – which range from cash, jewellery and smart phones, to motorcycles, cars and even property – place extreme financial pressure on the bride and her parents not only at the time of marriage, but even after, as the greed continues.

The mental and physical abuse some women face over dowry demands has driven them to suicide. Over the weekend, one woman – whose in-laws allegedly “tortured her for dowry” –hanged herself from a hook on the ceiling.

Last year, there were 8,083 deaths of women due to dowry demands, and 10,709 cases in which a woman and her family were harassed over dowry, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

The NCRB reports that more than 38 percent of all crimes committed against women in 2013 were those registered under the charge of cruelty by husband or his relatives.

LOCKED IN A BATHROOM

This month alone, there have been numerous reports of the murder and abuse of women due to dowry demands.

Last week, police in the eastern state of Bihar rescued a 25-year-old woman who had been locked inside a bathroom for more than three years by her husband’s family for not providing enough dowry.

The police said the woman – found in tattered clothes, her hair unkempt and nails overgrown – could barely open her eyes when taken into the sunlight.

“The woman revealed that she was thrown into the bathroom and locked there,” Station House Officer Seema Kumari was quoted as saying by the India Today magazine. “She was not allowed to see her child, and given leftover food irregularly. It was as if her in-laws were seeking revenge for not bringing ample dowry and giving birth to a girl child.”

In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, a man reportedly poured battery acid onto his wife’s genitals after she failed to meet his demand for more dowry.

In another case in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a 22-year-old pregnant woman was strangled to death by her husband and in-laws, who were fuelled by greed for more dowry.

UNWANTED GIRLS

As soon as a girl is born, parents begin worrying about the substantial cost associated with her wedding and how they will be able to afford the dowry to marry her off.

Despite the Prohibition of Dowry Act in 1961, dowry is still widely accepted and expected in Indian society. Without it, women remain unmarried, which is a cause of shame in many communities.

Families save for years and face debts after borrowing money for dowries. If there is more than one daughter to wed, the financial stress multiplies.

Girls face resentment from their parents and can be discriminated against because of dowry, which not only commodifies them by putting a financial value on them, but also lowers their status in society.

Girls get less food and nutrition than boys, and unlike their brothers, they are less likely to be taken to a clinic when they are sick. They are also more likely to miss out on schooling and hence employment opportunities, and may even be married as child brides because the dowry payment is cheaper for younger brides.

“People see a daughter as a wasted expenditure. Spending all this money on her for what? Only for her to get married and contribute to another household,” a women’s rights activist once told me. “It’s like watering your neighbour’s plant.”

KILLING THE GIRL FOETUS

One of the most worrying fallouts from dowry is how it has contributed to the strong preference for sons in India.

Financial pressures associated with dowries are so great that parents for decades have been aborting female foetuses after discovering their gender through ultrasound examinations, even though the practice is illegal.

A May 2011 study in British medical journal The Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian girls were aborted over the last three decades, resulting in a skewed child sex ratio of 918 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2011, versus 962 in 1981.

In some cases, parents will kill newborn baby girls by lacing their milk with poison, burying them alive or abandoning them. They may also neglect girls who fall ill from preventable diseases and let them die.

As a result, the dwindling numbers of Indian girls has reached “emergency proportions” and is fuelling an increase in kidnappings and trafficking of women, the United Nations says.

Until the issue of dowry is adequately addressed, other crimes against women and girls in India will continue. Indians must stop viewing women as liabilities, and that will only happen when India’s greed for dowry ends.

(Editing by Alisa Tang: alisa.tang@thomsonreuters.com)

PHOTO CAPTION: Bride Kalpana, 22, and her groom Bhavin Munjpara, 26, lying in a bed, exchange wedding vows inside a hospital in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad February 17, 2012. The couple took their wedding vows in a hospital after Munjpara fractured his feet in a road accident on February 11, their relatives said. REUTERS/Amit Dave 

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