Every hour and forty minutes an Indian woman is lit on fire. Every day a woman lives in fear of the day it will be her. This post is based on a paper I wrote. I reference India because most literature focuses on India, not because its the only place it occurs. Dowry violence hurts me for surely I’ve had a relative or ancestor who felt the pain of dowry abuse. As I’m a reflection of my ancestors who provided me with the building blocks I’m made of I can’t help but grieve for the pain they endured. Its my obligation to talk about it and give a voice to those whose voices along with their helpless bodies are all too often swept under the rug.
Dowry (jahez): the practice of the bride’s family providing the groom’s family money or goods in exchange for their daughter’s marriage. Dowry consists of both money and valuable goods such a jewelry, refrigerators, TVs, cars and even homes. The typical dowry is seven times the yearly salary of the breadwinner. It originated as voluntary gift giving but now is considered obligatory if a family wants their daughter to marry.
Dowry’s indirect effects: The pressure of dowry makes a daughter’s birth a disappointing event. Parents afraid of the dowries try preventing her from existing. In the 80’s one could see billboards of Sonogram clinics preying on dowry fears with ads like “better 500 rupees now than 500,000 later” Between 1981- 1991 over 1 million female fetuses were aborted. In Punjab there are 793 girls per 1000 boys.
Dowry’s direct effect: The quest for cash coupled with the devaluation of women creates the ideal backdrop for dowry murders: The in-laws, unhappy with the dowry demand more. When the parents don’t pay up the anger is taken out on the bride. Eventually they think it’ll be better to be rid of her so their son can remarry for more dowry and try driving her to suicide. Her parents don’t help fearing damaging the family honor so seeing no other choice she sometimes takes her own life
Bride Burning is the most popular murder method. The woman is restrained in the kitchen and doused by cooking kerosene and lit by a match. Burning is popular because Kerosene is cheap and readily available. The saris most Indian women wear are combustible so the murder is hard to trace and in the privacy of the home. The survival rate of such deaths is also low ensuring the woman will never prosecute them. Even if she survives she typically succumbs to infection in the hospital. Even escape doesn’t ensure safety. Divorce is still taboo in much of the subcontinent, seen as a shame upon the family honor. Three years ago an 18 y/o bride fled from the clutches of her brother in law as her mother in law poured kerosene and husband lit the match to her parents who asked the court to force her to return to her in-laws. The Court made her return making them promise not to harm her.
The law and the flaw: There are laws on the books condemning dowry murder but they don’t work because those who are to uphold the law often turn a blind eye. The police and courts are a product of a society that generally believes in the inferior status of women. Others believe dowry murder to be private family matters. Of the thousands of reported dowry deaths less than 10% are investigated. Worse, the police often end up actively hurting the investigation by destroying evidence in exchange for bribes and reporting murders as suicides or accidents. Further, prosecutors rarely file charges even after complete investigations are conducted. Between 1961 and 1975 Indian prosecutors filed only one dowry death case. Further, dowry laws don’t work because of the deep rooted history of gender inequality in a patriarchal society. As consumerism rises, the dowry demands are rising as well and the people who benefit don’t want to get rid of a system that works for them. No matter what new laws come out, until the mentality changes, nothing changes. Women must be considered and treated as equals to men and worthy of the same respect.
Fixing the flaw: (1) There must be a greater priority on educating women and helping them become economically independent (2) NGO’s should be able to file claims on behalf of victims when parents are unwilling (3) There must be well known shelters to turn to when fleeing such a situation (4) There must be education on the atrocity at all levels of government. Such education must be addressed in schools so children can be taught a better mentality at a younger age. (5) The media must increase awareness and publicize tragedies to help change the public perception on dowry violence (6) Organizations like Amnesty must publicise this so citizens from around the world can be made aware of the situation’s gravity.
What can you do: Read about it. Care about it. Tell someone about it. The ripple effect of passing on knowledge and empathy cannot be understated.