In India, problems for women begin already at birth. For most Indians, even today it is more desirable to have a son rather than a daughter. The son often remains in the parents’ house after marriage and supports them financially, whereas a daughter is a burden and to marry her off, a dowry must be supplied. Although the practise of giving money or substantial goods by the bride’s parents to their son-in-law’s family is illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act, it is still expected and a status symbol. The bigger the dowry and the ceremony, the greater the prestige of the family. For poorer families, a dowry can be a huge financial burden that indebts them for the rest of their lives. That’s why a common curse in India goes: “May you have ten daughters and may they all marry well”.
However, the trouble does not end with marriage. Sometimes violence can start right after the wedding. The woman might quickly face a bad surprise, as her husband and his family might want more money than the amount agreed upon and paid on wedding day. In some cases they beat or abuse her and pressurize her to ask her parents to pay more. Often enough, harrassed and abused women immolate themselves. Rarely anybody investigates for murder. An Indian news report claims that in 2006 around 7,600 women died because of dowry deaths (this figure is likely to be too low).
In general, arranged marriages are still the norm rather than an exception; even today between 70 and 80% of marriages are not based on love. The partners are normally chosen by the parents. The perfect match depends upon the level of education and the social status: The Hindu caste system embracing four different classes – each with rules and conduct of behaviour – still strongly influences India’s society. That’s why marrying across the ‘caste bar’, even for wealthier or educated people, is a no-go. Online dating agencies also have a caste searching tool. From time to time you read about couples running away to marry out of love, which are then exposed to barbarian acts of vengeance by the relatives that lead to injuries and often end in murders.
A village girl may be married to a man she has never met and is expected to do manual labour, raise children and keep the house, which may also involve daily treks to fetch water or gather firewood. Domestic violence is common, as the man often feels it is his right to beat his wife. However, most women don’t stand up for the few rights they have and often even feel that the violence is normal. According to a survey by the National Family Health Survey released in 2003, 56 percent of the women asked said that domestic violence was justified. We heard of one case in which someone we know wanted to denounce the aggressive man to the police. The woman, apparently shocked that he wanted to interfere, said: “If my husband goes to jail, what will I do?”
The situation for an urban, middle-class woman is better, but the pressure still exists. She might get an education, which will make the marriage prospects better, but she is still expected to be housewife and mother above all. Not being able to give birth to a child, in particular to a son, may have severe consequences. The practice of ‘bride burning’ is not uncommon, as newspapers report on a daily basis, especially in India’s traditionally male-dominated, conservative north. These murders often pass as household accidents and the man can then remarry someone his family considers to be a better prospect.
A woman faces even greater pressure if she wants to divorce, which theoretically is not impossible. However, both husband and wife are responsible to make the marriage work, no matter the obstacles. A divorced woman might be considered an outcast from society and there will be no social security net provided for her, as even her own family might turn the back on her.
Such is the desire to have a son that the government had to pass a legislation that prohibits the abortion of healthy female foetuses. In 1994, ‘sex determination’ clinics have been banned, but the abortions clandestinely continued. It is estimated that around 50 million (!) females are thought missing in the overall population due to female foeticide and infanticide, as per the UN Population Fund. However, just some days ago we read about reports of hundreds of baby girls turned into boys via mediacal surgery in Indore. The sex-changing surgeries performed on infants are apparently becoming an important business in India, also due to the weak implementation of laws fusing with backward customs in many families and villages, where traditions are deeply rooted.
No day passes without horrific news. Some time ago a small girl was found dead and without one kidney. The police said it was an exorcist who ate it. A 14-year-old was allegedly gang raped and found hung at a police station in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The police declared it was suicide. Ridiculous statements, no further investigation and ineffective prosecution make it difficult to change the mindset and stop the violence against women. Often enough, villagers condemn the police for failing to take immediate action, giving the accused enough time to erase all the evidence.
Although the attitude towards women is changing, it will take a long time before they will gain the equality with men. India has just been rated the fourth most dangerous place for women, primarly due to female foeticide, infanticide and human trafficking, according to a new survey conducted by Thomson Reuters’ Trustlaw Women. Around 100 million people are supposed to be involved in human trafficking in India and it is estimated that there are three million prostitutes, of which 40 per cent are children.