Sarita Sarvate

Dowries the Root Cause of Abuse of Women in India

Jun 16, 2000

Pacific News Service

BY SARITA SARVATE

The flood of numbers that passes by our eyes every day often seem to blur more than they reveal. But one recently published statistic for one observer provides a window into a very unsettling reality about the treatment of women in India. PNS commentator Sarita Sarvate, born and raised in India, is an award-winning essayist for the San Jose, CA-based monthly India Currents and a regular commentator on National Public Radio.

A recent news report that there are now only 90 women for every 100 men in India is appalling. It should sound an alarm to women everywhere.

Over the last century, when healthcare has become widely accessible and women outnumber men in almost every country, the female/male ratio in India actually decreased, from 972 to 1000 in 1901 to 900 to 1000 this year.

The reasons offered are horrifying and stem directly from the Indian dowry system in which the bride's family must pay for marriage. Reports of female infanticide and "dowry burnings" or "bride burnings" in which a woman is actually burned for bringing an inadequate dowry are too common to ignore.

Recently, as the country has experienced some prosperity, dowries have skyrocketed. The parents of a newborn girl know that her wedding some day could ruin them financially.

Affluent folks in the city can use high-tech measures such as the ultrasound to determine the sex of the fetus, and abort it in case it's female. But where this is not possible, the birth of a baby girl could well bring a murderous response.

It is clear that a daughter who survives is likely to be fed less well than her brothers, and unlikely to be taken to the doctor in case of illness according to UNICEF's Study on Domestic Violence.

So accustomed were we Indian women to being dominated by males in our society that we didn't realize we had been discriminated against until some of us came to the West and established our own lives.

At least we have had the chance to lead lives; even though it has come at a hefty price. In my case, it meant a painful divorce from a husband arranged by my father.

Yet, I was fortunate, relative to the sisters I left behind in India, who have neither the education nor the resources to escape death from bride burnings, suicides and infanticides.

But death is not the only pitfall of the dowry system; physical, emotional, and sexual abuse is another, according to the UNICEF report, which paints a picture of arranged marriage as "sanctified rape."

In my case, that was how it was. I was not an illiterate villager but a middle class girl who had been a National Merit Scholar, an Atomic Energy Commission Fellow, and a physics researcher.

But as a young woman in India, I had to submit to an arranged marriage. The alternative -- finding a job, moving out of my parent's home, and living on my own -- would make me a pariah, cut me off from the only world I had ever known.

Not that I was without stigma. I made the mistake of falling in love with a fellow-student -- a man who ditched me for a girl with a big dowry. If the romance were to be discovered, I would be branded a fallen woman, however innocent the liaison.

So my father arranged my match with a man I had seen only once, for five minutes. The bridegroom demanded as a dowry a Vespa scooter and all the wedding expenses. My father was forced to spend all his savings -- to back out of the deal would bring further stigma.

On my wedding night, I would discover that rape is horrible, sanctified or otherwise. I would spend the next seven years trying to escape my torturous marriage, eventually succeeding by coming to the U.S as a graduate student and subsequently divorcing my husband.

As a survivor of the dowry system, I ponder why India, with an enormous intelligentsia in science, literature and the arts, tolerates mistreatment of women?

The answer is that for thousands of years, India has been a hierarchical society, driven by class. Like Indian men, who have had little to gain from conceding any of their advantages to the "weaker" gender, women of the upper classes in India have had little incentive to forsake their status in favor of their downtrodden sisters.

The class system explains how India gave birth to one of the world's first women prime ministers, yet invented "dowry burnings;" a country that trains more women doctors than any other, yet under-nourishes its daughters.

The only solution to the problem is for Indian women, at home and abroad, to speak against the evil practice of dowry. As a group, they must refuse to succumb to the pressure the way I and millions of other women did. Only then will we be able to eliminate such evil practices as female infanticide in India.