Sunday, September 23, 2007

India rising, dowry rising

Dowry-related violence -- including burning young wives alive, beating them to death or otherwise killing or torturing them to extort their families into forking over more money, jewels or consumer goods as dowry – is on the rise in India, despite dowry’s having been banned in 1961. As rising income spells greater freedom and better living conditions for some, it spells hell for women like Devi, who managed to survive 4 years of regular pummeling and beating with “whatever they could lay their hands on” by her mother- and sister-in-law, while her father-in-law pinned back her arms. Whereas dowry, generally livestock or household furnishings, began as a practice to ensure that brides had a few creature comforts independently of their husband, families are now insisting on thousands of dollars, expensive jewelry and consumer goods, including luxury cars. The fact that many dowry deaths are even recorded as such is a major breakthrough; the shocking figures are therefore to be considered just a tip of the iceberg: corresponding to India’s economic boom of the 1990s, dowry deaths rose by 46% from 1995-2005, the last year for which figures are available. In that year alone, a woman died a dowry-related death every 77 minutes for a total of 6,787 such homicides (again, as reported; experts believe the true number to be much higher). Most offenders still go unpunished, though the central jail in New Delhi now has a wing for mothers-in-law accused of murdering or torturing their daughters-in-law for dowry. Still, the practice is so widespread that many men involved in law enforcement have benefited from dowry and are likely to dismiss the few charges that women dare to bring. For example, the Delhi conviction rate for dowry-related death was a mere 28% in 2003, a third that of the rate for sexual harassment. Meanwhile, in various South Asian countries including India and Afghanistan, women as young as 16 are burning themselves alive to escape violent, forced marriages, on the order of one per day in some cities. Pictured above is Mala Sen's Death by Fire, a book about the persistence of the ancient practices of sati (throwing wives on their husbands funeral pyres), dowry death and female infanticide in modern India. Various websites like this one address the issue of dowry death (or bride burning) and the link to Sen's book leads to a page with several related books. Getting the word out, first step toward getting it taken seriously.

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