Indian women take a stand against violence

By Paul Jeffrey

Priyanka Singh was almost a missing woman. Born by accident away from her family's home in Rajasthan, when her mother finally took her home the infant girl's grandfather declared he was sorry he wasn't present at her birth. Had he been there, he declared, he would have killed her instantly. Ms. Singh, now 24, says the memory still fills her with anger, and she works today to change such attitudes. On most Saturdays, she travels to the countryside to perform street theater in villages, struggling to raise awareness about feticide, infanticide, dowry violence, and a host of other forms of violence against women in India.

Ms. Singh, a student in the women's studies program at Isabella Thoburn College, a school in Lucknow supported by the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, says she's the first girl child in her family to be given the privilege of advanced education. "I'm thankful to my parents, who ignored tradition for my benefit. I feel lucky. Yet there are a lot of sisters of mine who can't get an education, or who can't even be born into this world. That fills me with revolt. I want it to stop," she said.

Yet the violence Ms. Singh protests is not stopping. It's getting worse. Technology and globalization have meshed with cultural patterns of discrimination to produce a lethal violence that today endangers women across India from conception to death.

Missing women

In the late 1980s, Amartya Sen, an Indian economist who later won the Nobel prize in economics, coined the term "missing women" to describe the women killed as infants in societies where male children were more desired. Dr. Sen estimated that 100 million women were missing at the time. The phenomenon has worsened since, and today many estimates peg the number of missing women in India alone at 50 million.

Despite the fact that girl babies are biologically sturdier than boy babies, India has a ratio of 927 women to every 100 men. In some areas of the Indian states of Bihar and Rajasthan, the female-male ratio is as low as 660 to 1000.

Though the British outlawed infanticide in 1870, the practice survived in several sectors of Indian society, though it wasn't widely reported. Girl babies were either left to die of starvation and neglect, or fed oleander berries or another lethal plant. "We felt very bad, but what if she had lived? It was better to save her from a lifetime of suffering," a 19-year old mother who killed her daughter told U.S. journalist Elisabeth Bumiller, who describes the practice in her 1990 book May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons.

The number of women who go missing has increased in the last decade with the widespread use of sex-selective abortions. At first a practice only of elite women in the cities, the identification and abortion of female fetuses has become widespread in many rural areas thanks to portable ultrasound devices and ethically-challenged physicians. "There's an unholy marriage between modern medical technology and conservative thinking, and the result, fueled by doctors looking for an easy profit, is the growth of sex selective abortions," Indrani Mazumbar, a senior research associate at the Center for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi, told Response.

There's a temptation to claim this violence against women is simply a throwback to India's ancient cultural heritage. Yet according to Madhu Bhushan, a leading Indian feminist, the opposite is true. "Many people in the elite and even the middle class want to see this as a problem of Indian culture, which they see as still backward and superstitious. What this country needs, they think, is a good dose of development, to be brought into the mainstream and everything will be fine. They'll be proper citizens and stop doing these barbaric things like killing their women and beating them up and getting rid of their female children. They'll become civilized citizens of this nation state. But the irony is that this kind of violence is escalating, particularly the higher you go in society. The more our society becomes mainstream, the more it develops, the more we're finding these pathologies. It's a society turning upon itself. The pressure of modernization, of consumerism, of materialism–all this is pushing the society to turn upon itself and upon the most vulnerable within, who are the women," said Ms. Bhushan, India coordinator of the Asian Women's Human Rights Council, a Women's Division-supported group providing advocacy for women who are victims of violence.

"Today dowry has nothing to do with culture and tradition. In fact it marks a total disjuncture with tradition. It's a totally modern phenomenon that's linked to globalization and the development model that's distorting Indian society," Ms. Bhushan said.

Dowry violence

Feticide and infanticide are intrinsically linked to the increasing practice in recent decades of dowry–the transfer of wealth from the bride's family to the family of the groom. According to Mazumbar, until some four decades ago dowry was limited to mostly upper class families, but has since spread as the economic function of Indian women has changed.

"In largely peasant economies, women were considered an asset, even in the husbands house, and they'd pay bride price [the opposite of dowry]. This has changed because of the changing role of women in an agricultural system that has become more commercial and capitalist, with a reduced role for peasant women. The degradation of the peasant agricultural economy contributes to the degradation of women, a commodification of human relations, and the rise of consumerist aspirations even with growing disparities. And you feed this consumerist urge with dowry, with which you can acquire more commodities without having to pay for them," she told Response.

Dowry doesn't end with the wedding. In a country where most marriages are still arranged by the parents, the bride's family often has to continue to pay money or provide articles of value to their daughter's in-laws for months and years after the wedding. When the loot isn't forthcoming, the in-laws turn the screws on the bride, at times resorting to beating or burning her as a way to pressure her family. According to a 2004 report by Amnesty International, there are approximately 15,000 dowry deaths each year in India. The exact number is difficult to quantify, given that victims often tell police and medical personnel that the incident was an accident caused by her own carelessness with a kitchen stove, when in reality her in-laws doused her with gas and set her ablaze.

"The woman becomes a nice little milking cow. You can go on using her constantly to get more and more money from the in-laws. If she doesn't give more milk then you beat her. If that doesn't work then you eventually get rid of her and then get married again and collect another dowry," said Ms. Bhushan.

Dowry was made illegal in India in 1961, but the law has done little to stop its growth. "There is no dearth of laws in our country. India has the best social legislation you can find in any part of the world. We have a very progressive state. Any law you want, you lobby and if you make enough noise you will get it. But the laws have very little to do with real life. If the policy is different than the law, if economic policies are giving birth to these problems, the law is little more than a little band-aid," said Ms. Bhushan.

Attempts to combat dowry and dowry violence confront the task of making public a very private part of Indian life.

"We are taught to keep these issues within the family walls. A lot of subjugation, mistreatment, violence, and rape go on within families, but it never surfaces because the family is paramount. A woman can dress in a suit and go to work and speak good English, she may even take a drink in public, but when she's back in her home she may cover her head in front of her in-laws and serve them dinner. You really don't know what's happening inside the house. You can never really know the two worlds in which a woman lives," said Dr. Sunita Charles, president of Isabella Thoburn College.

Some observers claim dowry violence is not an issue of gender. "Gender has nothing to do with it. The villains are often the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law," said Anto Akkara, a Delhi-based correspondent for Ecumenical News International.

Feminists say they tire of that argument. "Brutalizing power structures infect women as well. The mother-in-law draws her sense of power, authority and control first from the husband and then from the son. Although she's only a carrier of that patriarchal power, she becomes its face, and the husband and father-in-law take a nice little back seat, playing out their power battles through the women. We've studied dowry deaths, and in most cases it's ultimately the husband who is responsible for the death. The mother-in-law might bring the kerosene, but finally he's the one who lights the match," said Ms. Bhushan.

According to Ms. Singh, patriarchal attitudes encourage the mother-in-law to be threatened by the daughter-in-law. "The only property a woman can have is a son. Only when she becomes the mother of a son is she given honor in the family. She's going to defend herself against anyone who threatens to take her property away, which is how she sees the relationship with the daughter-in-law. Her son was always obedient to her, but after the wedding he starts giving more time to his wife. So in her heart she feels that the daughter-in-law is taking away the only property she has."

"The time has come to take a stand"

According to Supriya Chand, another student in the women's studies program at Isabella Thoburn, dowry violence illustrates a deadly vicious circle. "The women is first a victim and then she becomes an agent. The daughter-in-law will someday become a mother-in-law, and it goes on and on. We have to break the circle at both ends," she said.

Breaking the circle is becoming more popular; some Indian families send out their wedding invitations with a "D-Free" logo, signifying that the marriage is dowry-free. It's but one sign that, although dowry violence is worsening, so is resistance.

"Dowry violence and other forms of violence against women have only escalated with globalization. There's no doubt about it. Yet the consciencization of women to name the issue and struggle against it has also increased. In the last few years we've had cases of women who've called off their wedding at the last minute, saying, ‘Sorry, I don't need a marriage at this cost.' There's been a redefinition of issues, of what a woman is. It's not just a matter of making the woman a victim. She's also an agent, she has agency over her body, and her powers of resistance have increased," Dr. Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, a professor at United Theological College in Bangalore, told Response.

Ms. Singh and her classmates at Isabella Thoburn College see their street theater as part of this resistance.

"As we studied the problem of dowry violence, we felt we also had to do something about it, and staging the play has shaken us up even more. We feel it more strongly, and the message we take out is clear: we need to be aware of this social evil, and the time has come to take a stand," said Sanjukta Chaudhuri, another student in the college's women's studies program.

According to Ms. Bhushan, poor women often have an easier time resisting.

"There are problems that are common to women from all classes and communities, such as beating and dowry violence. It may take different forms, vary in its intensity, and vary in how women respond. Yet sometimes the supposedly more disadvantaged women are better able to deal with the violence in their lives than middle- and upper-class women, because they're able to fight back. They have nothing to lose, whereas a middle-class woman who's been beaten will tend to suffer in silence. She's more conscious of social attitudes and norms. Or she thinks, ‘How can I break up my marriage?' A woman living in the slums or villages will respond differently because she has much less to lose. If her husband beats her she might turn around and beat him back," she said.

Dr. Charles said part of the mission of Isabella Thoburn College is to help the school's 3,500 students grow into "strong, independent, aware, and educated women who can discern what they want to do in their own lives." At times, she says that means helping them get out of marriages that have turned dangerous. "I wouldn't want my daughter to spend her life with a man who comes home and bashes her every day. I don't believe in that, no matter what the Bible says. I don't care. I don't want to see my daughter crying herself to sleep every night. And that applies to every young woman," said Dr. Charles.

"The fact that we're talking about and identifying these issues is progress. It wasn't happening 15 years back," she said. "We're unveiling the issues today. We have young girls who talk back now. We don't always find it very pleasant when that happens, but they do talk back. And that's good."