By Rita Banerji:
At the start of every wedding season in India, the campaign I direct, The 50 Million Missing, receives frantic emails from women about to get married. They complain about being pressurized for exorbitant dowries in cash or kind, particularly as the wedding date draws near.
We always give the same advice: “Please do NOT marry this man! Dowry is illegal, and these people are blackmailing you, which is also illegal. These are criminal minded people who will continue to extort more dowry from you after your marriage. And they will be violent! We don’t want you to end up dead like thousands of women in your situation who are murdered or driven to suicide!”
Last week we got an email that said this: “I am a 28-year-old school teacher and I am about to get married to an army officer whose parents though haven’t directly asked for dowry have said that their son has bought a new car worth Rs.10 lakh (U.S. $16,500.00) and they want my parents to give half of the price which my parents are going to. I have already given a hint to my mother that I won’t get married to such a family if they keep demanding things. Now they say that we are to give only branded gifts to their guests. I am really worried and don’t feel right about this and neither do my parents but because they have publicly announced my marriage, my mother says it would be foolish to back out considering there aren’t other good marriage offers. I haven’t spoken to my dad who is equally frustrated about the whole attitude of the in-laws but he feels they have a good family background. I love my parents, can’t hurt them or insult them in public neither do I want to ruin my life by marrying such a family. Pleeezzzz tell me what to do? Should I get engaged next month?”
This is complete insanity! This woman’s parents are saying that families who shamelessly make unlawful demands and blackmail them even before the wedding, are “good” families for their daughter to marry into! And they are not alone. Millions of educated, professional middle-class families like this one are saying and doing exactly the same thing — and their daughters are subject to worse blackmail and torture for dowry after the wedding, and thousands of women like this are eventually killed. After all the news we read and hear every day in India about the abuse and killing of women for dowry, how do these parents even think about forcing their daughters to marry into these families? Do they absolutely not care for the safety of their daughters?
This year one of the biggest public fights in India was about removing criminals from government — men convicted of extortion, larceny, rape and murder! But do we realize that as individuals if we continue to marry criminal-minded men or marry our daughters into families that behave criminally, we are embracing criminals in our personal lives and families? Then with what faith do we expect to clean criminals out of government and have a system that ensures the safety of women?
If you are reading this and are in this situation, or have a family member or friend or colleague in a similar situation, this is my advice:
1. Say a total “no” to any marriage proposal that makes even one dowry demand
Treat any dowry demand (whether in cash or goods) as a death threat! Do not marry into this family. And do not trust them. Do not agree to any negotiations. If they seem to be changing their mind, they are only looking for another way to continue doing the same.
2. Get out immediately of any situation of blackmail and abuse for dowry
Sometimes the in-laws wait till after the wedding to start blackmailing and abusing for dowry. We’ve found that this is often true in “love-marriages.” My advice to all women in this situation is — Get out immediately! Do not delay! Anshu was a bright, young woman, working with a multinational who married a man she was in love with. Within days of the wedding as her in-laws demanded and extorted money from her, she realized what criminal people they are. Just 6 weeks after her wedding as she planned to leave the marriage she was killed. To read Anshu’s story click here.
3. If you have daughters, you need to protect them and yourself
Studies and my campaign’s cases repeatedly show that families that abuse and kill for dowry are also the ones that force women to abort girls and also kill or try to kill the infant girls after birth. In middle and upper class families — babies have unexplained ‘accidents’ on staircases or in the bathtub. The father of Pooja Chopra, who was crowned ‘Miss India World,’ had tried to suffocate her with a pillow (her story here). The reason is, they are greedy for dowry, but don’t want to give dowry for the girls born into their family. They are a danger to both the woman and to her daughters. Click here to see one of these cases from our campaign. So women being abused for dowry need to save themselves and their daughters.
4. Know the dowry laws
If you are planning to get married soon make sure you know the dowry laws, what your rights are and how you can protect yourself. Click here for a post that gives you all this information.
5. Speak the truth about your safety to your parents directly
Finally, if you are in a situation like the school teacher in the letter above, you need to speak the truth to your parents directly. Do not beat around the bush with excuses and explanations. You need to tell them directly, that they are gambling with your safety and putting your life in danger. And that no parent who loves their daughter can do this! Make sure they know that even if they do not understand this, you will not marry this man. Your parents cannot force you. If they do, it is illegal. Get out of the house immediately, and find a friend who will understand and support you. If your parents persist, file a police complaint against them.
In December 2012, the women of India came out on to the streets demanding protection from rape and violence. When women are tortured daily for dowry, the violence is not just physical and emotional. It is also sexual! Most sexual violence on women and girls happens within the homes and families. The women of India need to understand that our fight for our right to safety has to begin with our own families first!