In July, 2013 as part of a project with the Pulitzer on Crisis Reporting I began to document personal stories of victims of dowry violence in India. With the help of the Mahila Panchayat, a grassroots women’s rights organization in Rajokri [New Delhi], I was able to speak with Saraswati*. She wanted her story to be told unchanged. I have let her words explain the anguish and pain that is suffered by thousands of women in India on account of dowry extortion.
I woke up early in the morning filled with anticipation and excitement. The orange red hues filtered through the dust motes in the air. The ceremonial application of turmeric to my body would begin in three hours. I skipped out of bed to wear the new sari my father had bought for me. By tonight I would have red vermillion in the parting of my hair and leave for my new home. I am 16 and ready to leave my village of Raipurana [in the state of Uttar Pradesh] to go with my husband to Rajokri [New Delhi].
It has been 23 years since the day I got married. My husband walked out on me and my two children last year. He said I had not brought enough “dahej” [dowry] with me. He had thought that since I had five brothers who would’ve received dowry, my father would send me off with a large dowry. I don’t know which is worse—living without him or having lived with him. But today I feel compelled to finally stand with my head held high and tell you my story.
I got married in the year 1990 and the only thing that was consistent about my marriage was the beating. My husband used to come home every evening and not give me a single rupee. I had no way to feed my first born, [at that time a] two-year old son. He used to hit me constantly and say that my father hadn’t given me any dowry. He was insistent in his questions to me about why he should treat me well when I brought no “dahej.” I was worthless.
I thought I could make the marriage work. I didn’t want to alarm my parents. He never let me go to see them anyway. He said that my parents hadn’t given us anything so I shouldn’t be allowed to go home on his expense. I sold all my jewelry for him to buy land in Rajokri. There was $160 left and he wasted it buying alcohol. He would never go to work and when he did he never gave me anything to spend on household expenses.
I wanted to feed my children. I had two boys by then. I couldn’t let them starve anymore. So I decided to go and work as a menial laborer during the day. I made sure he never knew I was going to work. I worked so hard those years; I ate no lunch every day. What little money I could save I used to feed my children and send them to school. When my husband found out that I had been earning [money], he beat me all night. He said if I wanted to work and earn money I should go away, that he had no place in his house for me. He said I was already worthless as a bride with no dowry and now I was taking away his manhood as well. I began to wonder if he was right. I didn’t know what to do anymore.
Every day was a struggle to just get out of bed in the morning. Why was I being treated so badly when I was doing everything in my power to keep him happy? My heart was getting more distant. And then one day he said we should sell the land and move to his father’s village. I wanted my children to have a future. If they were educated they could get a job — even if not a government job something in the private sector. I refused and then he left me.
I was shattered. I couldn’t for the world of me think of how I could survive without a husband with three children. My life, as terrible as it was, seemed bleaker. And then I began to think what was the point of living with a man like this. I had my children and that was enough. My goal was to take care of them, educate them and make sure they could one day stand on their own two feet.
Today I work as a security guard in a mall in New Delhi city. I wake up in the morning make sure my children get to school, finish the housework and leave for duty till the evening. My oldest son has just begun his Bachelors of Arts degree, my second son is in the tenth grade and my daughter is in the eighth grade. I am so proud of them. My oldest son dreams of being on the Indian Cricket team someday. My children are my greatest strength and support. They tell me all the time now not to let their father into the house again.
With the help of the Mahila Panchayat [women’s rights organization] in Rajokri village New Delhi, I became more self-sufficient and confident. I enrolled in school and have now completed my studies through tenth grade. I don’t earn much but I want the work that I do to be honest so I am known for the quality of my work. With my hard work I will bring my children up to be well educated and strong.
I really do want to go to a lawyer and get my rights. Towards the end, my husband had emptied our bank account of the last of our savings. The Mahila Panchayat members helped me understand that it was illegal for a man to extort me and torture me for dowry. I tried to go to a lawyer once and set a court date. Attending a court date requires me to take a whole day off from work at least twice or thrice in a month. How will I feed my children if I lose a day’s wages? I work seven days a week including Sundays. I do not have the time to go to court and sit all day waiting for years for me to get anywhere in the case. So I decided to just leave it. There is no way I will receive justice and I have made my peace with that today.
*Saraswati’s surname has been withheld to protect her identity and for her security.