The paint on the wall behind her is peeling. She sits in a blue plastic chair in the village women's cooperative. As she looks out the window, the afternoon sun's rays illuminate the left side of her body. The skin on her face and upper body is mottled, paper thin and covered with hyper-pigmented scar tissue.
"I don't look like this because of an accident," she says.
Twenty years ago her husband told her she hadn't paid an adequate dowry, threw a bucket of kerosene on her and set her on fire.
Meera remembers burning until she fell unconscious.
Her husband then took her to the hospital. He gave her a choice—tell the truth and lose your children or lie so you can see them again. Meera lied.
Meera, 43, comes from a small village called Rajokri outside Delhi. It is a rural iron ore worker community of 12,800 people. She is a statistic who has not been counted—a sequestered victim of "dowry violence" or "bride burning."
I witnessed the results of this violence firsthand seven years ago during my surgical rotation at a government hospital in Karnataka as a second-year medical student. The female burns ward was always full. The smell was unmistakable—a combination of betadine, silver sulfadiazine and burnt flesh. While dressing wounds, I heard stories of women immolated by their husbands or their in-laws because of an inadequate dowry or "groom price."
The memory of that ward and the violence that these women suffered never left me. After earning my MPH last spring, I returned to India to unearth the stories of dowry violence victims. I traveled to the cities of Delhi and Mumbai and spoke to survivors, lawyers, NGO workers, doctors and patients to try to understand the problem and hopefully find seeds for its solution.
The practice of paying dowries in India is based on ancient tradition. It was originally a Hindu religious requirement in the Manusmriti, a text dating to 1500 BC that delineated the way of life and laws for Hindus. Among the ancient Hindus, presenting gifts to each other during a wedding was a required cultural practice. The daughter's father was expected to expensively clothe and bejewel his daughter, and a son's father was expected to give the bride's family a cow and a bull.
Over time, when a woman left for her husband's home, she was given money, jewelry and property (referred to as stree-dhan) to help ensure her financial independence after marriage. However the practice of dowry devolved from a means of financial emancipation for a bride to a modern system of transactions and groom prices, says Anjali Dave, an associate professor of Women's Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. "The woman has been disallowed control over the finances that she brought with her to the marriage," Dave says. "Marriage is like a livelihood for [today's] Indian woman."
During negotiations between the groom's and bride's families, the "price" is agreed upon verbally and never as a written contract. (The practice of paying a dowry in India was outlawed in 1961.) Although the amount is paid to the groom's family at the time of marriage, the demands often increase after the bride arrives at her husband's home. If the demands are not met, the bride may suffer. "The violence ranges from brutal beatings, emotional torture, withholding money, throwing them out of the house, keeping them away from their children, keeping mistresses openly," or in extreme cases, "burning the wife alive," says Savra Subratikaan, a helpline worker at a women's rights organization in New Delhi.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 8,233 dowry deaths in 2012—in other words, one wife is killed every 60 minutes. However, since social and cultural taboos discourage women from reporting cases, the 8,233 cases represent only the tip of a predominantly submerged iceberg.
Metropolitan Marriage Markets
In New Delhi, I met a woman named Pooja who wanted to tell me her story. We met on a Saturday in her office in a sleek multistoried, glass building in the heart of New Delhi's business district. Pooja sat in her office dressed in a button-down professional shirt and tailored pants. After looking down at her hands for a few minutes, she looked up and smiled. She was ready to tell her story.
In 2011 her parents arranged a "match" for her. She was to be married to one of her distant relatives whom her family had known for the last 20 years. Her fiancé was an educated city man with a good job in New Delhi. Pooja was 24, had just completed her master's in business administration at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade and was working at a prestigious health insurance firm. The wedding was typical of her family's Marwari traditions—loud, large and expensive. The joy did not last.
"You know, girls in India have a dream boy in their head which never becomes a reality," says Pooja.
It is common for a bride to move to her in-laws and husband's house after marriage as part of an extended family. Eight days after the wedding, Pooja began to feel uneasy entering her new home. Her husband would shout at her for no reason, her in-laws would leave her no dinner when she came home from work, and eventually her in-laws stopped speaking to her. "I never realized what the problem was. I don't like to cause problems," she says.
The basis of her "problem," Pooja found out later, was the inadequacy of the dowry that she had brought with her. She learned indirectly through her relatives that her mother-in-law had told them that she "hadn't brought sufficient things from [her] family." She told herself that her husband would support her. But shortly into the marriage, as he was driving her to work, he threw her out of his car and told her to get her parents to buy her a new car. "A person whom you have entrusted your entire life to, doing this and abusing you in public makes you feel terrible," she says.
Pooja realized that her in-laws had asked for her hand, not because she was a suitable bride but because her salary and net worth were high. "The entire intention was to extract my salary," she says. The jewelry that she had brought with her at the time of marriage was locked away by her mother-in-law. She was made to give up her savings and to be a co-borrower for her husband's student loan. In spite of all that she had paid, she finally came home one day to find that she had been thrown out of the house. With nowhere else to go, she turned to her parents.
"Returning to your parents' home after marriage is still a big stigma in India," she says. But she didn't know what else to do. Fortunately, her parents took her back. She had been aware that the dowry issue still existed for many brides in India, but she didn't think she, an educated city girl, would fall victim to it.
"When someone is parting with their daughter, he is giving you the most precious possession of his life. Why should dowry come into the picture?" Pooja asks.
How Much is the "Right" Price?
The going rate for a dowry in today's Indian marriage market varies according to one's socioeconomic position. "Society decides and confirms the dowry rates," says Pratibha Gajbhiye, a program coordinator with TISS for the rural "women's cells" in police stations in Maharashtra state. The dowry amount in rural areas depends on the education level of the prospective groom. If the groom is a doctor or engineer, the dowry could be 5-7 lakhs (about US$7,900 to US$11,000), she says. A 70-year-old village woman in Rajokri proudly announced to me that she had given her daughter a motorcycle, half a kilo of gold and a bed as a dowry.
Less wealthy grooms demand smaller dowries, but still it's a hardship for poor families. Another Rajokri resident told me that the cheapest motorcycle costs 50,000 INR (about US$800)—an astronomical price for the average family of five, which daily earns about 100 INR (US$1.58).
So how do parents manage to raise the money? "People sell land and get bankrupt after marriage," notes Dave, the TISS professor. "Dalit communities [lower caste in India] lease their sons into bonded labor to get money for their daughter's wedding. In Vidarba, Maharashtra, where cotton farmers were committing mass suicide because of failing crops, research found that their debt had accumulated because of the increased price of dowry."
The societal affliction of dowry colors the life of an Indian woman not only at the time of her marriage but throughout her life. A girl is seen as an encumbrance to the family. The birth of the girl child more often than not warrants judiciously saving for her future marriage. Parents take loans, sell land and fall into deep debt in order to save for their daughter's dowry. Many girls are killed at birth because of the dowry's financial burden.
And for those who survive, poor nutrition, abuse and illiteracy remain problems in rural areas especially.
Rashmi Misra, the founder of a woman's empowerment- and education-centered NGO in New Delhi, explains how girls are denied food so that their brothers will have enough to eat. They are also discouraged from going to school because they are usually married off early. "I remember speaking to two slum girls in Delhi and they said to me, 'We're girls. We don't need to go to school. Only boys should go to school,'" she recalls.
Prospects of emancipation that come from a young girl's education are lost, making her financially dependent on her future husband.
A Means to an End
In talking with Pooja, Meera and others, I could not understand what would lead a husband or his family members to attempt to kill a bride by burning her.
At Mahila Panchayat, the women's cooperative in Rajokri, Anjali (no relation to Anjali Dave) gave me two answers: Power and greed.
"Both play into the violence. The husband and in-laws, after repeatedly abusing the wife, ultimately try to kill her and burn her to death so that once she dies the man can marry again and receive a new, adequate dowry," Anjali told me. Since a huge social stigma is attached to divorce in India, she explained, some husbands would rather kill their wives than divorce them.
Dowry violence in India is not limited to the uneducated or the poor; it infects all socioeconomic strata. Among the wealthy, the "market value" of grooms is paid via cash, commodities and property. "The richest in Delhi pay for their daughter's husband in the form of a Mercedes, furnished apartments and hard cash," explains Misra.
Adds Dave: "Globalization and the market economy have escalated dowry prices to an amount that you and I can't comprehend."
On July 6, 2013, the Times of India reported that a former Miss World winner, Yukta Mookhey, accused her husband of dowry harassment, saying she had only received 2 lakhs (US$3,200) of the 2 crore (US$317,000) that she took as dowry. She told the Times that she left him when "he was threatening to take my child away from me, was threatening my life."
Less than two weeks later another woman, Gitanjali Garg, was found dead in a park, beaten with sticks and shot three times. She was the wife of an influential and wealthy chief judicial magistrate of Gurgaon, a city 30 kilometers south of Delhi. An attempt was made to cover up the case as a suicide—leaving Gitanjali's family to ask why she would shoot herself three times if she wanted to commit suicide. The family has now booked a case of dowry violence against Ravneet Garg (Gitanjali's husband) and his parents.
The dowry included two cars: a Skoda Laura gifted at the time of wedding, and after more demands and harassment, a Skoda Superb.
Missing Numbers and Criminal Laws
Meera, the victim from Rajokri, had done everything she could. She and her family paid a dowry at the time of marriage. She sold her jewelry at her husband's request and even tried to raise more money for him.
When she returned from the hospital six months after her husband immolated her, she found him living in their house with another woman. But she has nowhere else to go, so she remains there. Her husband periodically throws her out of the house, sometimes even in the middle of the night. Every day she lives in fear.
Still, she is reluctant to tell the truth about what happened the night he set her on fire. "What will my children think of their father and of me? What will society say about me?" she says.
Like Meera, many survivors attribute their burns to accidents or attempted suicide. Societal norms, the "sanctity" of marriage and a lack of personal income prevent rural women from telling the truth.
Even when doctors find evidence to support an act of dowry violence, many do not report it, says Manoj Ahire, a senior lecturer and senior surgical resident at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Hospital in Mumbai. In many cases doctors find that the pattern of burns does not match the woman's claims, but they are not expected to report this. In a court of law, doctors are only asked to comment on whether the patient was fully conscious and able to make a statement to the police.
Urban women have their own challenges. Subratikaan, with the women's rights organization, says: "The [urban] cases who call come from very poor slum areas and very rich people as well. The only difference is that the rich live in big houses where the screams can't be heard, and the poor live in small chawls [slum tenements] where everyone knows when a woman wails. The rich have society constraints where they don't want to come forward until they have suffered extreme violence. The calls that come in usually are frustrated women who don't know where to turn, or who have been turned away by the police."
When it comes to reporting the crime, women face great hurdles. Pooja says she was harassed by female police at the women's cell in New Delhi. They mocked her and told her to withdraw her case because that would be better for her reputation. When she finally filed her First Investigative Report (FIR), the police delayed taking the case to court.
Pooja told me that she would talk about this issue publicly but doesn't see the point. The law is not on her side, and neither is society. "I was tormented, but my tormentors are allowed to walk away freely. How is this justice?" she asks.
The legal system in India technically has multiple provisions to deal with dowry giving and the violence associated with it. In 1961, the Dowry Prohibition Act made demanding or giving a dowry as a pre-condition for marriage unlawful. Sections 498a of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) decrees that any death of a woman within the first seven years of the marriage will be considered by default to be because of dowry harassment; and Section 304b IPC deals with cruelty against the bride. Both laws were meant to serve as preventive measures—but the chasm between legal policies and implementation remains large and difficult to cross.
The disconnect between the reality in India and the laws is evident in the construction of the seven- year time frame for penalizing dowry crimes. Dave says, "How was the number seven [years] in section 498a arrived at? Dowry violence continues throughout a woman's married life in many cases."
This is true of Saraswati, another resident of Rajokri village. Saraswati was married at the age of 16 and endured physical and mental abuse because of dowry extortion for 23 years. At the end of the 23 years of marriage, her husband walked out on her, leaving her alone to fend for herself and their three children. "How will I go to a lawyer?" she says, " I have to work seven days a week for my family to live hand to mouth and going to the courts requires me to take a whole day off from work."
Women like Saraswati deal with dowry violence in two ways, says Winnie Singh, the cofounder of Maitri, an NGO in New Delhi: "They either never report it because of societal pressures, or report it and have to deal with the incompetency of the police force and the legal system in India."
Adds Monica, a pro-bono lawyer who works with her and does not use a last name as a personal statement against patriarchy: "The laws are biased toward men because of the patriarchy that is entrenched in Indian culture. The laws are in place but the onus of trying to prove that a woman was harassed or killed because of a dowry is on the woman or her family."
The dowry tradition impacts a woman's health through all her life stages. Before birth, it comes in the form of sex-selective abortions. During the first few years of her life, it manifests itself in infanticide, malnutrition, illiteracy and abuse. As adolescents, girls are often overworked and not given opportunities because they are considered a financial burden. Once married, many women have to deal with the physical, emotional or financial violence that can lead to mental health issues.
A Mystery Still Unsolved—Solutions
So entwined in modern culture, so steeped in history, the dowry tradition and its too-frequent violence seems almost ineradicable. At the root of dowry violence is the perception of a woman and her worth in India. The ideology of women's subservience permeates all social classes.
It will be impossible to stop dowry violence until there is a "substantial shift in gender norms," says Vijayendra Rao, PhD, a lead economist at the World Bank who has worked extensively on dowry violence and gender equity. Providing women with options outside of marriage, he argues, would form a strong foundation for increasing their social perception in India as one of value. Female education, reducing gender discrimination in the workplace and providing child care could be a few steps to help this process along, Rao says. The persuasion of community leaders that dowries are bad and unnecessary, too, will help. Legal and policy reforms are also necessary, including the use of special teams in police departments that work to reduce dowry violence, he says.
"A combination of changing mindsets through persuasion, changes in incentives via policy action, and outside enforcement of laws is required to stop dowries and violence against women in India," Rao says.