The Tragedy of being a Girl in India

It is said that India is the ‘most dangerous country in the world in which to be a girl’, a controversial United Nations finding based on a range of distressing social statistics rooted in gender and caste prejudice, much of which can be traced back to 18th century colonialism and the destructive ‘divide and rule’ methodology employed by the British.

Throughout the country and up and down the class-caste ladder the joy of parenthood is conditioned by the gender of the child. If a boy is born, delight amongst the family; if it’s a girl, anxiety and disappointment. The sole reason for this is economic; when girls marry (around 70% of marriages are still arranged in India), the family of the bride is expected to pay a sum of money to the groom’s family – whether they can afford it or not. This is the infamous dowry system, a corrupted illegal method of financial exploitation and violence that, like much else in this extraordinary country, is sanctified by the waters of tradition and culture (a manipulated term often employed to maintain prejudicial social conditioning and resist change), which was banned by the Indian government in 1961. And yet, like so many liberal legislative statements of intent, the system continues unabated. ‘The Dowry Prohibition Act‘ which makes clear that anyone giving or receiving a dowry faces five years in prison and a hefty fine, remains unenforced. In 1986 an amendment was added stating that any death of, or violence to, a wife within the first seven years of marriage would be treated as dowry violence. Indifference, apathy and corruption dog all areas of the many and varied government departments and offices; people have no faith in the police or the judicial system, resulting in the vast majority of dowry crimes, as with all crimes against women, going unreported.

Corrupt Colonial roots

When the British were enthroned in India they enacted various rules to control and divide the people. Two of these legislative tools of repression sit at the poisonous root of the dowry system and gender abuse more widely. In 1793 the British Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, introduced ‘The Permanent Settlement of Bengal’, one law of many known collectively as the Cornwallis Code. In the affected states it provided a means of collecting revenue and enabled in many cases for the first time the private ownership and commodification of land (“Notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it”, states Veena Talwar Oldenburg in Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime), which the British hoped would encourage good husbandry amongst landlords and strengthen the perilous agrarian economy. However, social division was reinforced, peasants who were at the mercy of landlords were ill-treated and exploited, land ownership became hereditary and therefore exclusive, the payment of tax mandatory, irrespective of feast or famine. Before this unjust law, the nation’s rulers would allow 10% tax revenue to be retained by the village official (Panchayat) who would use the money for the benefit of the villagers. The village “functioned on a system of reciprocity which operated like a social glue. After this changeover [imposed by Britain], a brother was no longer willing to share with a brother.”  Divide and rule!

At the same time, British shortsightedness, greed and societal ignorance allowed a law to be introduced prohibiting women to own land and property. Giving men exclusive land and property rights as well as responsibility for tax/revenue collection created acute gender imbalance, marginalized women and set the Indian male up as the dominant legal and, indeed, social subject, creating the patriarchal country we see today.

This was the hammer-blow for women. In pre-colonial times they had been partners in landholding arrangements and – as perhaps one might expect – were the ones who chose their husband, received and kept the dowry payments – described “in the 1870s as a collection of voluntary gifts comprising clothes, jewellery, household goods and cash bestowed on the bride by family and friends at the time of the girl’s wedding.” This provided financial independence for women as well as a greater degree of social equality.  With the changes in property rights, girls and women – future wives – were seen by men and their families as potential income; greed and social division were created; boys became a financial asset, girls an economic liability. “The newly enhanced worth of sons saw families demanding cash, jewellery or expensive consumer durables and the situation has steadily worsened,“ Veena Talwar makes clear.

Denied all access to economic resources many women became homeless, all were completely dependent on their husbands, and if they suffered marital abuse or conflict, they had no recourse to law. As a result, a stream of gender and caste-based social abuses was set in motion which rage throughout the country to this day, causing extreme suffering to millions of girls and women.

Although the laws governing inheritance were reformed in 1956 it was not until 2005 that parity between men and women was established in law. However, due to poor education a mere 22% of women, UN Women found, are aware of their legal right to inherit land and property.

Devastating effects

A complex interrelated series of consequences flows from the social injustices perpetrated against young women in the 18th century: abortion of female babies; infanticide; trafficking; forced marriage and a range of sexual abuse – including rape – within the home and the wider community as well as parental neglect and domestic servitude.

Due to the fact that girls are seen as an economic burden and boys a source of income, girl babies have been aborted and murdered – female infanticide or Gendercide – in their millions in India. The Lancet estimates that 500,000 female fetuses are aborted in India every year. As a result, according to the BBC, “an estimated 25-50 million women in India are ‘missing’, if you compare the proportion of women in the population with other countries.” Staggeringly, Unicef believes 10 million girls, were killed by their parents in the last thirty years.

Infanticide – the willful killing of a child within the first year of its life is illegal throughout the world. The British outlawed it in India in 1870, but the practice is widespread (occurring, the UN estimates, in 80% of Indian States) and with the introduction of ultrasound in the 1980s this barbaric crime has only grown. It is illegal for Clinics and Doctors to tell parents the sex of the child, but many do so; if it’s a girl, her fate is uncertain, if it’s a boy – joy and relief amongst the parents. When infanticide was banned by the colonial government, they claimed the two chief causes of this inhumane act “were pride and purse. ‘Purse’ referred to the dowry. ‘Pride’, to pride of the upper castes and tribes that would rather murder female infants than give them to a rival group [caste or tribe] even in marriage.”

Girls who survive pregnancy and are kept by their parents often suffer mistreatment and neglect. Many are malnourished (India has the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world – Unicef) and denied medical treatment; girls are breast fed for a far shorter period than sons and feed less well “because they fear good nourishment will speed the advent of puberty and the need for a costly wedding. While boys are taken immediately to hospital, sick girls are kept waiting because their families do not have the same interest in their survival,” states Ranjana Kumari of the Council for Social Research. If limited food is available, it’s the girls who go hungry and suffer malnourishment, often leading to anaemia and stunted growth – leading to maternal and infant deaths, as well as low birth weight infants. Parents of girls are reluctant to send them to school fearing, if the school is some distance from home and the teachers are male, they may be sexually assaulted, so they are often kept at home and forced to carry out domestic chores. This has led to India having, at 67% (compared to 82% of men) one of the lowest levels of female literacy in the world. Lack of education directly affects the woman’s parenting skills and leads to poor child-care. Malnutrition and high infant mortality is a consequence as illiterate mothers fail to understand and exercise good health-promoting behavior, such as immunization and good personal hygiene.

Murdered or trafficked

UNICEF states that the killing of baby girls has reached genocidal proportions. It is a practice that has gone on “in central India for a long time, where mothers were made to feed the child with salt to kill the girl.” Various other gruesome methods of murder are employed, many dating back to the 18th century: stuffing the baby girl’s mouth with a few grains of coarse paddy causing the child to choke to death is one, poisoning, using organic or inorganic chemicals, drowning, suffocation, starvation and breaking the spinal cord, as well as burying the child alive. The criminal act of infanticide must (one feels) be traumatic for the parents, who faced with a distorted dowry system based on exploitation and greed, see no choice but to murder their daughters – and in their millions, leading to a serious gender imbalance in the country, with dreadful consequences. In 1991 The Huffington Post reports, “there were 947 girls for every 1000 boys;” in 2012 “that number had fallen to 914.”  Some sources put the ratio as low as 700 girls for every 1000 boys nationwide. The northern states of Punjab and Haryana are particularly affected; the BBC found that they “have the highest proportion of missing girls at birth. Rich and modern cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, and Ahmadabad show some of the worst child sex ratios,” and in over 3,600 villages in Gujarat, The Telegraph records “there are fewer than 800 girls for every 1000 boys under six years of age.” In one village boys outnumber girls four to one.

This regional imbalance has led to the abduction and trafficking of tens of thousands of girls and young women every year, from one State, where there are relatively more girls (West Bengal, for example, where in 2011 over 11,000 girls went missing), to another part of the country where, due to rampant female infanticide, there is a deficit. And the numbers are rising. Young women, often teenagers, are kidnapped and taken miles from home and forced to marry (often to be ‘shared’ between brothers), or trafficked into prostitution, as was Rukshana, who told the BBC how she was abducted by three men on the way home from school. “They showed me a knife and said they would cut me into pieces if I resisted,” she said. After a terrifying three-day journey they reached a house in the northern Indian state of Haryana where Rukhsana was sold to a family of four – a mother and her three sons. For one year she was not allowed to go outside. She says she was humiliated, beaten and routinely raped by the eldest of the three sons – who called himself her “husband.”

Millions of girls like Rukshana are the innocent victims of corrupted social practices dating back to the 18th century, practices that have been manipulated by a vehemently patriarchal society to control and suppress girls and women, especially those from the lower castes. All social systems and conventions in India flow around a central divisive core, which is caste – Dalit and Advivasi (indigenous) women have a particularly hard time of it.

The dowry system sits at the rotting heart of many of the interrelated problems girls and women, and indeed families generally face, and whilst it is difficult to break down so-called ancient cultural practices – no matter how destructive they may be – it is clear the criminal treatment of girls and women in India is a national crisis and requires urgent action. The demanding of dowry must come to an end (it is also a major factor in the rampant suicides amongst small-holder farmers); it is no more than financial extortion, a criminal act that should be seen as such, and families who insist on dowry payments must be brought to justice. The Indian government is happy to pass all manner of laws, but until there is the political will to enforce them they remain largely meaningless gestures.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.