By Lyric Thompson, advocate with Amnesty USA and the International Center for Research on Women
This blog was previously posted on The Dollhouse Dispatch
On a trip to Mumbai a few months ago, we went to the south to see the sights and enjoy a bit of the other Mumbai – the posh life of Bollywood, rooftop bars and fancy hotels. The king of these hotels is the Taj. We went inside to take a peek at the floor-to-ceiling flower arrangements that are changed daily, the stunning Indian architecture, the fancy shops and the view from the roof.
And then we glimpsed a wedding taking place. The bride and groom were decked out in exquisite silks, the bride draped in gold necklaces, bangles, bindi, earrings and more. Roses and orchids hung in strings from everything that stood still, and large troughs of perfumed water lined the floor, filled with rose petals. Stunning.
This scene is the ideal — every bride’s dream wedding at the Taj, festooned with flowers, every guest bedecked in gold and silk, a feast for the eyes and days of feasting for the guests. The cover page of my newspaper on Saturday was dedicated to a full-page advertisement for “Bollywood Weddings Now at Every Price,” and the culture section began with an advertisement for diamonds: “The woman in your life deserves the best. A real-life diva, she gives to you in multifaceted ways. Get her a diamond today.”
If only the picture of marriage were so rosy for everyone. Even if you’re not doing diamond-decked luxury at the Taj, the cost of a wedding and dowry is enough to drive poor and lower-income families into serious debt. Or, thanks to increasingly accessible advances in technology like the ultrasound and abortions, it is enough to drive you to abort your female foetuses and avoid the prospect of economic ruin altogether.
India has taken female foeticide to a new level: billboards advertising ultrasound technology encourage families to pay a little now to save a lot later. The female-to-male ratio here is among the lowest in the world – 860 girls to 1000 boys (there are normally slightly more girls than boys born if you don’t play with nature). On a global level, the World Bank’s 2012 World Development report estimates that there are nearly 4 million “missing women” each year, more than a third of which is due to son preference and sex-selective abortions (“About two-fifths are never born due to a preference for sons, a sixth die in early childhood, and over a third die in their reproductive years”).
If the female foetus makes it to term, survives childbirth, is sufficiently fed and immunised and actually survives the first five years, then there’s the prospect of child marriage lurking round the corner. Roughly 10 million girls are wed before the age of 18 around the world each year. Child brides are less likely to receive a full education and have skills to support themselves, and are much more likely to die in childbirth as their own bodies are still developing. Though country rankings for child marriage tend to focus on percentage of child brides of overall population (India is 17th at 44.5% of girls married before 18), research by ICRW emphasises the importance of looking at the number of child brides and at-risk girls, where India fares worst due to its huge population and continued prevalence of the practice.
Evidence shows girls who stay in school longer delay marriage. But school is only supported to the 7th grade in India, whereupon families have to take on the cost of educating children and children often have to travel outside of their local neighbourhood to attend classes. For poor girls, this often spells the end of their education – families are either unwilling to pay for girls’ education (they’re just going to get married off and not contribute to the household) or they are prevented from travelling outside of the neighbourhood for their own “protection.”
The times they are a’changin’, however: there have been two reported incidents this year of groups of girls running away from home together in order to pursue their dreams, go to school and get jobs, citing “family neglect.” One incident, reported in the paper in March, said the group of girls left a letter saying they wanted to pursue education and jobs so they could ”stand on their own two feet.” Some school-based programs ICRW has evaluated here have shown girls increasingly able to negotiate with their parents to stay in school longer and delay their marriages (although we don’t condone running away as a matter of institutional policy!).
The concept of girls being kept in the home for their own protection is an interesting one. Our research shows girls are indeed targeted for harassment and assault on their way to school and that teachers are often the perpetrators in school as well. Yet the main concern is often family honour. My colleague Dylan is doing a study in India on anaemia in adolescent girls, to determine if this can be a marker for other social development problems like abuse and child marriage. The girls she’s interviewing tell her it doesn’t matter what happens to a girl –whether she’s good or bad, assaulted or not – only what is perceived by the community. A girl child embodies the family’s honour, and if she is raped on the way to school or develops a relationship with a boy, the family is ruined. Many will not report the abuse, because it is a greater risk to report this publicly (and often the police won’t actually investigate); rather they opt to pretend like nothing happened and keep that honour intact. I remember a newspaper story about an incident in Madhya Pradesh where a mother did actually report the rape of her daughter on her way to school, only to be shot by her husband and brother-in-law for reporting the crime.
Also in the headlines a few months back: Indian marriage law will now cover women’s property rights (not previously recognised), and adopted children now have the same rights as biological children (they didn’t previously). In theory, women can now oppose a husband’s file for divorce, although husbands cannot do the same if women file. In an immediate demonstration of how policy does not necessarily equate with practice, the very same week a court found in favour of a husband who wanted to divorce his wife because she wasn’t giving him enough sex, and when she did she wasn’t “fully participating.” The court ruled that when women deny sex in marriage that is “cruelty, and grounds for divorce.” There is no legal recourse for marital rape in India.
Today in India, my colleagues tell me, there are two types of marriage: traditional, arranged marriage, and what is called “love marriage.” Most of my colleagues’ marriages were arranged, or some say “50-50,” — their parents set it up but they got to meet each other in advance, spend some time together and presumably they could have put on the brakes if some major issue were identified. Presumably.
One of the staff working for a partner organisation came into the office this week very upset. The joint project is ending soon, and she was worried that if she doesn’t get scheduled on another project she will have to leave Mumbai to return to her village and marry the man her family has selected for her. Much as we find education to be a negotiating platform for girls seeking to delay marriage and improve their prospects, economic opportunity is now a bargaining chip for women. As it has been for American women these last few decades, entry into the workforce and the opportunity to earn one’s own income is a new-found freedom and one of the only socially justifiable “escape routes” from a life of domestic servitude. A ray of hope, but for many girls, even this is not enough.