The Tragedy of Being a Girl in India

Roundup
tags: India, women



Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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 nations 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 was 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.




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