In India, the caste system, dowries, and arranged marriages are sustaining a hostile environment for women in the country.
Immersing yourself in a culture or population to find out its needs and not imposing your beliefs upon others are lessons that have been vital in my study and practice of public service and public health. As cultures come together and the world grows smaller, this is not the time to abandon tradition, pass judgment, or foster hatred. Throughout history, fear and misunderstanding of differences have cost our world far too much. However, the shrinking of the world has also created an opportunity to investigate the fine line between tradition and injustice. Injustices can be passed on under the guise of tradition, and are costing individuals opportunities, health, and in some cases even their lives. These things need to be talked about.
It is an accepted practice for men of India’s Perna caste to “pimp” their wives as a way to earn income for the family. A detailed article in the Pacific Standard examines the lives of Perna women and includes the following quotes:
“She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17…two years later, his prostitute”.
“I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”
“It happens to every girl.”
“You get used to it.”
The article also explains why an entire village was absent of women ages 15-45. “They are all in Bombay…” Families are paid, sometimes as little as $50 for their daughters. In Calcutta (also known as Kolkata) and Bombay (also known as Mumbai), the girls are priced according to beauty and age. “Pimps (give) them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between 9 and 13 years old, (are) then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.”
A recent BBC article revealed that women in Kerala, India, are being abandoned by their husbands at an alarming rate. Due to economic hardship in the area, men are getting married, taking their dowries, and moving elsewhere to find work, often times never returning. The women of Kerala, who are told that the most important aspect of their lives is to become a wife, have now lost everything. These women lack opportunity to create a life independent of their husbands, and are currently facing high rates of depression.
To me, the dowry suggests that women are inferior to men, and it often costs women much more than its monetary worth.
Outright violence such as dowry killings that occur if a man believes he should have been paid a larger dowry, or families being torn apart because of dowry discrepancies, are some of the severe consequences of dowry practice. What I hope to present here, is the problem with a tradition that creates a lack of opportunity and independence for women and sends out the message that prostituting and abandoning your wife is acceptable. This is the underlying dilemma.
Buying and selling of women is a global phenomenon. As we work to eradicate this problem, usually occurring behind closed doors, we must remember that it is also occurring in plain sight. Women are bought and sold in broad day light under the guise of marriage.
Rukshira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, an organization that creates alternative opportunities for children of sex workers in New Dehli, explains that women in India are in danger from conception to death. “They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they’ll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows.”
A ‘Women in the World’ article outlines inadequacies in current legislation aimed at protecting women in India, and how the caste system is playing a role in its failures.
What will it take to improve the status of women in India? Where should the line be drawn between custom and injustice?
*All images by Liz Fortier. People portrayed in the images are not related to the post.