Burn the Dowry, Spare the Bride

India – a country of contrasts – shows you a myriad of colours. It is home to many highly educated and intelligent people, as well as to many who are illiterate, poor, hungry and troubled. India boasts the beautiful Himalayas, deep blue seas, green forests and glistening rivers, but also acres of slums and dry and parched lands.

The country is also famous for its big, fat Indian weddings – a major and thriving industry. But in India, the dowry system is an ever-present menace which frequently changes shape to adapt to society. Increasingly, dowry is being masked by more socially acceptable norms, such as gift-giving.

A car for your daughter to travel in.

A house for your daughter to live comfortably in.

Gold jewellery to give her security in the future.

These lines by a groom’s family mask dowry demands as gifts. How difficult would it be to understand that this was extortion? The bride’s family had no intention of giving such ‘gifts’ to their daughter. But now they have been made to make them!

The girl’s family may find it easy to turn a blind eye, and to tell themselves that they are simply gifting their daughter. Who else did they earn money for all their life? Their daughter needs to get married after all! It is the most important identity for a woman. She may be well educated, earning enough to feed an entire family, raising the bar at her workplace, but if she’s unmarried she is viewed by many as incomplete.

For some, it ends on the wedding day. The groom and his family’s ego have been appeased. The newlyweds go on to live a happy life. But for some others, the demands continue. The first festival, the first child, the naming ceremony, the first house that the new couple build, and at every other occasion – the bride’s family must gift again. Sweets, clothes, gold, cash – the list is endless. If the parents are unable to provide, the woman is often packed off back to her mother’s house, not to return till the demands are met. Some are physically and emotionally abused; beaten, starved and even burnt.

India has had a long battle against dowry – an unsuccessful one. Legislations have been made and amended. But the practice seems to be growing. It has spared no economic or social group. The battle lines must now be altered. What can be done when law has not eradicated the problem? Why not focus on the one link that can be our biggest asset? The bride’s parents!

This is a call to parents of every girl child in every country where the dowry system is flourishing. Why should we not say no? It starts with the birth of our daughters. Let us give them a good education, a good upbringing, a happy and safe environment at home and combine all this with a good dose of self confidence and self esteem. Let us say no to any potential groom and his family who talk about marriage like a business transaction. Let us stand strong and firm so our daughters learn from us to say no.

Let us teach them that life throws us many challenges. That we are all supposed to enjoy the journey of life – marriage is never the final destination. It is one part of our journey. Let us give our daughters the confidence to walk out of a marriage where they are being abused and harassed for dowry, knowing that it is not the end of the world. Let there be no more burned brides, hanged brides, poisoned brides or strangulated brides.

Maybe the power has been with us all along. It is time to exercise it. To show the world that every single woman’s life matters. Let us bring forth a change, and let us start at home.

In Conversation with Brisa De Angulo

Content note: this post contains reference to sexual abuse and violence 

“I was raped and tortured repeatedly as a child. When I broke the silence, no one wanted to help me, not the judiciary and not the police. No one wanted to take my case, so I went to law school and today I am suing the government of Bolivia. Today, I also run an organisation which helps other girls where we now have a conviction rate of 95 percent in the cases we prosecute. Researchers need to speak to victims, because no one understands what it is like and no one understands how it hurts when someone touches you.” – Brisa De Angulo

There was great power in the soft yet triumphant voice which filled the room during the opening ceremony of the fifth Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) forum (18-22 September 2017). The tweet I was putting together felt irrelevant. I put my phone down as I listened with a knot in my stomach. I felt pain hearing the words but also a sense of awe and inspiration as the thirty-two year old woman in front of me told her story, which is truly one of victory.

Before SVRI, I must admit I had never heard this story, nor had I even come close to understanding the dark world so many young women and girls in Bolivia face. Brisa captured the audience with a tale I will never forget: the reality of a young girl repeatedly raped and tortured by a family member – a youth pastor who lived with her family – when she was just fourteen years old.

Brisa eventually broke her silence when she turned seventeen. She simultaneously started a centre for young girls in similar situations and courageously disrupted Bolivian legislation. Today, Brisa stands before us to let us in on her most vulnerable and tumultuous experiences. To tell us about the discrimination she faced, the lack of support from institutions meant to protect citizens, the way her case was referred to an agricultural and livestock court (which deals with animals), how her community burnt her house down to silence her.

But also to tell us how she used these experiences to change laws, to take her case to the supreme court of law, to sue the Government of Bolivia in the Inter-American System. To tell us how she has transformed and continues to transform the lives of so many other survivors.

Brisa (left) with Shakira (right). Photo credit: Shakira Choonara

When I went to bed that night, I could not fall asleep thinking of Brisa’s story. I reached for the conference app (yes, thank goodness for technology) and requested a meeting, to which she agreed enthusiastically. I could not believe it. I knew that this story absolutely had to be told and shared with the world to bring to light exactly what violence against women means, but also as an example of what it will take to tackle violence head on.

Sitting across from Brisa, I could not help but admire her humility, her honesty but most of all her quiet yet powerful strength. Below are excerpts of my conversation with a true activist and change-maker:

“Sometimes I find it difficult to speak about this, other times not so much. My parents took me to the United States to visit my brothers. They could see that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what. I eventually told them what had happened. They didn’t want to go back to Bolivia, but I knew that if we didn’t go back it would mean that the perpetrator wins. It was difficult, I stopped eating, I didn’t go to school, and I tried to commit suicide.

When we went back to Bolivia we had to stay in a hotel. The perpetrator continued to stay in our house. The first prosecutor I went to see was a female and she interrogated me for six hours, she asked me questions, even blamed me. I faced a lot of discrimination that continues till today, I am often seen as less because of my experiences. But my greatest source of strength is my parents. They have always supported me. I started legal proceedings, but even that was difficult. The perpetrator is now a fugitive but is still a pastor, and I wonder how many other girls he is doing this to.

I started an organisation in Cochabamba where other girls with similar experiences could come and find support. Today it is still running and makes a huge difference but funding is a problem. At the end of this year we may lose fifty percent of our funding.

Today I am a lawyer, we ensure prosecutions for over 95 percent of cases, but I still have a huge long-term aspiration: I want to eradicate sexual violence completely. The first step is for each of us to break the silence. But another issue is that we have all this data and research—I was also a researcher, so I know all the data—but I keep asking how will this data translate into impact and change the situation?”

Brisa raises critical questions many of us in the field of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) need to consider, but I believe her activism offers several important lessons, especially one of the transformation from victim to survivor to leader.

Learn more about Brisa’s story and her work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJdwxgDeay8

Gender Based Violence: What you need to know

What is Gender Based Violence?

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms used interchangeably. However, it is important to recognise that men can experience abuse from women, and abuse within same sex relationships happens at similar rates to heterosexual relationships.

That said, it has been widely acknowledged that the majority of people affected by gender-based violence are women and girls. This is due to unequal distribution of power in society between women and men. Women have fewer options and less resources to avoid abusive situations and seek justice. They also face challenges to their sexual and reproductive health, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, sexual assault, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, female genital mutilation (FGM), and higher risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

Youth for Change works in the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh. We focus on three areas under gender based violence; child/early forced marriage, FGM and sexual consent.

What about Child/Early Forced Marriage and FGM?

Both child/early forced marriage (CEFM) and FGM are forms of gender based violence. They are driven by gender inequality and social expectations of what it means to be a girl. They are means of controlling girls’ sexuality often linked to cultural, religious or traditional social norms.

Some communities believe forced marriage and FGM is a way of providing a safer future for their daughters. In reality they are both violations of girls’ rights which have devastating consequences. Both forced marriage and FGM make girls more likely to drop out of school, face violence, health problems, and experience complications during pregnancy. Neither are religious practices, they are cultural traditions.

Approximately 700 million women alive today were married as children while 200 million women were cut. Both issues are widespread around the world, including  Europe, Africa, Asia and the US.

And what about Sexual Consent?

Educating young people on sexual consent prevents gender based violence. Consent is about communication. And it should happen every time. Giving consent for one activity, one time, does not mean giving consent for increased or recurring sexual contact. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future. When consent is not given, this leads to sexual assault or rape.

What links these forms of GBV together?

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to their own body. This basic principle applies to all forms of gender based violence. Including FGM and forced marriage.

What are we doing about it?

As Youth for Change we have been campaigning across the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh, aiming to end FGM and forced marriage, and to make sure young people know their sexual rights. We look at these issues on a country-by-country basis. As youth activists we focus on the issues in the countries where we live. For example, the Bangladesh youth team focus on child marriage, as it is the most prevalent issue there.

Young people have a crucial role to play in ending gender based violence. We have been raising awareness about the impacts within communities and empowering young people to speak out against it. Working with our governments in each country, we are pushing for stronger policies and systems to prevent gender based violence happening in the first place.

In the UK, where I am an activist, we have a campaign called #TrainToProtect, which calls for compulsory FGM and forced marriage training for teachers across the UK. The new Sexual Relationships Education (SRE) Bill in the UK will see SRE taught to students in all schools. But in order to deliver quality SRE, including on FGM and forced marriage, and to respond to any disclosures from students – teachers must have the necessary training.

Want to help?

For those based in the United Kingdom: teachers and students can take part in our 2 min survey to have your say on SRE education!

For more information or support on any of these issues: 

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org

For detailed guidance on consent visit Consent is Everything

Visit the NHS for detailed information on FGM

Childline information on Forced Marriage

GOV UK guidance on Forced Marriage

Gemma Munday is a member of the Youth for Change youth team, advocating against gender based violence. She also works in communications for youth-led development agency Restless Development. Here she supports young people around to world to capture and share their stories of change. Previously she has worked in UNICEF UK’s media team and was selected as a digital ambassador for UN Women. With a history of working with young people, Gemma has taught in an additional needs school and worked as a mentor for underprivileged youth.

Always a Survivor

When he touched her,
She never wanted it, but that was never his concern.

When he raped her,
He said he was strong and he could do anything he wanted.
He tried to take away her dreams.

He thought he had the power to destroy her world.
He said, “If you don’t marry me, no one else will take you.”

She was not ashamed.
She cleaned up her tears and stood tall.
She achieved her goals,
Crossing them off, one by one.

When he saw her again, he asked:
“You have a bad reputation now, right?
Nobody married you, right?
I warned you.”

She said with a smile:
“I heard you got married.
Does your wife know who you really are?
I don’t have a bad name. I am a teacher.
I am teaching your son to respect women.
Because I don’t want anyone to be like you.”

He looked at the woman’s bold face.
He could never believe
That one day she would become the heroine of her own life.

Photo credit: Free Women Writers

Zahra Wakilzada is a sophomore in high school, an aspiring writer and poet, and a member of Free Women Writers.