NEW DELHI, India, Jan. 4, Reuter: Married at 16 and abused from day one, Vidya Wati Sharma suffered beatings for 19 years before she summoned the courage to get out. She escaped minus the sight of one eye.
But for the intervention of villagers, Vidya is convinced she would have lost her life at the hands of her husband and in laws.
“It was because my parents could not give enough”, she said. “They said I came from a low family to give such a lousy dowry.”
The giving or taking of dowry and started struggling”, she said, but that has done little to stop what is widely regarded as a social evil.
Hundreds of Indian women like Vidya end up dead each year, many of them suffering horrible deaths after being doused in kerosene and burnt alive or driven to suicide.
In many case the police can never be sure what really happened. In the paragraph or two such deaths rate in India’s newspapers, they are usually termed “Kitchen Accidents”.
Delhi police have a special unit staffed by 100 officers devoted to combating crimes against women.
Deputy Police Commissioner Vimla Mehra who heads the crime women cell said the cause of 60 percent of cases is the failure of women’s families to satisfy in-laws’ insatiable desire for dowry cash and gifts.
At blame, according to women’s groups, is the passionate desire for consumer goods that many families can only satisfy by getting as much as possible in dowry for marrying their son.
Dowry can range in value from 200 to 500,000 rupees (15 to 38,000 dollars), depending on the bridegroom’s worth. In simple terms, a doctor is worth more in dowry than an engineer.
An anti-dowry advertising campaign running in the Indian newspapers graphically illustrates the problem with a picture of a young man with a “For Sale” notice across his chest.
‘Studies show that dowry demands coming on top of the huge cost of lavish Indian weddings are often out of all proportion to a family’s ability to pay and can cause economic ruin.
But worse problems come later, when the husband and his family, not satisfied with what they have extracted, begin to milk the bride’s parents for more. Humiliation and violence are their weapons.
Telling her story over the roar of traffic from the flyover above the dingy office of New Delhi’s Saheli Women’s Group, Vidya said: “My parents in law and my husband, they wanted to kill me from the beginning of my marriage”.
Eventually, she said, they decided to do it in her husband’s family village in Haryana state north of Delhi.
“When they put me in a room by myself and gagged and blindfolded me I got very frightened and stared struggling”, she said, huddled in a shawl against Delhi’s winter chill
“I moved the cloth from my face and started screaming and all the people of the village came to see why I was screaming”, she said.
That got her a brief reprieve, but later six of Vidya’s in laws beat her so badly she lost the sight in one eye.
She always returned to her married home, however, even after being incarcerated in a mental asylum by her husband until discharged on her father’s demand after three days.
That is not unusual, according to a fulltime Saheli worker who asked to be identified only as Liz. For an Indian woman and her parents a broken marriage is a disgrace and they will do anything to avoid the social stigma.
Liz said on a really bad day she gets up to 10 women coming into Saheli from Delhi and outside the city suffering from abuse.
“It is usually physical abuse”, she said. “It may be just a bruise or two or it could be eyes hanging out on her cheek. But mental damage can be even worse”.
In the first 11 months of 1987 there were 224 unnatural deaths of women in Delhi, according to the police.
Nine of them were murder, said Mehra, and 31 were recorded as dowry deaths under which a husband or relative can be held responsible for a women’s death if they are shown to have treated her cruelly.
However, a study prepared in July for the government by the center for social research in New Delhi, said there were astronomically more cases than police statistics showed.
In 1985, alone, one Delhi hospital admitted 381 women in the vulnerable 1630 age group suffering third degree burns.
The problem is so serious that the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry has raised 800,000 rupees (60,000 dollars) to run a newspaper campaign against dowry.
Shobhana Bhartia, President of the Chambers’ Women’s group, said they were aiming not just at husbands that maltreated their wives but everybody.
“We must reach out to society at large. The concepts of the society have to change”, she said.
The campaign comes to a climax early this year when hoardings will sprout across Delhi with the slogan painted blood red: “Say no to dowry”.
But as Bhartia said: “Unless the laws are more strict people will always break them”.