In Sagarpur, a lower-middle-class area in New Delhi, Kulwant wept as she described how her husband and his family — desperate for a male heir — beat her regularly and forced her to have abortions until she bore a son.
After she had three daughters, she said, the family became enraged and once even tried to set her on fire. “They were angry. They didn't want girls in the family,” she recalled. “They wanted boys so they could get fat dowries” from the brides’ families.
The mother-in-law told Kulwant that her husband would divorce her “if I didn't bear a son,” Kulwant recalled. Whenever she got pregnant again, the family forced her to have a sonogram to determine the sex of the fetus and then ordered her to abort female fetuses three times until she finally produced a boy.
Such stories are commonplace in India and other countries where a preference for sons is driven in part by the dowry system, a traditional marriage custom that India outlawed 40 years ago. Dowries — once observed in much of the ancient world — have disappeared in most cultures but still hold sway in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of China.
Dowries typically are cash or goods, such as expensive television sets and appliances, that a bride's family must give the groom and his family at marriage. The amount demanded today often can be the equivalent of several years of income, which can ruin a poor family. Moreover, dissatisfaction with the amount of the dowry often results in violence, such as “bride burning,” torture, murder or the forced suicide of a young wife. Dowry-related crimes are difficult to prosecute, however, because they often are disguised as accidents or suicides.
New appliances — part of her initial dowry — surround Indian bride Nisha Sharma as she displays her wedding invitation. Sharma balked when her fiancée's family made additional dowry demands. She called off their wedding just hours before the ceremony in New Delhi. Fear of someday facing ruinous dowry demands prompts many Indian parents to abort female fetuses. (Reuters/B. Mathur JSG/DL)
To avoid having to pay a dowry, many poor parents who cannot afford prenatal gender testing or an abortion will kill their infant girls instead. In Pakistan last year, about 100 newborns a month (most of them girls) were killed and left in garbage dumps or by the side of the road.
Families also are driven to abort or kill baby girls by the Asian tradition that a son supports his elderly parents while married daughters care for their husbands and aging inlaws. Sons “are the equivalent of an Indian 401(k) retirement plan,” writes Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto.
“The parents feel that the boy is a help for the future, where the girls are a liability,” said Kailash Satyarethi, a founder of the India-based human rights group Global March. “If we spend money on her, then we have to spend money on her marriage, dowry probably, and then if something goes wrong, then we are always sufferers. So better that that girl is not born.”
Dowry abuses led to the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act, which prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of a dowry. Violations are punishable by fines and up to six months in jail, but enforcement is lax. More than 8,300 dowry-related deaths were reported in India in 2009; only one-third resulted in convictions.
Ironically, with up to 160 million Asian women “missing” due to sex-selective abortions and the murder of newborn girls, a critical shortage of marriageable women has developed in countries such as India and China. As a result, experts say, some families will be able to demand a higher “bride price” for their daughters — money or goods paid by a groom's family to a bride's family. Much less common than dowries, the paying of a bride price is another ancient marriage tradition still practiced in some rural areas of India, China, Thailand and parts of Africa.
Already, many men in India who cannot afford a bride price are becoming resigned to the fact that they may never marry. Babulal Yadav, a 50-year-old farmer from the Indian state of Haryana, where men far outnumber women, said, “I'm used to being alone. But I want a son.”
— Robert Kiener