There was one discourse in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that stood out like a sore thumb. It went something like this: “If five trees are planted when a daughter is born, when the time comes, they can be cut and sold to arrange the money for the wedding...”
It was a speech aimed at India’s heartland, where farmers weighed down by crop loans, and worries about ‘marrying off’ their daughters lapped up every word. It was free financial advice, not subject to market, but nature’s risks. It probably saw many fathers scurrying off to buy sturdy saplings.
But what was left unsaid? That newborn girls are a financial burden. The spectre of dowry hangs over every Indian urban and rural household, even though the Dowry Prohibition Act came into being in 1961. We make such a big deal of it, as if it’s a historical legacy that we must perpetuate every generation. Some argue that it is intrinsic to our culture. Isn’t it an unwanted Taj Mahal, omnipresent, immoveable and renowned world over?
In our country, girls are unwanted. According to National Crime Records Bureau 2013, foeticide was up 5.2 per cent from the previous year; exposure and abandonment of children up 13.3 per cent from 2012. A July 22, 2014, U.N. report titled ‘Sex Ratios and Gender-Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates and Future Directions,’ dwells on the falling sex ratio — from 976 girls to 1,000 boys in 1961, to 918 girls to 1,000 boys in 2011. Ideally, the ratio should be above 950 for every 1,000 boys. According to the study, this imbalance is a result of gender-biased sex selection, which is a manifestation of deep-seated patriarchal mindsets leading to the preference for sons over daughters. The study says girls-only families are rare. Activists in the field call the phenomenon ‘daughter-aversion’.
There are rumblings of change, particularly in the urban areas. Young, educated women shun this cultural dysfunction and discard what is traditionally seen as ‘normal’. There was nothing ‘normal’ about graphic designer Kathleen Varghese’s wedding. She got married at the local registrar’s with only her parents and that of the groom in attendance. A small luncheon was held at her home for the immediate. Her friends? She and her husband treated them to a trek.
“If we go by how the majority of people in India get married, that to me is excessive and ostentatious. It serves to please everyone other than the couple. What is the purpose of that? The way I celebrated my marriage felt perfectly normal and natural to me,” said the 27-year-old. “I did not want a waste of any kind — time, money, resources. I wanted everyone to truly feel involved, and not be mere spectators. I wanted the day to be remembered not for how things looked or what people wore, but for the laughter and conversations shared. I wanted my wedding celebration to be genuine, from the heart. Just like choosing whom you marry, choosing how you get married is deeply personal; a choice that people who truly love you will respect,” she says, adding: “The word dowry does not exist in my world, and it was the last thing on my mind while planning for the wedding.”
In the study, “Laws and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check’, it was found that diverse and multiple forces seem to be working for the retention of dowry. “In a society in which a high premium is placed on marriages, parents feel obligated for religious and cultural reasons to perform this ceremony for their daughter. The demand for dowry has flourished. This demand is propelled and aided and abetted by market forces,” says the UNFPA study.
A case in point is a full-page advertisement by a popular jeweller in a national daily. It read: “As a father, my life is all about my daughter. Naturally, I saved every penny I could for her. Now wedding bells are round the corner. And, when I look at buying jewels, boy, do I feel dizzy!” The tag line: “And, thank you XXXXX for understanding a father.”
Elizabeth Chandy’s parents did not have to worry about gold to deck up their daughter on her wedding day. A Roman Catholic Malayali bride, Chandy shunned the convention of wearing gold from neck to waist. Instead she wore jewellery fashioned from coconut shells. After her path-breaking move appeared online on www.womensweb.in, she received 10k likes and innumerable tweets in support of her action. In a reply to comments, Chandy writes: “True change is when individuals — male or female — don’t care about what their parents have earned or inherited and work towards making their own assets. I did not get married to prove anything to anyone; freedom of choice, without burdening anyone. Given a chance to get married again, I would probably just drop by at the registrar’s office on my way to work and get it registered as one of my friends did.”
In his Independence Day speech to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the same man who suggested planting trees for daughters, addressed the bane of the falling sex ratio. “This disparity points to female foeticide and the polluted and tainted mind the 21st century has. We will have to liberate from it, and that is the message to us of this freedom festival.”
With 65 per cent of our population under the age of 35, there is hope for us yet. The hope that all parents beget daughters. Let these daughters learn enough to denounce the malaise of dowry. Let their collective wisdom change the mindset of society. And father, let her be.