New Internationalist

A bride burnt every hour: the horror of dowry deaths

One of my favourite columnists, Kalpana Sharma, produced a disturbing piece yesterday – on dowry deaths. Kalpana was appalled to read a headline, ‘One bride burnt every hour’. Not 50 years ago, but last week. It’s the kind of fact that we in India are inured to. It doesn’t have shock value for the average reader. I can’t imagine the equivalent in the West – domestic violence, possibly. Dowry death, like domestic violence, is the kind of term that hides the reality. It should be called murder, because it’s not an accidental or natural death. It’s a premeditated, deliberate, cold-blooded act of murder and solely for profit, because the bride’s parents could not pay up.

Imagine the horror of being forcibly held down, doused in kerosene or petrol (the commonest modus operandi) and set ablaze.

And, it’s ceased to shock us Indians. It’s routine, part of the daily news, has been for decades now.  This was seared into my brain a few years ago, when a British student came back from a visit to Vimochana, a women’s rights group in Bangalore. They took her to a burns ward in a Bangalore hospital. The British girl couldn’t eat or sleep for days afterwards. She wept, had nightmares. She’d seen the victims, all young, many dying. Every bride was disfigured for life, scarred physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s not a pretty sight. Even seasoned activists recoil in horror from the burnt, charred flesh, the contorted skin, the sheer horror of it all. Imagine the plight of the victims, then. They suffer agony, it takes months to recover. The first time they look in a mirror after the initial emergency period, they are shocked and traumatized by the stranger in the mirror. The knowledge that they have to live with the physical scarring, where once there was youth and beauty. Even when they survive, just the simple act of carrying on living is hard. Do they go back to their parental homes? How do they support themselves? How many families can provide back up to a woman? If she has kids, she’s worried about being a burden to her aging parents. It all costs money. We don’t see pictures of these women in our papers or on TV. So they remain statistics, not even seen as very disturbing ones.

Kalpana reports:  ‘According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there were 8,391 reported cases of dowry deaths in 2010. Just under double the number of cases registered in 1995 – 4,648 cases. For every dowry death reported, there are dozens that go unreported. Of the 8,391 reported cases in 2010, although 93.2 per cent were charge-sheeted, the conviction rate was a miserable 33.6 per cent. The murderers and their families get away with it. What’s worse, they go scot free and bring back another bride.

Women’s groups fought tooth and nail from the 1970s onwards to get anti-dowry legislation in place to protect brides. Unfortunately, though the campaign, which was at its peak in the 1980s, raised awareness and had women protesting all over the country, dowries, and dowry deaths, have not been eradicated – as the statistics show. Indeed, the figures are even more horrifying considering India claims to have moved out of the feudal ages and into the 21st century.

Why hasn’t it changed? Because even educated people continue to pay up with a smile (albeit forced). It’s the norm, it’s tradition, they say. If you don’t, your daughter will suffer. I’ve had conversations with young about-to-be-married women. ‘You’re not a commodity,’ I’ve said. ‘A chap who wants money to marry you is a scumbag, definitely not worth marrying.’ At the back of my mind I know I risk incurring the wrath of their families when they find out about this conversation. I’m talking radical nonsense, confusing their daughters. Creating trouble.

Books can be written about dowry; a blog is simply too short. But isn’t it time we got young people angry again? Most of my women friends who’ve fought for decades are tired. We need young blood to use the internet to restart the campaigns. Shame dowry seekers. Blast their pictures all over the internet, to their offices, colleagues. Use your gizmos and Facebook to change society. To stop the murder of Indian brides.

Photo by madaboutasia under a CC Licence

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  1. #1 Claudia 07 Feb 12

    Check out and and and It's a start!

  2. #2 Anita Christy 08 Feb 12

    Appalling indeed!!! IN this age for this to continue...I hope the young Indian women will rise in arms against this inhuman practice of taking dowry....

  3. #3 Sharon Osbourne 08 Feb 12


    I love your article and the way you bring awareness to both truth and injustice in our society.
    ’Truly speaks loudly and proudly ..... ’

    Love you sharing and informat post.

    Soooooooo Proud of you girll’

    Keep up the great work

  4. #4 Peter Berger 08 Feb 12

    This is shocking to say the least. When oh when will our young men tell their parents and the prospective bride's parents that they will not accept any dowry? When will our young women refuse to be bartered?

  5. #5 Niral 08 Feb 12

    Thanks Mari for speaking out.

    Governments may legislate, but unless there is a serious intent on their part to eradicate this evil of giving and accepting dowry, not much will happen. There ought to be much more stringent punishment meted out to those involved in dowry related crimes.

    It is also up to our youngsters waiting to get married to stand up to say no to dowry. It also gladdens my heart to hear of stories where the bride or the groom have walked out of the wedding ceremonies when dowry demands have been made.

    I love the idea of using the internet to shame dowry seekers... thats the way to go!

  6. #6 Cynthia Stephen 09 Feb 12

    Dowry in India is a symptom, not the disease. It is a real-time indicator of the secondary status of woman in society, whereby her parents are duty-bound by tradition to see her - and her sexuality ’safely’ installed in her marital home; the mindset is therefore that she is only a temporary resident in her parental home and her destiny lies in another family. This subtle attitudinal mindset is shown in a general lack of interest in investing in the girl's education, health, or personal development; since the family's prestige is involved, however, material goods are considered an imperative adjunct to a marriage arranged to rather strict norms, chiefly of caste and community.A ’grand’ wedding celebration with expensive gifts, food and a glittering reception is considered socially elevating to both families, and hence is pursued despite the girl's family falling into huge debt traps. Thus, the young couple , especially the girl, is only a small cog in a social institution which reeks of power, patronage, and ultimately, patriarchy. Even girls themselves, however, have bought into these values and expect such festivities to attend thier marriages. Wthout a radical restructuring of societal values I am afraid India's hidebound social practices will continue to take its gory toll of young lives, especially young married females.

  7. #7 Julie George 09 Feb 12

    To me it looks like ’blessed are the dead’ !!(apologies if this hurts anyone's sentiments). There are hundreds of thousands of women/wives/spouses/partners who suffer silently and live the life of a corpse - for the sake of 'honour'(what was that again!) and children, not to hurt/disappoint their own parents - enough number of excuses. And how many speak up or have not only the guts but the means to simply walk out and 'ditch' the man?? A handful perhaps. And how many of us are happy to support women (with shelter, legal aid, child care) who are being abused anyway????

  8. #8 Jan Nerurkar 09 Feb 12

    Good article Mari.
    Also the comment by Cynthia Stephen is a correct observation of our Indian value system regarding women.
    Dowry and Sati ’deaths’ are still rather common all over India. Unfortunately, this phenomenon occurs over ALL 3 Cs - caste, class, community - of Indian society and not just the lower, semi-literate masses as the media pretends. As you have rightly pointed out Mari - it is premeditated murder for profit and the husbands are more often than not, partners in crime. Worse still, most such cases are hardly investigated by the police, merely swept under the 3000 year old carpet of tradition and filed under ’accidental death due to explosion of a kerosene stove’.

  9. #9 Siddharth 09 Feb 12

    Hi! Thanks for this piece. It's really horrible that we haven't been able to control cases of dowry related harassment, abuse and death. You mentioned facebook in the last line - interestingly, there's a case that came to my attention just yesterday, where family members managed to get the police to finally take cognizance of the crime and start making some arrests after a facebook campaign.


    Not to overstate the 'power' of social media, or to take away from the problem...

  10. #10 Chris 09 Feb 12

    Congratulations on your article Mari. It is important for people to report such news – and very few journalists have the courage to do so. Non-Resident Indians always speak so highly about their country they left behind and speak so proudly about India being a developed country - when we are so far from it. Of course it is easier to sweep such news under the carpet – especially when it is so easy to get away with murder. Everyone concerned just look the other way!

    You know sometimes I think it’s the elders – especially the bossy ones – who continue with traditions such as dowry - and instigate hatred towards the young woman. The young married man plays innocent and dumb and (to his benefit) goes along with the torments of the elders in his family about getting rid of the wife - so that he can get new one. But ultimately, it’s the greed and jealously of elders in the family who rules the roost and destroys what is left of the beautiful culture of India.

  11. #11 Hilary 30 Apr 12

    The young people need to make change by refusing to accept these old customs - a campaign of shame would be good as India does not like to be shamed. Is this the free India that everyone dreamed of? the families of the mutilated and murdered girls should swallow their own shame and shame the whole family of the murderer/mutilator. the only reason this goes on is that the life of a female is considered much less than the life of a male. However if enough outrage is shown then a nation can change.

  12. #12 steffi 12 Sep 12

    I'm doing lots of research about it right now and I would like to know if someone knows some NGO acting for those women?
    Thanks for your help!

  13. #13 Helen Playdon 21 Dec 12

    Where do we go, what must we do, to redress this?

  14. #14 Elisabeth 10 Mar 13

    Omj (oh my juice) That is so scary

  15. #15 raghunathreddy 14 May 13

    Can you show who is giving dowry at free of cost. Who said to girls, girl parents to give dowry. Just it is because of their over expectations. Girl, Girl parents never accepts boy who is equal to her. They need fat salaries, in-laws huge properties. Did you ever think about the boys who is getting less salary, having less property. Boys facing too many problems. Do not say girls will not get married if dowry is not given, it is just because of over expectanations.

  16. #16 Bob 31 Jul 13

    This is really fucked up beyond all belief. So...evil.

  17. #17 Simon Richard 01 Sep 13

    ...dowry death or torture is joint family problem; education is usually limited or nil; choice is snatched away by the parents; lust for dowry does not allow to cross caste barrier, cannot expect dowry across the barrier - dowry results into inbreeding and unhealthy children.

  18. #18 Fayaz Pasha 28 Oct 13

    Dowry is truly the mother of all evils and needs to be addressed on a war footing basis. I address the social evils in the Society on my blog:

  19. #19 Chris F 29 Oct 13

    I love the way that you shredd the veil surrounding the term of dowry violence and reveal it for what it actually is, murder. I just recently learned about the reality of bride burning and dowry violence that is occurring in India, and I am so appauled. The fact that women are reduced to this monetary market good and then demand more money after entering the household is just apauling to me. I cant believe that someone could ever set another person on fire like this, it literally churns my stomach and I so badly want to put my self out there and help heal these women. I am going into medicine hopefully one day, specifically womens health and I would love the opportunity to help these women reclaim their safety. If your intent was to get young people angry, consider it achieved because I am outraged that we still have this occurring in the world, my heart yearns for change.

  20. #21 Debbie 07 Nov 13

    Sickness in societies seem to have a common thread to be against women and the control of women. Ultimately it is within the leaders of society to address this. The best way to address it is to give women the freedom to decide their own path in life, and to pass laws as to protect their choices. To allow equal punishments that are serious for those that hurt others, unless it is self defence,be they men or women. No one should be able to cause this terrible pain to another child of our Creator. Who are we to put ourselves above anyone else, unless they threaten our life. The barter of women is treating women as property. Women may have to go on strike everywhere to demand they be treated as equals in society. Parents need to stop selling their children,but to trust their children to make their own choices good or bad.

  21. #22 AnitaJean 25 Nov 13

    Mari- Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I am all about ending the violence against women...There is so much of it everywhere it is mind blowing. We cannot claim ignorance any longer if people like you tell their story. I will not only inform as many people as I can but will also be searching for ways to make as much impact with my voice as possible.

  22. #24 Maggie 15 Feb 14

    India has a shortfall of women and they are burning those they have. What is wrong with Indian men?

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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