Death of three sisters highlights dowry-related violence in India

Sardar Meena, the father of three brides, stands next to the well where his daughters and two grandchildren were found dead
Although illegal, the practice of dowry persists in part thanks to conventions that view women as an economic burden
Although illegal, the practice of dowry persists in part thanks to conventions that view women as an economic burden
There were nearly 7,000 dowry-related murders and more than 1,700 practice-related suicides in 2020 alone
There were nearly 7,000 dowry-related murders and more than 1,700 practice-related suicides in 2020 alone

Before the three sisters and their children were found dead in a well, they left a message blaming the family they had married into.

Kalu, Kamlesh and Mamta Meena have been victims of a dispute over dowries, the often high sums Indian parents pay to marry off their daughters.

The sisters had married brothers from the same household and lived under the same roof, but suffered constant abuse from their husbands and in-laws, according to relatives of the grieving trio.

They were constantly abused, they say, including when their father failed to respond to demands for more money.

All three were found dead last month near their marital home, a village on the outskirts of Jaipur, along with Kalu’s four-year-old son and baby. Kamlesh and Mamta were pregnant.

“We don’t wish to die but death is better than their abuse,” read a WhatsApp message left by one of the sisters after they went missing, a cousin said.

“Our in-laws are the reason for our death. We die together because it’s better than dying every day. »

Authorities are investigating and treating the deaths as suicides, a senior Jaipur police official told AFP.

The sisters’ distraught father, Sardar Meena, said life had been hell for his daughters, whose husbands had banned them from continuing their education and constantly harassed them for more payments.

“We had already given them so many things, you can see them in their homes,” he told the -, counting the beds, televisions and fridge he provided for the family.

“I am a father of six girls, there is a limit to what I can give,” added Sardar, who earns a meager income as a farmer.

“I had educated them and doing that was difficult. »

Police arrested the three husbands, their mother and a sister-in-law for dowry-related harassment and domestic abuse.

Attempts by the – to contact the men’s family were unsuccessful.

India banned the practice of paying dowries more than 60 years ago, and harassment or extortion over payments is a criminal offence.

But the custom persists, especially in rural areas, underpinned by social conventions that treat women as an economic burden and demand compensation for accepting them as wives.

Local news outlets regularly report on marital property disputes ending in murder.

Last year, a man from the southern state of Kerala was jailed for life after he used poisonous snakes to murder his wife and take sole control of their property, which included a new car and 500,000 rupees ($6,500) provided by her family as a dowry.

The courts have also been punitive in their treatment of dowry-related harassment, last month jailing a man in Kerala for 10 years after his demands for payment were accused of driving his wife to suicide.

A pervasive taboo around divorce – only one in 100 Indian marriages end in dissolution – has prevented married women from considering escaping abusive situations.

For the Meena sisters, leaving was never considered an option, even though those close to them were aware of the violence.

“Once they got married, we thought they should stay in their marital home, to maintain the dignity of the family,” Sardar said.

“If we had remarried them in another house, and if the situation turned out to be worse, then what would we do? We would lose face. »

India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded nearly 7,000 dowry-related murders in 2020, or around 19 women per day.

The same agency reported that more than 1,700 women committed suicide that year for “dowry-related issues”.

Both numbers depend on reports to police, and experts say the true number of cases is much higher, similar to other domestic violence data.

“In an hour, some 30 to 40 women are victims of domestic violence…and these are just documented cases, so it must be a lot more than that,” said Kavita Srivastava, an activist with the Indian People’s Freedom Union. civil. said to the -.

Srivastava said the dowry dispute involving the Meena sisters was only part of their tormentors’ efforts to control their lives and restrict their independence.

The root cause, she added, was a widespread social acceptance of domestic violence in India that leaves women feeling trapped in oppressive and violent relationships.

“If even a woman has to commit suicide because her married life seems to be the end of the road,” she said, “I feel like the Indian state has failed for these women.”

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