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What actually happens is the groom’s family pockets the dowry, the nun explains, and the payments don’t stop there.

“When a wife has a baby in India, the wife’s family has to pay for the hospital stay,” Sister Mary says. “After the birth, they also have to bring gold and food for the new family, even new saris for all the relatives.”

Some Indian castes even require that the bride’s family pay her funeral expenses when she dies. Worse yet, the groom’s family will often kill the bride in what’s known as a “dowry death” if they think the dowry is too small.

Many families therefore elect to not have a girl at all. Medical clinics — which Sister Mary calls “womb raiders” — have advertised “better 500 rupees now [for an abortion] rather than 50,000 rupees later” [for a dowry]. The first amount is about $11; the second is $1,100.

Dowries are theoretically banned under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act, but enforcement is poor and other religious groups such as Muslims and Christians have been caught up in the custom.

Sister Mary says that if she were to get married, her Catholic family would have to pay up.

A Sept. 29 article in the Times of India front-paged its account of a Muslim family in New Delhi that dumped a new daughter-in-law within 24 hours after the wedding because the dowry was not big enough.

The groom said he wanted about $4,400 more “as well as a Pulsar [motor] bike,” the bride told the newspaper.

Caste causes

It’s a sultry evening and Ms. Chowdhry, dressed in an olive green salwar kameez, orange pants and gold bracelets, is reflecting on why the life of an Indian woman can be so miserable.

“First,” says the New Delhi-based scholar, “girls can get killed for a number of reasons, including anything that brings dishonor. A girl can be killed before she is born. If she survives, she is forcibly married. If there’s not enough dowry, she is killed.”

She cites the Indian state of Haryana, just north of New Delhi, which has the country’s second highest per capita income. It also has India’s second worst sex ratio, after Punjab state to the west. For every 1,000 boys born in Haryana, just 820 girls were born, according to the 2001 census. In 1991, it was 879 girls.

Punjab is similarly wealthy; thus, instead of the poor killing their children, it’s the rich, says Ms. Chowdhry, a former senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Institute and Library.

“Punjab and Haryana are the two highest per capita income states, but they have such regressive trends,” she says. “How can they call themselves modern?”

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