x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sex imbalance forces men to pay 'bride price'

Prime minister calls northern India's social bias against females a 'national shame' that leaves infant girls extremely vulnerable.

NEW DELHI // Mohan Singh, a 27-year-old Sikh farmer, recently travelled hundreds of kilometres from his home in northern India's affluent Punjab state to a poorer eastern region to "buy" himself a bride. He was compelled to make the journey because the scarcity of marriageable girls in his native Fatehgarh Sahib district is akin to the shortage of grain in a famine. Fatehgarh Sahib has India's most unbalanced gender ratio - 754 girls for every 1,000 boys - far fewer than the national average of 927 girls to every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age bracket, according to the latest 2001 census. And the quotient of girls is declining fast after three decades of sex determination tests and female foeticide.

Like several of his male relatives from this agricultural region 350km north of New Delhi, Mr Singh willingly paid a 15,000-rupee (Dh1,330) "bride price" to his future in-laws, in a poverty-ridden village in central India's Madhya Pradesh province, and brought home his wife. His family was quietly complicit in the deed. They knew Mr Singh could either buy a bride or remain a bachelor and face the unimaginable prospect of having no sons to inherit his property.

"The shortage of eligible Punjabi brides left me with no alternative but to shop for one from wherever I could," Mr Singh said. If the present trend continues, he said, there will be no Sikh girls for the next generation to marry. In a society that regards daughters as a drain on resources, the family of Mr Singh's new wife was relieved to get her married off, he said, and furthermore, to receive money instead of having to pay a dowry they could ill afford.

But they prayed that their daughter would produce sons or she would be sent back home to once again live off her family's meagre resources, with little prospect of getting remarried. In neighbouring Haryana state, where there are 819 girls for every 1,000 boys, the local marriage market is equally dismal. Village elders from the state said their boys, traditionally married off at 18, were unable to find brides until well into their thirties, and then only after "purchasing" them from the provinces of Bihar and Bengal in eastern India. For the foreign brides, who are often looked down upon as outsiders, it is difficult to adjust to life in their new home.

"Northern India's intensely patriarchal social structure has for many generations supported a distinct gender bias against women and most people are either ignorant of the existence of laws enacted over a decade ago banning female foeticide, or are openly abusive of them," said Rainuka Dagar, of the Institute for Development and Communication in the state capital, Chandigarh. Other analysts said Punjab's male gender preference was further legitimised during the 13-year-long Sikh insurgency that ended in the early 1990s. A host of diktats discriminating against women were issued by fundamentalist leaders of the armed movement during this period of violence, which claimed 50,000 lives, further skewing the state's sexual imbalance.

Punjab's increasingly lopsided sex ratio even prompted the normally conservative Akal Takht, Sikhism's supreme religious seat, to issue an edict two years ago banning female foeticide. Priests organised conclaves at Sikh gurdwaras (temples) across Punjab, where Voluntary Health Association activists educated congregations of the dangers of the state's decreasing female population. But attendance was sparse, and the effects of the meetings were minimal.

Last week, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, himself a Sikh and the proud father of three daughters, joined the chorus of pro-women activists by declaring female foeticide a "national shame", urging all Indians to fight it by ending the social bias against girls. Addressing a national conference on Save the Girl Child in New Delhi, he said the country needed "concerted and multi-pronged societal action" to rectify the country's imbalanced sex ratio.

"Female illiteracy, obscurantist social practices like child marriage or early marriage, dowry, poor nutritional entitlements, taboos on women in public places, all make the Indian women and especially the Indian girl child extremely vulnerable," Mr Singh said. While sex determination tests that cost as little as 600 rupees (Dh53) are illegal across India, the law is regularly flouted and clinics offering them abound. With advances in technology and the advent of portable ultrasound machines, these tests can now be conducted even in remote regions.

"It's an unholy alliance between tradition and technology. Ultrasound was not meant for sex selection," said Malavika Rajkotia, a lawyer and female rights activist. "It's just a quick way for greedy doctors to make money." Official census figures reveal that the skewered sex ratio prevailed in India's richest states like Punjab- with 798 girls per 1,000 boys, Haryana (819), Delhi (868) and western Gujarat province (883).

Mr Singh, the prime minister, said growing economic prosperity and education levels did not mitigate the imbalance. India has a long history of female infanticide: baby girls poisoned, suffocated, drowned, starved or simply abandoned and left to die. Many households, especially poorer ones, consider girls a liability, as expensive dowries have to be paid at their weddings. Even the poorest labourer or peasant is under tremendous societal pressure to pay a dowry and organise lavish weddings, often turning to loans that take decades to pay back.

Boys, on the other hand, are an asset. Even the most ineligible boy comes at a premium, commanding a dowry that can demand money and other goods from the girl's family over many years. Refusal to comply often leads to cases of "bride burning", a euphemism for murder on grounds of avarice that, despite a series of harsh laws, remains rampant. Over 7,700 "dowry deaths" were recorded in India in 2006 but an equally high number went unreported.

Sons in India's predominantly Hindu and Sikh families are also indispensable to many vital rituals as they are the only ones who can set their fathers funeral pyres alight. Meanwhile, Ms Rajkotia said having fewer women did not mean that their importance or value increased in states like Punjab and Haryana. On the contrary, these brides suffered domestic abuse, forcibly cloistered inside their homes to cook, keep the house and, above all else, produce male offspring.

Until the sex ratio is corrected - and that will take decades and mean changing traditional mindsets - these problems will persist, she said. rbedi@thenational.ae