Have you ever seen a sign saying “DOWRY FREE ZONE”! That was an amazing piece of information for me.
We thought dowry was a lost issue and women of India had moved on to bolder issues and bigger crimes like gang rape, marital rape, acid attacks and domestic violence. We thought dowry was something that would vanish as women educated themselves and became independent. We thought dowry would automatically go away as girls started getting their share of property from their parents. But no sad to say dowry still continues rampantly in all parts of India whether cities or towns or villages. Dowry is the first step towards discrimination of girls in their stage of adulthood. Of course the inequality starts in the womb as thousands of girls get murdered even before they are born and it continues with their health and nutrition issues as infants. As soon as they reach puberty the twin issues that begin to hit us is the case of child marriage and dowry.
A young 16 year old girl called Sujata from a village in Odisha showed her grit just two weeks before her marriage was going to be solemnised. She was going to school and had learnt that it was illegal to get married before 18 years of age. Since she wanted to study further and her parents were palming her off without her consent (naturally!) she thought about it seriously took a bold decision and ran away from her home. She sought shelter with an NGO in that area that worked for women’s welfare who managed to convince her parents and free Sujata of the impending doom. That was a big step for a 16 year old young girl from a village area but a small leap for woman-kind in India. I prefer to call it a small leap for it shows where we stand today in terms of progress. For all the touting that we do in the name of women’s empowerment we are still where we are.
Coming back to the sign post of ‘Dowry Free Zone’, which is again another big step of a different kind for the small village of Nilambur in the state of Kerala. This village, the first of its kind, is totally free of dowry and the people are 100% matriculate and they are mighty proud of it. The catchy sign board is displayed proudly as you enter the village for people to see and admire. It is a tiny village of a population of 45,000 people where a majority of them are poor and constantly in debt due to the curse of dowry which they have to necessarily dish out to the prospective grooms. A survey revealed that the boys took dowry to bail out their beleaguered parents from the trap of debt! A vicious cycle you would agree. The debt just gets transferred from the boy’s side to the girl’s side as her parents take loan for the dowry. The initiative started in 2007 by the municipality (there are good ones too in the government) of Nilambur when they started collecting the statistics of the homeless in the area. It came to their notice that at least one-third of the people had been rendered homeless because they had mortgaged their lands to meet the expenses of their daughters’ weddings. The survey found that 40 per cent of the families had gone bankrupt after they were forced to pay dowry while 52 per cent of the divorced women attributed their fate to non-fulfilment of dowry commitment. That’s when the idea of a dowry free village germinated. They decided in 2009 that would work for eradication of the curse of dowry and make their village free of it. The pledge was taken by the entire village under the leadership of the municipal chairman. They have worked relentlessly since to gather the people and sensitise them towards various issues beginning from education, sanitation, respect for girls and economic independence through entrepreneurship through various workshops, classes, street plays etc.
Such stories of rural India of simple semi-educated people taking such bold steps in the right direction is heartening indeed. At an individual level, for the girl Sujata, it must have required courage of Himalayan proportions. This is the power of education which empowers young girls to read, write, gain information and take life making decisions on their own. At the collective level a small village Nilambur has shown the way as to what can be done if they take a pledge against social evils.
Big steps indeed, by small people, but a small achievement in terms of a large country like India with a billion people, which, shamefully, continues to hold an appalling rank of 125 among 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index. We are still at the bottom.