This week, the Times of India ran an article about justice delayed in the 1989 death of a young woman in Mumbai, who committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied by her husband and in-laws over her dowry. The husband was specifically criticized for not doing more to protect his wife from his parents’ harassment. Her fate is uncommon but not unheard-of in India, where the tradition of wives moving into their husbands’ homes and being subordinate to their in-laws is often cited as the main cause of stress and depression in women’s lives. It certainly can make women vulnerable, as the court acknowledged:
It’s the husband’s duty to support his wife and protect her if she faces harassment from her in laws, the Bombay HC has said. Twenty-one years after he was charged with driving his wife to commit suicide for failing to meet his demands for dowry, a division bench of Justice P B Majumdar and Justice Anoop Mohta upheld a trial court’s order, sentencing the 52-year-old Satara resident to three years in jail.
The judges took the opportunity to advise families that they had an obligation to care for their son’s brides. “Girls leave their maternal house with tearful eyes hoping that they will get love and affection in the matrimonial house. At least, she would expect that during the good or bad days, her husband would be at her side,” said the judges. According to them, it is expected of the husband to take care of his wife; even the father-in-law and mother-in-law are expected to treat the bride as their daughter and for all practical purposes, the parents of the husband should treat the daughter-in-law as their daughter.
“The husband should always be at the side of the wife; even if there is any harassment or ill-treatment on the part of other family members, it is the duty of the husband to protect his wife,” said the judges.
I remember talking with an Indian man in Udaipur who told me that his parents’ death in a car accident, while tragic for his family, had made him and his brother more attractive prospects in the marriage market because their wives would not be saddled with caring for their in-laws. Having seen my mother and aunts care for my grandparents—who at least were their own parents—while trying to work and raise families, I completely understand why being able to opt out of that fate would be very, very appealing, especially in India, where the parents are not yours, assisted living is not an option and the day-to-day burden of care falls squarely on the daughter-in-law.
Because tradition dictates that the elderly live with their son’s family, having male children is necessary to ensure you’ll be cared for in your old age. Daughters—who leave home to care for their husbands’ family—can’t provide that service, plus the dowry that must be paid to the groom’s family can be ruinous, especially for parents with multiple daughters.
These customs are partially responsible for India’s history of female infanticide and current wave of sex-selective abortions (using sonograms to facilitate them outlawed in 1991 but rarely investigated or prosecuted). Numerous recent studies have shown preference for sons to be true regardless of class; in fact, wealthier, higher-caste Indians are even more likely to choose sons over daughters. One 2005 study showed that among “high caste urbanites” in Punjab, there were 300 girls for every 1,000 boys, whereas in rural communities in the same state, 500 girls were born for every 1,000 boys. The normal gender ratio should be about 1,000 girls for every 1,100 boys.
You don’t have to be a sociologist to see trouble on the horizon, or at least significant social change. The institution of marriage is the foundation of Indian society—nearly all Indian adults marry, and only 6% of marriages end in divorce. Who will those 1,000 boys marry? What happens when they have to compete for those 500 girls?
Will the gender imbalance ultimately wind up empowering those girls? In a news article I cited in another post, policy-makers claim that the gender imbalance in India has started giving women previously unheard-of leverage in demanding better living conditions. Will having more options—which seems inevitable when grooms outnumber brides 2 to 1—give women more negotiating power? If women are seen as valuable and less easily replaceable, it follows that they would get better treatment, particularly from prospective grooms’ families. Competition for brides could also be the bloodless coup that does away with—or at least erodes—the dowry system; with so many men wanting to marry their daughters, girls’ families could negotiate down the price of the dowry, or not pay one at all. Reducing the economic hardship of funding dowries may ultimately induce families to have more daughters. More competition on the marriage market might also result in some blurring of the strict divides of caste and ethnicity in India. Caste-based discrimination is banned by the Indian Constitution, but caste and clan ties are still very influential as social constructs and Indians strongly prefer to marry within their own ethnic group and caste. But if forced to choose between staying single and marrying someone of a different background, I suspect the desire to marry will win out.
I may be overly optimistic, however. Many sociologists argue that that having 28 million single men unable to find wives—India’s projected fate by 2020–will create dangerous social conditions, as it has already begun to in China, which is experiencing a similarly dramatic gender imbalance:
As any parent of adolescents knows, boys tend to be happier and calmer when they’ve found love. In a landmark study, political scientists Andrea M. den Boer and Valerie Hudson also determined that single young men are far more likely to commit violence than their married peers. Even young criminals, they found, often give up crime when they marry and settle down. These findings may be playing out in China, which is experiencing rising crime waves. Cities with the most unbalanced sex ratios have some of the highest crime rates.
The demand for brides also is fueling a different type of crime — a growing sex trafficking industry in China, one that is sweeping in girls from such neighboring nations as Laos, Myanmar, North Korea and Thailand and poisoning China’s image in these countries. Some of these women, such as North Koreans, wind up as virtual slaves in China.
China’s surplus males may be developing into a permanent angry underclass capable of being dangerously exploited. As in Lanzhou, unemployed unmarried men dominate China’s 150-million-strong pool of migrant labor, and most of them have no prospect of obtaining an education or long-term job. These “surplus males” increasingly congregate in certain areas of cities — train and bus stations are favorites — and have begun to form gangs…This has led to more violent confrontations in factories, physical attacks on local activists and journalists, and peasants being forced off land that developers covet.
It’s painfully clear now that when taken to this extreme, the cultural preferences for male over female children will have catastrophic consequences…ones that may be even worse for men than for women. While the scope of the damage caused by a generation’s-worth of gender imbalance is still unclear, it’s obvious that it has the power to reshape society, and hopefully, increase women’s standing in society so that fewer will be bullied to death over dowries, or feel pressured to have only sons.