Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sanskrit blessing: May you be the mother of a hundred sons

Julia Duin:

The best day of Varsha Hitkari's life was her wedding day when, dressed in a red sari with a gold veil and hennaed hands, she was presented to her new husband, Rakesh Kumar.

The ceremony eight years ago, accompanied by much festivity, featured a bride with a beautifully sculpted face who possessed degrees in sociology and law. The groom was a government official.

The bride's parents had to agree, as part of the dowry arrangement, to pay all the expenses of their grandchildren's births. The husband also demanded 100,000 rupees -- worth about $2,200 -- so he could buy an acre of land. Her parents refused to pay up, but they did provide a motorcycle.

As for the bride's in-laws, they wanted her to produce sons. In that, Mrs. Hitkari failed. Instead, she had two daughters: Himadri, now 5-1/2, and Pari, 18 months. Her husband began berating her, demanding more dowry. When Mrs. Hitkari put Himadri into a school, her mother-in-law criticized her for educating a girl.

On July 23, Mrs. Hitkari's parents say, the mother-in-law and husband beat the woman senseless, then hanged her by a noose from a shower head. The bride's brother, Navneet Chandra, happened to drop by the home and, glancing through an open door to the bathroom, was horrified to see his sister hanging there.

While the brother was trying to free his sister from the noose, Mr. Kumar was pulling on his wife's legs to try to tighten its grip. Only when Mr. Chandra's shouts roused the neighbors did the tug of war stop.

Mrs. Hitkari remained in a coma for six weeks, her story the stuff of local newspaper headlines. She came home to her family Sept. 18, able to sit up but not stand. Her movements were feeble; she could not speak and appeared to have suffered brain damage.

The 30-year-old woman now sits in a stark bedroom at her parents' home, a blank expression in her brown eyes. Her daughters mill about, trying to attract her attention.

Her father, Ramesh Chandra, is retired and cannot afford $4,500 for the kind of physical therapy she will need to recover.

And despite widespread publicity, local police have not made any arrests.

Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state with 166 million people, is one of the country's poorest and most-illiterate regions. Its largest city, Kanpur, is a fetid industrial metropolis of 2.6 million on the Ganges River, known for its leather tanneries, cotton mills and a military base. It has no public transportation, no middle class, no city garbage collection, no sidewalks and dismal air quality.

Even worse is the violence perpetuated on its women and unborn girls.

Neelam Chaturvedi was 16 when she first noticed the way women in her neighborhood were beaten by their husbands. Then she read that a woman had been gang-raped by four men -- and the blame was placed on the victim. Miss Chaturvedi's father, a trade union organizer, encouraged her to organize a women's group and, in 1981, she founded Mahila Manch, or Platform for Women.

Later, she co-founded Sakhi Kendra, or Circle of Friends, and turned it into a charity that occupies a three-story building not far from the town garbage dump. Sixty to 70 women contact them every day with horror stories.

First, there are the baby girls who, simply because they are female, are put on piles of dry grass and burned. Or they are placed in bags and fatally stabbed.

Then, there are the acid attacks. If a woman refuses a man's advances, he may throw sulfuric acid in her face, disfiguring her and rendering the woman unfit for marriage. Women are defenseless against such attacks as criminal prosecution is rare.

"The father doesn't kill the man who rapes his daughter; instead, they dispose of her," said Dr. Veronica Jacob, a volunteer with Sakhi Kendra. "The thinking here is warped. Even if India has advanced far in technology, the mind-set has not changed."

Bride Burning in India


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