According to the UN, an estimated 1.5 million underage girls are made to marry each year in India. One of the women we are helping in Rishikesh was married at age 12, had her first baby the next year, and by age 14 had two children! Her husband was abusive, and she was finally able to divorce him (a rare feat in India), and is now trying to raise her children on her own. Fortunately we have been able to help her by giving her a job cleaning and cooking in our school and also help her for the education of her two children, not only in our after school program, but also paying for the school supplies of her kids every year. How different her life could have been if she’d been able to complete high school and college and find a career, and then make her own decision to marry!
Dowry and female infanticide
The age-old practice of dowry in India, whereby the bride’s family is expected to give a large financial gift to the groom, has created a situation where girls are considered a financial burden on their parents, whereas boys are considered an asset. Largely for this reason, discrimination against women in India begins even before birth, as many parents choose to abort female fetuses, or even kill newborn female babies. Although there are now laws in place to prevent determination of the gender of the fetus before birth, many parents in India find a way to circumvent those laws, and if the fetus is female, terminate the pregnancy one way or another.
Low literacy rate
The traditional cultural ideal in India is that after they are married, women are expected to live with their in-laws and dedicate themselves to raising children rather than having careers. For this reason, it is often considered a waste of money to educate girls. One result is that female literacy in India stands at only 65.5%, compared to 82.1% among men.
There is a horrible phenomenon in India known as ‘dowry deaths’. If the groom’s family feels the bride has not given enough of a dowry, sometimes they will try to extort more money from the bride’s family. If a larger dowry is not forthcoming, or if for any reason the groom (or his mother) is not pleased with the newly acquired wife, the groom’s family may just pour kerosene on the wife and burn her to death, and then claim it was a ‘kitchen accident.’ The police and Indian legal system will often do nothing, and the groom is then free to find another wife who he hopes will bring in a larger dowry. In 2020 alone there were 6,966 dowry deaths reported in India, and one would have to assume that majority of cases go unreported and that the actual number is much higher.
Alcoholism among men
During the last 20 years, alcoholism among men in India has been on the rise. In the poor areas where the girls who attend our school live, it appears to us that the vast majority of the men are alcoholics. An alcoholic man will be an abusive husband and father, and may forcefully take any money his wife has made through her daily work and use it to buy alcohol. Men who come home drunk may even sexually abuse their own female children.
This makes it all the more urgent that girls in India receive a full education, so that they may make their own choices in life and escape from the cycle of poverty and abuse.