In the debt-ridden state of Orissa, the soaring unemployment rates have brought another twist to the dowry demands of prospective bridegrooms: jobs are the new currency. An increasing number of educated unemployed youth are demanding sources of employment as dowry or seeking an employed bride in lieu of dowry.
'Expanding Dimensions of Dowry' (June 2003), a survey by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) on dowry practice was the first documentation citing several jobs-as-dowry cases.
A closer study of several media reports on dowry harassment also illustrates this trend. Recently, the media reported the case of Nilima Sahoo from Puri district. As soon as Sahoo got a job as a health worker in a village, an unemployed youth from the same village proposed to her. His family did not want dowry, they were happy that Sahoo had a job.
But seven months after marriage, the health project shut down and Sahoo was jobless. Her in-laws threw her out of their home as she could not fund the household. Today, Sahoo, who is pregnant, stays with her parents and hopes to find a job soon to save her marriage.
The employment scenario in Orissa is dismal. According to the latest data available from employment exchanges in the state, there are 616,000 applications from individuals categorized as educated. Only 2,239 placements were made in 2002-03. This is only the tip of the iceberg because not all job-seekers register with these exchanges.
The Orissa government attempted to address this problem in its Tenth Plan
(2002-07) through self-employment schemes for around 10,000,000 persons living below the poverty line. However, in 2002-03, only 133,000 persons were employed on daily wages. In 2003-04, this number rose slightly to 168,000.
The state ranks poorly on all socio-economic indicators, with 47 per cent of its population living below the poverty line. Education, healthcare, infrastructure development, agriculture and industrial growth are all in poor shape, while infant and maternal mortality rates are high.
The low socio-economic indicators are also reflected in the skyrocketing dowry harassment figures. According to the Human Rights Protection Committee in the state and the Orissa Crime Branch statistics, the decade 1990-2000 registered a 460 per cent increase in dowry killings and 405.11 per cent increase in dowry torture as compared to 1980-90.
The new mutation that dowry harassment has gone through - livelihood through dowry - throws up several heartbreaking cases. When Mahanadi Coal Fields Ltd took over mining areas in Talcher, it promised one job for each displaced family. Five women were in line for these jobs and five unemployed youth came forward to marry them. They married in 1992. When the years dragged on and the women did not get the promised jobs, their husbands abandoned them.
The AIDWA study has revealed that this trend is not limited to economically marginalized classes. The study says: "Several middle- and upper-income group families interviewed said that they were trying to organize an NGO (register one) for the prospective bridegroom - because that is what he had demanded!" They specifically demand NGOs that have been registered for three years - the eligibility criteria for overseas funding.
Tapashi Praharaj, head of AIDWA's Orissa chapter, says that the trend is particularly noticeable these days in small towns and coastal districts.
Banaja Raol's case (2000) is a grim reminder of the serious damage that dowry is capable of causing. Raol's wedding was fixed, with the groom's side agreeing to forego 'normal' dowry in view of the stability that her government job offered. Before the marriage, however, she lost her job when the Orissa government retrenched staff to deal with a financial crunch. The groom's family immediately called off the marriage. Humiliated and desperate, Raol immolated herself in front of the Orissa State Assembly. Her suicide note read, "I have neither a job, nor can I get married; my future stretches before me as an area of darkness. What will I gain by living?"
There are many such stories. The fisherfolk were the worst affected by the super-cyclone of 1999. With fishing dinghies destroyed, the men sat at home, unable to earn a living. Soon, grooms were demanding fishing boats as dowry. Those who could scrape together enough to buy a dinghy, or had a dinghy to give away, did so. In times when marrying off their daughters seemed like a remote possibility, that was the price they had to pay.
Adding to the desperation of the situation is that - in the face of spiraling unemployment - more and more educated women are now seeing marriage as the only viable future. This helps entrench dowry even more deeply. The AIDWA survey found that, of the 150 parents interviewed in Puri, Cuttack, Kendrapada, Bhadrak and Sundargarh, a massive 78 per cent believed that dowry should be given.
Namita Panda, Chairperson, Orissa State Mahila Commission, believes that "even if dowry appears to offer a temporary reprieve from insecurity in the pervasive unemployment scenario, the practice itself has reached such dimensions that we are moving backwards from being civilized towards being an uncivilized society".
Praharaj says that they are planning to work on creating associations that will fight "dowry bribery" in Orissa. In addition to awareness generation activities in rural areas through plays, songs and dances, they will also organize mass oath-taking, where parents of boys will pledge to oppose dowry.
In urban areas, they plan to hold public protests against marriages that exceed the expenditure ceiling guidelines in the state. (Orissa has expenditure ceiling guidelines governing marriages, that stipulate that the combined cost of feasts and gifts to daughters during weddings should not exceed Rs 25,000. These guidelines are, by and large, ignored and have been criticized as being impractical.)
Unless the government, NGOs and concerned citizens take immediate and concerted action, the menace of dowry will continue to claim the lives of many more women.