Priyanka was eight months pregnant when her neighbor rushed up the stairs only to find her aflame. Her mother in-law had soaked her in kerosene and set her ablaze. The reason: Priyanka's family had failed to meet the constant dowry demands of her husband's family. Unfortunately, S.K is just one number among thousands in the long list of Dowry Deaths that occur in India every year.
Priyanka's story tells that of many Indian women oppressed in a society that sees them as mere properties of their husbands. As for S.K., for most Indian women, marriage is the only option. The rigid caste system in which they live doesn't allow any other way to go. For families in the lower strata of the rigid caste system, marrying their daughters to eligible bachelors in the higher classes and being able to satisfy their dowry demands is the only way to climb up the social ladder. In this unfair situation in which a man with position can choose the family that offers the best deal, the dowry demands skyrocketed. Women then became a much-devalued trading goods among families.
Dowry was traditionally a voluntary present from the bride's father to the father of the groom, in a custom called "kanyadan". His daughter was going to become another member of her husband's family. In the higher castes, this meant another non-producing member to sustain, and dowry was a way to compensate the groom's family for it. But what was a voluntary gift has evolved into a way of extortion from brides and their families.
The fact that some important Hindu scriptures such as Manu-Samhita describe women as a "property" of the husband did not exactly help in this matter. Even though many traditionalist groups have tried to see in this a religious justification for Dowry, there's no doubt that the reason for this evolution is purely economic. Dowry deaths are very closely linked to Hindu society. Most of these deaths occur in the Hindu Heartland and are almost inexistent in non-Hindu communities.
Unfortunately this is changing. The number of deaths has not only increased in the past 10 years but has only spread to areas that had never registered dowry deaths. Pakistan and Bangladesh, traditionally free of this custom, have now the rare honor of having their own lists of dowry violence.
More and more women find themselves trapped in an abusive marriages with no way out. Many of these marriages are purely sacramental, with no civil contract. This makes them defenseless before the law. Even with the possibility, divorce is not a valid choice for Indian women. There is just no place for unmarried women in it.
According to the Manusmriti, considered one of the most relevant legal text in ancient India, "A woman is undeserving of independence". How this deeply rooted belief is to be eliminated is now in the hand of cultured Indian women that are slowly making their way through and breaking the stereotypes of their existence.