On the day we arrive in Sukhasan, pomp obscures reality.
In front of a white-stone town hall, plastic chairs absorb the heat. They’re not stacked or haphazard - rather they have been carefully arranged into a downward crescent moon, awaiting the backbones of officialdom.
Government staff sink back, mastering the seats with their bodies. The fleshy semicircle thrums as the men grin and chat and extend their hands in greeting.
One of them is Manoj Kumar – a Dowry Prohibition Officer. His thin spectacles and thick moustache stand to attention. He’s roughly five foot and three inches tall. Mr Kumar’s manner is quiet and amiable.
Unlike official government visits in the UK where beaming ministers parade around hospitals and schools of their press department’s choosing, Mr Kumar seems detached and laid back. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin.
Later, after the family he's brought us to meet have laid their sufferings bare, I ask Mr Kumar if he think he’s helped them with their dowry case?
"Yes, yes," he nods at me peacefully. I press him on the issue and ask if he thinks it's been resolved.
"Yes, I have resolved the problem of that family."
In this small village in the state of Bihar the community prepares for a wedding that same evening.
Dowry: India's social custom exposing hundreds of thousands of women to abuse
India's glittering marriage culture masks an uncomfortable truth. Hundreds of thousands of women, likely an underestimate, face abuse under a social custom known as dowry.
It involves the bride's family giving gifts or payments to the groom's family.
Built in to the practice is a deeply rooted notion that her physical and psychological safety can be assured through money, jewels, watches or any other valuable. The exact origin of the practice is unknown, though it’s widely accepted to be rooted in the system of patrilineality.
In many South Asian countries, land ownership provides economic security. This is especially true for people in agricultural communities, those from low-income backgrounds or living in poverty.
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Inheritance laws in India are complex and differ according to religion. In 2005, amendments to the Hindu Succession Act – which governs inheritance issues – made women’s access to securing land equal to men. Succession laws in India continue to be amended but the continuing practice of dowry impedes the fight for equality. It is often considered the daughter’s share of a family’s assets and has long been accepted justification for unequal inheritance.
It’s widely believed that a dowry ensures the security of the daughter in the new family, that she will be well cared for and treated appropriately. Large dowries are also linked to a notion that the new husband is from a well-established family and is of good character.
Over decades, activists, lawyers and economists have argued that dowry payments commodify a woman’s worth and domesticise her identity. The giving or taking of dowry was criminalised in 1961 under the Dowry Prohibition Act. Six decades on, however, the official figures on dowry-related crimes are worthy of interrogation.
The official figures on dowry-related crimes:
In 2020, dowry-related suicides increased in India, and over the five year period prior they jumped by 10%.
Delhi recorded 108 dowry suicides – the highest of any Indian city.
Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, recorded the next highest at 16.
Suicides fall under the law 'dowry deaths', which applies if a woman "dies within seven years of marriage by any burns or any other bodily injury, or it was revealed that before her marriage she was exposed to cruelty or harassment by her husband, or any other relative of her husband in connection to demand the dowry then the death of the woman will be considered as a dowry death."
The highest number of dowry deaths by state were recorded in Uttar Pradesh, then Bihar.
As we're driving to Sukhasan, a small village in Bihar we spot a government anti-dowry poster.
Plastered high on a red-brick wall, adjacent to a breathlessly busy main road, the tarpaulin billboard gazes listlessly over a large, empty field.
The words: "It is our mission to improve society by not insulting girls by subjecting them to child-marriage and dowry exchange."
It's bright red and attached to a half-finished building. The red doesn't scream as much as it should amid the dry, faded hay colours and rusty browns of the agricultural landscape. Around 80% of Bihar’s population is employed in the farming industry. The land provides a living in this state, and as we know, land in India is a feminist issue.
Manoj Kumar stays seated as we, the filming crew, are led beyond the town hall towards the home of Soni – a 21-year-old woman. The ground is uneven and dotted with puddles. A baby goat stumbles into our path, its sweet innocence nuzzling at the atmosphere weighed down by both friction and thick heat. We pass squat-stone houses on our short walk to Soni’s house, which soon reveals itself just as a tranquil, unexpected view might to a panting rambler.
The perfectly proportioned turquoise house stands towards the back of a small yard. Clothes dance on the one-rope washing line out front. Abhinandan, Aruna and their child Soni squint at us through the white-hot sun rays. The Ram’s are in turmoil.
"We spent two lakhs on this ideal marriage by begging here and there, but now he is saying, 'give two lakhs, give a car,' but we don't even have a house, so how can we give it?" Abhinandan is referring to his son-in-law.
Men and boys from the village are gathered in small groups around us, nearly all of them filming on their phones. Many will have contributed to the community loan that paid for Soni’s wedding. Abhinandan is still in debt to his neighbours.
We know Soni recently passed her matriculation exam, a test taken at the end of secondary school. Her high cheekbones sit with dignity and strength on her face, though her eyes betray a sense of burden and seem to be pulling her away to another place. She remains distant for the entire interview, and we understand why as her story unfolds.
Soni’s husband is refusing to see her because, the family claim, they can’t meet his dowry demands. These are a motorcycle and, before the wedding, 200,000 thousand rupees - roughly £2,000.
Abhinandan insists that the government's anti-dowry campaigns have no impact and says that Mr Kumar hasn't helped his family. Soni tells us that her husband sometimes rings and verbally abuses her, insisting that she stays away from him unless his demands are met.
Would she consider returning to the relationship? Abhinandan answers first.
"We have not enough food and it's not possible to keep her with us for a long time. We have to look forward in this regard. We still do not think that their life should be spoiled. If he comes to get her, we will happily send her and bend my head on his feet," he says with certainty.
Then Soni responds: "If they still take me back unconditionally, then I am ready to go back."
Sitting in the shade of a wooden shelter with a tin roof, a middle-aged woman fizzes quietly as we conduct our interview, bubbling over at certain moments. She cannot hide her discontent with what the Abhinandan and Soni have shared. Her strong tenor cuts through the rapid-fire chatter of the family. Later we are told that she’s the village’s community officer. By the time Abhinandan says, of his son-in-law, "he could kill my daughter," the woman is gone.
The anti-dowry movement: How women and girls are being helped
Gouri Chaudhary’s wisdom precedes her - it greets us first, filling up the pause she takes before speaking. It's the kind of pause that self-assured woman feel no pressure to fill.
"Ria!" Her soft skin bunches into a smile and her pillowy cheeks balloon. We’d been speaking on the phone to organise filming long before flying to Delhi.
Not long before Gouri's arrival, Helen Clifford (the film’s director) and I quietly absorb the room's bubbling alchemy. The space wears its purpose loudly and intentionally. It is a shrine to progress. The organisation's efforts track the walls – there’s a timeline of significant moments in the fight for gender equality that also serve as a reminder of how much there is still to do.
In block capital letters, the posters chant: "Women know your rights" and "Men stop violence on your near and dear ones".
Gouri ushers us past a small kitchen where tea is brewing, and likely further plans to disrupt the status quo.
Action India is a grassroots charity working to empower women in low-income settlements through education on family planning, domestic violence and access to healthcare. It was started in 1976 by five founding women. By 1979, the problem of dowry abuse had consolidated its grip and the sisterhood felt it.
"There were three cases a day reported in the newspaper of bride burning and stoves bursting on newly married women," construction noise tumbles in through a gap in the balcony door, along with soft swords of sunlight.
The rays rest on Gouri’s face, occasionally catching her silver earrings which swing as she talks. Gouri is stylish and smart.
"Girls didn't let their parents know that they were being tortured because they knew that their parents would be embarrassed and would have to take them back after spending all this money on their marriage. We created crisis centres where women and parents could come to for help," she says.
Black and white photographs of the 1979 protests are gathered on the wall. They were sparked by the death of a young woman who was found with extreme body burns in her husband's family home. Her mother, Satya Rani Chaddha, turned her grief to purpose by launching the anti-dowry movement. By this point, the Dowry Prohibition Act had been in effect for nearly two decades.
"Police inaction and misuse of the laws, both by the lawyers and police courts, I think is a major reason [the law] has not been implemented. Crimes against women continue to be a major, major issue, which is not reported. Whatever crime bureau figures you've seen, I don't think represent even 10% of the reality," Gouri says.
Her understanding of the dowry issue is nuanced.
"We are looking forward to young men changing their ways," she says, referring to the issue of sharing housework. Gouri isn't being flippant or facetious, rather she sees gender inequality as a complex board of interconnected social issues. She questions overarching value systems.
"A single woman is not respected. Sometimes she thinks 'I better face the violence in my home than if I'm single - then I will attract so many other men who will be equally violent to me.' So, one of the things is that marriage is supposed to be a protection. I know single women who wear a ring to tell society: 'I am married.'
"Marriage has been posed as the ultimate in any woman's life. And after that, giving birth to a son is her next role. If women don't have children, if they haven't given birth to a son she again faces torture from her husband and in-laws, and more from her own family. Can you believe that parents are concerned if their daughters do not produce a son?"
Gouri sends us on our way to our next location, she’d love to join us but she’s in her 80s and her pace of life is slower these days.
Breaking free: How women are reclaiming their autonomy
The sun is at its most stately by the time we arrive at one of Action India’s community projects. The shaded arteries of the low-income settlement wash us into a stream of people. Flies skid through the air. We climb five or six steps into a room, and it feels we have entered a rainbow.
Around 20 women clap their hands to the beat of their own chanting, surely energised by the vivid colours of the saris and kameez's around them. In the middle, a man in black trousers and a white shirt sits still next to his elderly mother. He's been physically abusing her, we're told, and the women surrounding him are both judge and jury.
The walls chant too. Paper posters and batik banners fortify the space, all emboldened with the iconography of sisterhood. One painting depicts a woman whose face is split, and from the divide a roaring tiger's face is ready to pounce. "She isn’t weak, she is quiet," says the logo.
Panchayat’s (village council) are akin to small courts, where the weight of community pressure strikes as heavily as any gavel. The spirit of vulnerability and dialogue dominates. The woman and her son are so candid it feels like they've kicked open the doors to their home, allowing their demons and traumas to bound towards neighbours and friends.
The room is full of emotionally intelligent women who are listening, understanding, taking evidence, drawing up contracts and offering support and counselling. The son has signed his name to a list of points to pledge a change in behaviour, but it's hard to say to what extent he will bind himself to the words.
He wanders out of the rainbow and we watch him disappear down the narrow streets. The room quietens and we are introduced to Nisha and Mazahar, two young women who faced dowry abuse and left their marriages.
"He married me by telling a lie," Nisha’s words land like soft, fallen petals. She is petite. The lie is that her husband told her he had a job when he didn’t. Nisha seems both poised and self-conscious, vulnerable and resilient, leaping from one traumatic incident to the next. Her stories are grenades to quickly throw on.
Nisha reveals in one sentence that she had no physical relationship with her husband as her mother-in-law would sleep in their room, she alleges that the family repeatedly demanded a scooter and money and attempted to blackmail her, and then: "My sister-in-law didn't allow me to go anywhere. They used to lock me up."
A single incandescent bulb hangs from the ceiling, lighting the room bare. It makes it seem like nighttime even though, outside, the setting sun glazes Delhi the colour of honey. Mazahar has been listening to Nisha's story.
My feet stick a little to the rattan mat as I cross the room to sit on the floor next to her. She lifts her face to welcome me. She starts deep breathing exercises, encouraged by her mentor who is sat just a few feet across the floor. They breathe together. I feel I am witnessing a communion of sisterhood, one that is sacred to these two women and familiar to billions of others.
Just as Nisha did, Mazahar pauses to wipe away tears as she speaks. "I didn’t even have a phone or money to go anywhere. I had nothing. They locked me up in a room. Everyone was taunting me. I wasn't getting food. I was being hit and constantly being asked for dowry money. 'What has your father given us? We wanted a car but we didn’t get it.'
"I didn’t even have a phone, or money to go anywhere. I had nothing. I was quite sick. I didn't have the courage to walk even. The doctor told my father that I wouldn't live as I’d not been given enough food or water."
The legal case has been dragging on for five years. In the meantime, Mazahar has gained a diploma in computing as well as beauty. "Now, I can tell my story to anyone," she says smiling.
Later that evening, Helen and I reflect on our time spent filming with Action India. We agree that we have witnessed something almost indefinable – almost. These women clearly give bountifully and it's impossible to ignore.
'I want to die with my boots on'
In 2020, 30% per cent of all crimes against women in India were legally registered under "cruelty by husband or relatives of the husband." This is one of three laws, under the Indian Penal Code, designed to prevent dowry-related abuse.
It's defined as: "Any wilful conduct that's likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health of the woman; or harassment of the woman… with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security, or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand."
Though this law doesn't specifically use the word "dowry", lawyers have confirmed to us that, in all but name, this law relates to the practice of dowry. There is no breakdown of what percentage of cruelty cases are linked to dowry.
Namita Roy's office is small and she shares it with two other lawyers. Wooden shelves climb the walls. Canary-yellow legal tomes and bloated files look down at the frazzled desks which are layered with more files and papers. There's a pink pen tidy. One of the first things that Namita says to us is: "I want to die with my boots on." She clearly works hard in her role as a matrimonial lawyer. She says she's dealt with more dowry cases than she can count. I ask Namita if she thinks the current dowry laws are fit for purpose?
"This law is being more misused than it's serving its purpose," Namita speaks emphatically and she delivers her thoughts with a knowing smile. "Why I say so? Because now the education level of ladies is much more. Financially, ladies are much more stable. Girls are much more empowered now to resist all of these demands."
Soni's situation comes to mind. Her reality seemingly a trap – an abusive husband, she alleges, who has put a price on her returning to their married home and a father determined to send her back at any cost. Does Namita's analysis exclude huge numbers of women in the country who are from poorer backgrounds? Is she saying that women are manipulating the law?
"Yes, to some extent. I’m not saying all, but the majority – especially in the metros (cities). This is a shortcut to getting out of the marriage. We don't have this 'irreversible breakdown of marriage' as grounds for divorce. So, either you have to come under the aspect of cruelty, desertion or adultery. And this takes a long process."
Part of Namita's argument is that filing a case under cruelty (99.9% of cases, she says, relate to dowry) is an extremely long and arduous legal route. She says if 'irreversible breakdown of marriage' became part of the law, 50% of dowry cases would vanish.
"But, the other side is that proving these cases is also quite difficult, because this violence happens behind closed doors. The courts take what a lady is saying on gospel truth. These are very painstaking trials, so it's better to settle on monetary terms. That's why the complaint and conviction statistics are so different. And that's why you can’t say dowry crime is very high."
The women and their stories
My journey into this story began on social media. I came across women's names fastened onto hashtag templates just as seatbelts clip into their holds. But, there is no security here, no guarantee of safe delivery from A to B – where A is abuse and B is justice. If you search '#JusticeForRashika', '#JusticeForAyesha' or '#JusticeForVismaya' you will find tweets that collapse into threads and the details of these women's lives unspool in technicolour.
They cannot tell their own stories now, though each of them tried to share their darkest twists and turns before it became too painful to bear.
Rashika Jain was a 25-year-old student of business. She'd completed her management degree in Singapore. What successful heights might she have reached? Her last words were in a WhatsApp message: "I tried to live here but I cannot bear the torture they have done. It is better that I go, Papa. Don’t miss me." Later that day, Rashika's mother received a phone call from Rashika's mother-in-law - Rashika had jumped from the rooftop.
This is an issue that crosses social and economic spheres. Anju Devi received a similar phone call, 25 people attended her daughter Lakshmi's wedding. Lakshmi was extremely happy that day, her sister Rakhi tells us. Rakhi and Lakshmi look like twins – their youth has a sweetness to it and their eyes are the colour of crisp autumn leaves. During the interview, Rakhi's invisible body armour surfaces in her cadence, as though every word has a steel-toe cap: "Lakshmi stopped talking to us. Her husband kept her from us. He locked her up. He beat her badly. She tried to run away."
Rakhi delivers these allegations plainly, as though she has reached into her heart and flicked the switch off. At the wedding there was a big tent and a pandal. There was pilau and meat and dessert. The marriage had been arranged by a local matchmaker in two days, to a man with a good job in Delhi. Lakshmi would be looked after. 40,000 rupees a month (around £400) is significant to the Devi family whose home is one room in a small hut made from bamboo sticks and layered with newspapers. There is a water pump outside and a square clay pit where leaves are compressed to light a fire. There, Anju makes tea for everyone: "I mean dowry practice is wrong. Those who have, they can give. We don't have, so what can we give?" I think of Rashika Jain, a middle-class woman who married into a wealthy family.
It was only two months into the marriage that the groom started demanding money from Lakshmi, the family says. They say she ran from his abuse four or five times, but freedom can feel elusive for some women when there is a pressure to try to make the marriage work. The phone call Rakhi received on the day Lakshmi took her own life is recounted stoically. When I ask what life is like without Lakshmi, Rakhi's face remains unchanged but her eyes brim with loss: "I miss her too much."
Anju says: "I am just breathing. Neither am I alive or dead. I am stuck in the middle. This is the pain of my life. We marry our daughters so that they can be happy. The son-in-law in jail and the daughter left the world. Now understand, what would be my condition?"
Rakhi beckons me to follow her. For the first time I see the dimples deepening her cheeks and her kohl-lined eyes twinkle with expectation. She wants me to meet her Dadi (grandma) who lives next door - and though the language barrier means our exchange is minimal it brings a bounce to Rakhi's step.
She is proud of her family and this village of narrow, intersecting lanes where one leads to Dadi and the other to mum - where the whoops and hollers of gleeful children fill her afternoons. As she passes the small kiosks that are dressed with packets of hanging sweets and crates of Coca Cola, her proud skin devours the afternoon sun and her burgundy kameez sashays in a breeze created by her own energy. Bicycles with flowers lining the handlebars whoosh by, passing shaded porches where saris folded into thick wads hang on the line.
It is here, in her space, her home, that Rakhi tells me she wants to be a police officer. We smile at one another, thinking of our sisters.