By Lindsy Long & Julianna Wu
23-year-old Sefali (not real name) has been wearing her wedding dress for seven days. Under the huge pressure from family and police, she has been desperately waiting for Manoranjan, the man she met and fell in love with while in law school, who does not belong to the same caste as she does, and who she truly loves.
At the very moment of seeing his loved one marry someone else arranged by Sefali’s parents, Manoranjan showed up like a movie hero and told Sefali that he was still in love with her. Shocked but excited, Sefali called off the wedding and prepared to go with her true love.
Unfortunately, she could not find him anywhere in the following week. Not only did Manoranjan lose his courage to come forward and face his lover under family pressure, he ended up in jail for breaking an arranged marriage.
Sefali is not the only girl who finds herself in an arranged marriage in India. Even if they marry someone they like, due to low social status and cultural reasons, women need to do all the housework and might even face domestic violence.
Despite the tragedies like Sefali and Manoranjan, some Indians seem to like the idea of an arranged marriage.
Ms Jigal Patel, an Indian architect who got married last year, said her marriage follows the typical Indian style arranged marriage and she has get along well with her new family.
“In my country, marriage is the bonding between not only the new couples but the two families. Most Indian marriages do last long,” she said.
“The low divorce rate in India benefits from the custom,” said Mr Abhay Verma, a native young man grew up in Pune, India. “Parents who have more experience with life will take into account the compatibility of the couple in terms of age, education, religion and traditions. The marriage is not only a conjugation of the husband and wife as two individuals but a social bond between the two families and their communities.”
Marriage without love can lead to bad treatment of the wives. According to a report by Dastra, a Mumbai-based human rights organization, 70 percent of women living in India have endured some form of domestic abuse.
“Women are always the subject of domestic violence. They dare not report or resist to the bad treatment received from the husband,” said Ms Yeung, the manager of Indian programs for Oxfam Hong Kong, a human rights organization.
Priyanka Lokhande, a 26-year-old woman from Pune, said many amendments in law have been done for post-marriage or divorce status of women.
“The problem is that women are too shy to come forward and lodge a complaint. The social position of middle class women does not allow them to freely put forth their problems,” she said.
While Indian laws are improving to protect women’s rights against discrimination and atrocities, the enforcement of law is weak.
“Even though there are laws to protect women from domestic violence, police and politician regard domestic violence as private business and reject to offer any help,” Ms Yeung said.
Despite domestic violence, sexual assault cases towards Indian women have also been reported in recent years from time to time. The girl who was gang raped by six men and threw out of the private bus naked with her male friend, for example, shocked the world in 2012.
Abhay, who worked in an event management company in Pune, said women are not treated equally in society in almost all spheres, and the inequality comes right from birth.
“Birth of a female child is considered a burden to the family. The sooner they get married, the quicker the burden is off from the family,” he said. “Even after getting married, women’s role is generally restricted to taking care of the household.”
According to Oxfam’s observation, every meal in Indian families serves the men first, from husband to son, followed by mother-in-law, while wife and daughter are the last.
Nevertheless, compared to decades ago when Indian women were raped by police in 1972, measures taken by the government and human rights organizations in the past few years have opened up new possibilities on the improvement of Indian women’s marriage life and social status.
Mr Yang He from Hong Kong, who travelled to India in 2014, noted female-only waiting rooms in train stations and carriages in the subway set up by the Indian government to protect women from sexual harassment.
Raising public outcry against unlawful act has helped increase women’s awareness of their rights, which leads to additional 8 percent more rape cases revealed in 2014 compared to that of 2007, documented by the National Crime Record Bureau of India.
“Nowadays, hearing process of rape cases is faster in courts and immediate actions are taken against domestic violence,” Jigal said. “But this is not the solution to problems women are facing. Prevention has to be taken before any such anti-women act happens.”
Human rights organizations such as Oxfam Hong Kong, have set up programs in Indian villages to help promote violence-free lives for married women.
“We give direct help and provide legal support for affected women to sue their husbands. In addition, we also advocate local and national politicians to enforce the implementation of law,” Ms Yeung said.
Abhay said more and more girls are studying in schools either free or at a low price, thanks to the increasing number of schools, especially in villages and small towns.
“Traditionally, the role of the wife is to take care of all the household work, look after the parents and support the husband. While nowadays, women are able to perform the role of a ‘bread earner’, working side by side with their husbands and even participate in business and political activities,” he said.
After repeated counselling sessions, Sefali has gradually recovered from pain and is assertive and confident towards her future. Currently, she is planning to return to law school to pursue a higher education degree in the field she loves.