Modern-day Sitas Burn to Death

Apr 03, 2009
*Special to asia!

Twelve women burn to death per hour on average in India. Where does one begin to describe the terrible wrongs suffered by the country’s women?


indian women by satsal

Photo credit: Satsal

As you take the next five minutes to read this story, one woman in India would have been burnt to death.

It is hard to formulate a sensible initial response to such a figure, recently released by the Lancet Medical Journal. For a start, that women being burnt to death has even become a statistic is shocking. Why are these women burning to their deaths? And 12 every hour? Working out the maths, it amounts to 105,120 women a year, 2% of all deaths in the country. According to the study, these women are victims of kitchen accidents, self-immolation, or domestic violence. More than half are between 15 and 34 years old.

The perverse idea of burning a woman to death may unfortunately be traced to the story of Sita, the model Hindu woman. In Hindu mythology, Sita, the wife of Hindu god Rama, was abducted by the King of Lanka. When she was finally rescued, she walked through fire to prove her chastity and fidelity to her husband. Her innocence prevented the flames from harming her physically. Today, women are still being subject to this fire test in rural parts of India. Just some years ago, a 26-year-old woman was ordered to hold a piece of red-hot iron by her village tribal elders. If she emerged unscathed, her purity would be verified, much like assessing the calibre of gold.

A more common occurrence is the case of dowry murders. Tradition decrees that the family of the bride gives money or gifts to the groom. This has been outlawed since 1961, but is still practised in some parts of India, where young wives are sometimes killed if the dowry is considered insufficient. They are doused by kerosene, a common kitchen fuel, and set alight.

For unmarried females, prostitution is a way to bring home the dough. Servicing local clients earn them 100 rupees. That is just under US$2. To supplement this income, they may take on foreigners for dollar revenues.

In the world's biggest democracy, Indian women are still being deprived of equal rights. Outside the thriving cities of Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi, exist communities whose deeply entrenched values hinder the emancipation of women. In her book “Chaste Wives and Prostitute Sisters”, Anuja Agrawal discusses nomadic groups in northern India which sanction prostitution. In the Bedias community, it is the women, and not the men, who support the family. For unmarried females, prostitution is a way to bring home the dough. Servicing local clients earn them 100 rupees. That is just under US$2. To supplement this income, they may take on foreigners for dollar revenues.

The Indian government estimates there are 2.7 million prostitutes working in the country. At least one in three entered the trade before they turned 18. In the brothels, they are kept in virtual slavery, paralysed by fear that prevents them from seeking help or running away.

The circumstances that compel these women and girls into prostitution vary, though poverty is usually the key driver. Some turn to it to support their children; some are sold into it by their families to pay off debt. Human trafficking is a particularly significant contributor. Official figures say that every month, 7,000 to 10,000 Nepalese girls are smuggled into India to work in brothels. Often underaged, they are favoured because they have fairer skin and are so young they are almost definitely virgins. Families earn around US$600 for each daughter transacted.

The World Health Organisation reports that more than half of all prostitutes in Mumbai's brothels are HIV-positive, and NGOs have sprung up to help educate the women on safe sex and condom use. They have also undertaken dangerous attempts to save women from these brothels, providing shelter and protection, and filling a void that the government has left. Banks have also helped to start a savings scheme for sex workers that will give them some form of financial security.

India's Immoral Traffic Prevention Act of 1956 makes prostitution illegal and outlaws men or pimps living off a prostitute's earnings, operating a brothel, trafficking of women, and sexual exploitation. It also obliges the government to rehabilitate and rescue sex workers, should they seek help. The law may be in place, but it is hardly offering any form of protection. Women are still being enslaved into prostitution and infinitely exploited. As a result, many sex workers are campaigning for legalisation of the trade, which they believe will offer them more security and rights.

India is already beginning to see the consequences of its gender discrimination. Up in the northern state of Haryana, a largely agrarian region, the ratio of men to women is around 1000 to 650. Sex-selective abortion has created an alarming gender gap of 50 million missing women in India, where parental preference for sons over daughters is not just a phenomenon among the illiterate or impoverished. Given current trends, activists worry that India could soon overtake China as the world's biggest killer of baby girls.

Modernisation and opening of the country to foreign influences have brought rapid change to India. Like in China, social change is left trailing in the wake of this economic growth. But unlike its eastern neighbour, India’s less centralised system of governance makes it that much harder for the state to impose regulation and direct change.

The purpose of a government is to serve the needs of its people, and its worth is based on how well it does this. By this measure, those leading the world's biggest democracy are failing the very people who have made it so.


Additional sources:

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi