Asha is 28, university educated and unmarried. For a Nepali girl she’s deviated far from the accepted path. Asha finished university with a degree in sociology and speaks fluent English. In discord with her parents, she refuses marriage proposals on a regular basis.
Asha works 12-14 hour days in the family business. Her brothers refuse to pay her. When they’re not looking, she takes her wages from the cash drawer. Every month she deposits the accumulated income in a secret savings account. It’s taken her 4 years to save US$1000.
I sit in a wicker chair, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of masala tea. Asha sits in the chair next to me. It’s late and most Nepalis are in for the night. Two boys play with sticks in the street, but Pokhara is quiet. One of the boys trips and tumbles into a bush. I laugh but I realize I’m the only one. I turn to Asha who looks overwhelmed with worry.
“Hey, ash, are you okay?”
She sighs deeply. “I don’t want this life,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
Latent panic enters her voice, “I don’t want my life to turn out like the rest of the girls here.”
I reassure her, “Don’t worry. It won’t.”
“Have I told you about my sister?”
“You have a sister?” I’ve been in Pokhara for a month. I’ve met all her family members and no one had mentioned a sister.
“Yeah, she died.” Her eyes swell with tears. “Svara. She was 3 years younger than me.”
“Asha, I’m so sorry. When did this happen?”
And so she begins to tell me Svara’s story. Their parents arranged for Svara to marry a man who lived across the border in a small Indian town. She went without complaint. And six months after the wedding Asha went to visit. Svara was severely depressed. Her new husband was both verbally and physically abusive. Her sisters-in-law excluded and ignored her. Three months after her visit, Asha received a phone call announcing Svara’s death. Svara covered herself with kerosene, lit herself on fire, and burned. The police documented the incident as suicide.
By the end of the story, tears stream down Asha’s cheeks. Her hands shake and she has to set down her tea. Before I can think of something kind to say, her brother pulls up on a motorcycle. Asha quickly wipes away tears and stands up with her back toward him. She grabs the mugs and runs inside to avoid his questions. I have a short conversation with him, but I make my excuses and begin my walk home.
That night I don’t sleep. I’d heard of dowry deaths, but I’d yet to meet someone affected by them. A dowry death is when a woman is murdered or driven to commit suicide by her husband and his family members. Usually preceded by extreme violence and abuse, they’re an attempt to extort a larger dowry from the bride’s family or simply free the husband from the marriage so he may remarry. Dowry deaths are commonly reported in South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Bride burning is one form of dowry death. Fire is used instead of weaponry because it leaves no traceable evidence. In the case of murder, families can disguise the death as accident or suicide. The wife is doused with a flammable liquid – usually kerosene or gasoline – and set on fire. In 2008 the Indian National Crime Records Bureau reported 8,172 dowry death cases in India that year alone. The Indian police report over 2,500 bride-burning deaths annually.
Some bride-burning incidents are actual cases of self-immolation. These women feel they have no escape. They struggle with abuse and depression and have no resources to pull themselves out of misery. Death appears the only option. And while most women believe their death will be instant, many survive with severe burns and consequences.
Below is a terrific video about bride burnings and female self-immolation in Afghanistan from New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario. I will warn you – this video is disturbing. But, I urge you to watch it. When I posted videos about the Cambodian virginity trade many readers told me they chose not to watch them because they found them disturbing. They are disturbing. But they are also reality. And if you choose to not watch something because it’s disturbing (which, by the way, you have every right to do so), you are choosing to ignore real issues that affect human beings. So, you don’t have to watch it this moment, but please watch it at some point (maybe mentally prepare beforehand?). Dowry deaths and bride burnings are issues that haven’t been focused on enough and are a serious concern for many women in the world.
*All names were changed in this story for privacy purposes.