For Love Of Money

<B>Christiane Amanpour</B> Reports On Dowry-Related Crimes In India

In most of the world, Nisha Sharma would be considered quite a catch. She's young, pretty and intelligent - someone any young man would be proud to marry.

Her only problem is that she lives in India where a woman is generally acceptable as a bride only if her parents offer the groom's family a sizable bribe, otherwise known as a dowry. It can cost her family as much as $100,000.

Worse than that, thousands of women in India after the marriage have been murdered if they can't pay extortionate demands that often come from their husband's family.

Demanding a dowry has been illegal in India for more than 40 years, but the tradition is so entrenched, almost no one defies it. Correspondent Christiane Amanpour reports.

Nisha Sharma is a 21-year-old college student studying computer programming in New Delhi. Before her wedding day earlier this year, her father made a deal with the groom's family. Like most in India, her marriage to a computer instructor was arranged.

"I thought he's really hard working, smart guy, best for me," says Nisha.

Nisha's father, who owns a car battery factory, found the groom by placing an ad in the local paper. He negotiated Nisha's dowry with the groom's family, and says they insisted he give them two sets of appliances - one for the new couple and one for the groom's brother.

Her father saved for ten years to pay for the car, the reception, and even the wedding video. But it still wasn't enough. Flower girls were already welcoming the groom, along with 1,500 guests when the groom's mother made a last minute demand. Nisha's father said she asked for another $25,000 in cash.

When Nisha's father refused to pay, the wedding video captured a shoving match between the two families. That's when Nisha made a split second decision that changed her life forever.

"I called the police and I said I don't want to marry that guy," says Nisha. "Because that time I was thinking they don't came to marry with me, they just came to marry with the money."

The police arrested Nisha's would-be husband, and her story caused an immediate sensation. But instead of being ostracized, Nisha became a national hero, a poster girl for all those fighting to rid India of dowry abuse.

And it wasn't just the activists saluting her. Nisha started getting support and even love letters and marriage proposals from people all over India.

Now, Nisha may even become India's new super hero in a soon to be released action comic book.

It's all been a bit overwhelming, admits Nisha: "It's too much for me because I'm so small and fame is so big."

But her battle is an uphill struggle because in today's consumer oriented India, lavish weddings and huge dowries have become the norm. Complete with parades of elephants and carriages fit for a king and queen, it's a way for the bride's family to show off their wealth and status and buy the most eligible groom.

By speaking out and breaking the silence that surrounds dowry, Nisha has inspired other young women to ditch their greedy grooms. And that's good news for women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari, who has been fighting against this tradition for more than 20 years.

"I can't go because I have seen what happens when dowry is taken and given, and the kind of cases that come to our centers and the kind of tortures and harassment that our girls go through," says Ranjana, who refuses to attend a wedding in India. "You see, [a] dowry is not one time deal in Indian marriages. If he's setting up a business, he will start putting pressure on the wife, get money from your family. If he has to buy a car, it's easy money, it's money you can extract from the girl's family."

Ranjana says it's extortion.

A wing of Delhi's maximum-security prison is reserved exclusively for mothers-in-law and their accomplices. All of them have been either convicted or accused of dowry-related crimes. Police here report that nearly 7,000 women are murdered every year, and human rights groups report that the number could be as high as 25,000. All of the women have been killed by greedy husbands and mothers-in-law trying to squeeze more money out of the young brides.

To avoid crushing debts that go with marriage, many Indian families are now aborting all their girl babies.

"Certainly there is a link. You see, the parents who think about the economic burden that they will carry, it is sometimes ten times more than their income, life income," says Ranjana. "And if it is a female child, female fetus, abort it."

The problem escalated when women were able to tell the sex of their unborn child at cheap ultrasound clinics. Now, so many girls have been aborted that it's causing a dangerous population imbalance.

It's gotten so bad that the Indian Government has banned pre-natal sex determination tests. But that has only driven them underground, as Dr. Reicha Tanwar discovered.

"We've had a number of sessions with a number of gynecologists, radiologists," says Dr. Tanwar. "And even though they know it's legally banned, they have gone on record by saying that they have had cases of women come to their clinics - one single person, come to their clinics seven or eight times, to get an abortion done because it was a female child."

But what really shocked Dr. Tanwar is the latest census figures in her state, which now show that almost twice as many boys as girls are being born among the better off and literate.

Across the country in Bombay, doctors Anarood and Angeli Malpani run an IVF clinic. One of the only ones in the world, that pre-selected embryos to guarantee the birth of a boy. But that too has been declared illegal, much to Dr. Malpani's disgust.

"I think it's perfectly ethical and acceptable to use the technology. I think it's actually unethical not to use it and to let someone else sit in judgment and say no because you're an Indian couple you should not be allowed to have a boy. The whole point of living in a democracy is that you allow individuals to make decisions for themselves," says Dr. Anarood Malpani.

"My point is that you're effectively saying I am the right person to make that decision, and that particular individual is too stupid to make that decision for herself."

But the shortage of girls is already causing problems, says Dr. Tanwar: "When these children come of marriageable age they are not going to find girls for marriage, and life for a girl is going to be very difficult. They are going to be kidnapped, raped, picked up, sold, bought. I fear to think what will happen if this goes on."

Some of those fears are already being realized in one village in northern India.

Hundreds of men there aren't married and can't find wives to marry.

"It's a very alarming situation, because if we can't control this now, the crisis will spread to all of India," says Bhushan Das, the village's Hindu priest. "Without women, our world will come to an end."

But the only way that will change is if the dowry custom is eliminated first, and that's why Nisha's story has hit such a nerve here.

"I want to become a symbol for the girls," says Nisha. "Dowry is a black spot on our country or I can say on the earth."

"In our part of the country, people grieve when a daughter is born in the family. There is no celebration," says Dr. Tanwar. "It is these girls, these kind of cases, which are going to encourage others to emulate it, and put a stop to it. If girls themselves put their foot down, maybe some change would come. What is the other way? I don't see any other way."