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Bride-burning claims hundreds in India

Practice sometimes disguised as suicide or accident

August 18, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT)

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- In parts of India, husbands regard their wives as property that apparently can be disposed of at will. Indian police say that every year they receive more than 2,500 reports of bride-burning -- a form of domestic abuse often disguised as an accident or suicide.

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These women are burned to death over wealth -- because their husbands or in-laws are unhappy with the size of the dowry that accompanied them into the marriage.

The number such cases reported to police is rising, due either to an increase in the number of burnings or to more willingness by victims to report them. And should the woman survive, the toll is heavy.

Three years ago, Sunita Bhargava was married with children -- and, she said, emotionally abused by her husband and mother-in-law.

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"My mother-in-law used to say that my husband was too educated for me, that he didn't get a fair dowry," said Bhargava, who now lives alone in a New Delhi slum.

The emotional abuse eventually turned physical, she said, when her husband and his mother scalded her with boiling water. Desperate and in pain, Bhargava dowsed herself in kerosene and set herself on fire, severely burning 40 percent of her body.

"I miss my daughter and fear the evil that may befall her," she said. "Though I passed these times, somehow, to my children I am dead."

Police have set up special offices where women can report cases of domestic abuse, but Mohini Giri, head of India's National Commission for Women, said she believes the authorities need to do more.

"Fire was used by most people who did this kind of crime ... (because) they thought that they will not leave any evidence behind," she said. "Whereas if you use a knife, there is an evidence that someone else has done it."

The practice is unlikely to end soon, however, as long as current Hindu attitudes about the place of women in a marriage prevail. Those attitudes -- and the practice of bride-burning -- cast an ironic pall over a tradition of the Hindu marriage ceremony in which the bride and groom walk together around a flame.

Brian Yasui contributed to this report.
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