The other day, when Ram Kumar Singh came to say goodbye before leaving for his village, I asked why he was going at this time. He wanted to cast his vote, he said. “And I also have to check out a prospective groom for my daughter,” he added. I was immediately interested, having had many conversations with him about his eldest girl. Straitened financial circumstances might have forced him to seek employment in Delhi, but every time he spoke it was evident that Singh’s heart was with his daughter, a final year student in Allahabad University. “She’s not keen on marriage right now as she wants to study further to become a teacher,” he said. “But I have told her that she should do that if she’s lucky enough to marry someone who lets her.”
I wondered aloud why Singh was hell-bent on getting his daughter married. She was a bright student and likely to make something of herself with his support. Singh responded by saying that he just couldn’t afford it. For people like him, higher education for daughters entailed expenditure not only on tuition fees, but had other invisible consequences. When he explained these consequences, I realised that "Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao" and other government programmes to empower girls would be more impactful if there were a concurrent effort to change mindsets and cultural practices.
“If I succeed in arranging my daughter’s marriage right now, I’ll have to give maybe a motorcycle and some gold in dowry,” Singh said. “In my community, marriages without dowry are unheard of.” However, if he were to let his daughter study further, that too a vocational course in teaching that was bound to get her a good job, circumstances would change. For then he would have to look for grooms with qualifications and jobs better than those of his daughter’s. “Usually, boys in my community who have good jobs in banks or the government demand a house or car at the time of marriage,” he said. Singh, who works as a security guard in Delhi and earns about Rs 14,000 per month, can’t afford to give so much. “I also have a younger daughter to marry off in a few years,” he said.
There was another equally compelling reason why he wanted his daughter to get married instead of studying further and getting a job. The older she became, the more he would have to give in dowry. Singh explained that in his community, if a good job made a bachelor more eligible, it was youth which was a girl’s most saleable asset. “So, much as I love my daughter,” he said, “I will be happier to see her married young than have a successful career.”
I realised that with the deeper penetration of education, Singh’s daughter’s generation could look forward to better livelihoods than those of their fathers. Yet, their lives continued to be governed by regressive cultural practices like dowry. “I probably won’t be able to afford getting my daughter married if she became a government school teacher,” he said. “Neither can I afford to gamble with her future by waiting for a good dowry-less match,” he said. That’s why he believed that women’s empowerment schemes, were good for empowered women. “For girls like my daughter,” he said, “early marriage is the best.”