Fri, May 16, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Indian women face lifelong curse

BITTER TRUTH Two separate cases in two different cities in India highlight the struggle women confront when they choose to take on centuries-old traditions

AP , NOIDA, INDIA

The music played, drinks were served and the priest prepared for the wedding, as 2,000 guests waited on the sprawling lawn for the beautiful young bride to walk in for the ceremony.

That was when Nisha Sharma, dressed in the shimmering red dress of a Hindu bride, was calling the police, demanding they arrest her husband-to-be.

At the same time, last Sunday night, a baby girl lay sleeping in a hospital's intensive care unit some 1,500km to the south, with the nation's eyes on her as word spread that her mother had allegedly abandoned her to take home another woman's baby boy.

On the same day in two cities across this sprawling nation, the bride and the baby were tied together by a bitter social truth -- for most Indian women, life is one long curse, starting at birth.

In the northern city of Noida, just outside the Indian capital of New Delhi, 21-year-old Sharma refused to marry after the groom's family allegedly demanded a huge dowry and humiliated her father.

On Monday, police arrested the bridegroom, Munish Dalal, 25, and charged him under India's dowry prohibition law, which has been amended several times to make it tougher but is still little enforced.

In calling off her marriage, Sharma defied a centuries-old tradition in a nation of more than 1 billion people, where many parents prefer sons and rarely give their daughters equal treatment.

"With my voice, I hope many girls will stand with me," Sharma said in an interview Wednesday, still wearing intricate henna designs on her hands and feet, the mark of a Hindu bride. "I am proud of myself because I have done something really great for others."

And something so rare that the 21-year-old software engineering student has become an overnight celebrity, made more so by her classic beauty and self-confidence.

"This young girl has brought about a revolution. She is a heroine," said Vandana Sharma of the Women's Empowerment Committee, a volunteer group.

"She really is a kind of role model for a lot of young women today," said Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. "She has shown her rejection of a custom that would chain her for all her life."

But in the southern metropolis of Hyderabad, the baby girl was paying for the same ancient customs.

When she was 4 days old, nurses took her to Latha Reddy and said she was the 19-year-old woman's daughter. Reddy knew she wasn't; she had already seen her own child, a son, moments after birth.

Reddy refused to accept the baby girl and began a sit-in protest. The baby girl's real mother did not come forward and "Baby India" -- as some media christened her -- remained unclaimed.

DNA tests proved Reddy right. A three-week hunt for the baby's parents ended Tuesday when police arrested three hospital workers and the girl's father, accused of swapping his daughter for Reddy's son.

Police allege that Nazeer Ahmed and his wife Mehmooda Begum conspired with nurses at Nayapul Government Maternity Hospital to swap their daughter for a boy. Begum's arrest was delayed as she must nurse her baby girl; she says she is innocent.

"I do not know why we are being harassed like this," she said on Tuesday, calling the swap a tragic trick of fate.

"I fed that baby [boy] for three weeks. I am happy that I have got back my daughter, but I will miss the boy for a long time," she said.

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