The new film “Mango Girls” by documentarians Robert Carr and Kunal Sharma of Mandar Productions offers a disheartening reality: “Girls are unwelcome in India.”
Some of the practices girls in India are subjected to are truly shocking. In India female infanticide and sex selective abortions are commonplace, numbering in the hundreds of thousands per year or more. Violence connected to marriage rites continue as every hour or so a, ‘dream marriage’ turns to ashes when a woman is burnt to death over dowry. Although severely punished since 1961, dowry violence is on the increase. In 2000, there were 6,995 cases of dowry murders. Ten years later in 2010, 8,391 cases were reported.
But the film doesn’t stop with this bleak news, instead “Mango Girls” follows efforts to improve treatment of girls. Specifically, the film follows Dharhara Village’s unique contribution in addressing dowry violence. The villagers have found a middle way to deal with this problem, thanks to the unique tradition of planting at least 10 mango trees when a baby girl is born.
Within a span of five to seven years the tree starts to bear fruits. Once this is achieved it takes care of her wedding, education and well being. This practice is setting an example by saving the lives of its daughters, as well as creating a sustainable economy and a benefit for the ecosystem.
Gender ratios and female infanticide
It is difficult to say what is the exact imbalance of women to men in the Indian population, but a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Global Health Research indicates that in the last three decades 12 million women have been lost by selective abortion and infanticide. In the rural areas of Bahraini, close to Delhi, research says there is not more than 378 girls for every 1,000 boys born.
Carr and Sharma explore the brutality of infanticide. The variety of forms infanticide takes are devilish: sex selective abortion, death by starvation by denying breast milk to infants, poisoning, smothering with a wet towel or strangling are some of the practices.
Despite the attempts to abolish female infanticide, it continues, largely due to the challenges of another cultural custom which the girls who survive must confront: the dowry.
Dowry and dowry death
Dowry death is just one of many types of violence towards women in India. It is the fruit of greed. The grooms family harass the young bride as a consequence of the dowry size, pushing her into suicide or setting her on fire, in what is called a ‘kitchen death,’ which often is hidden by being termed ‘accidental.’
Dowry is defined as the property that the bride’s family gives to the groom or groom’s family at the time of marriage. It could be seen as gifts, but while in modern times other cultures have abandoned the practice for a real list of wedding gifts that the couple is hoping to obtain from relatives and friends. In India these gifts are an obligatory payment to the groom’s family in order to counterbalance the value of the groom, which depends on his status, caste and job at the time of marriage.
The curious thing is that in this custom, not only the woman is treated as a commodity, but the groom too, who is put on “auction.” Notwithstanding, nobody sees this as an insult to his dignity.
The transaction of dowry often does not end after marriage, as the bride’s family is expected to continue to give. Families often fear that they are virtually signing a death warrant when they give their daughter in marriage, and yet they continue to do so.
Although awareness is changing in some levels of Indian society, dowry is still an old practice strongly ingrained in the Indian psyche and economy. Because dowry is such a terrible pressure on families, it is surprising that a small village has found a creative alternative to deal with this heavy problem.
The Mango Girls of Dharhara
On the banks of the river Ganges to its south and the river Kosi to the northeast, lies Dharhara, a green female-friendly village in the heart of Bihar, a state which otherwise is well-known for high occurrence of dowry death.
Here in Dharhara, a tradition of more than 200 years says that every time a baby girl is born, the family must plant at least 10 mango trees to celebrate. This great idea helps to relieve the worries for the future safety and security of their newborn child.
The trees are a source of fixed income, which start producing fruit four to eight years after planting. From 10 mango and lychee trees, one can earn every season around Rs 200,000 ($3,730) a year. Selling the production of three years in advance provides the money for the wedding.
For generations the villagers have been planting mango trees in one of the states with a high index of dowry death, but nobody can remember a ‘kitchen death’ in Dharhara, where the rate of female/male is 957/1000 while in the whole Bhagalpur district, the gender ratio is 879/1000.
Today the village has more than 100,000 mango and lychee trees. Planting trees has also had a positive impact on the environment, as the state of Bihar needs this extra green cover, which in 2011 was only 6.87 percent while in 2000 was 17 percent.
But not only the village is going green, also the economy is flowering. Mango trees are more profitable than traditional farming, and as the money flows into the families, it provides also for the education of the girls. In fact, after girls marry, the orchards will pass to the boy’s family, their brothers or father. In this way, planting mangos has become the base of the whole socio-economic structure in the village.
Dharhara is becoming globally known for its unique tradition that, although is not breaking completely free from the dowry system, is serving the most honorable cause of stopping female infanticide and dowry death, educating girls, bringing prosperity to the village and even increasing the green cover. Summing up, making the birth of a girl child a reason for happiness. “The whole world should emulate us and plant more trees,” says Prabhu Dayal Singh, an elder in the village.
Who are the filmmakers?
Robert Carr, producer, has been a pioneer since the 1950s in media arts. He co-founded in 1966 the “Retina Circus,” in San Francisco, the first light-show for theater and concerts ever created. Later he was the production-manager at KEMO Television, which launched many innovative programs, and an Emmy Award Winner for ‘visual effects’ (1970). He also developed an early fascination for India’s rich cultural history and traditions. The idea for this documentary was brought to him by his friend, Kunal Sharma.
Kunal Sharma is a young director from Bhagalpur. He has been living in Mumbai the last 10 years working in media. “The story of the “Mango Girls” appeal is universal, and should be seen all over the world to draw attention to this growing problem of dowry death,” said Kunal.
“The wishes of our team in doing this documentary film are to amplify and propagate positive ideas that might help reduce violence against women, to promote the economic welfare of Indian people and to support their education,” said Carr.
The UL for Mango Girls: “http://youtu.be/VJAKNZS-SZc”