Activists in northern India are raising the alarm about a growing number of women being duped and abandoned by émigré husbands. Lured by the prospect of going abroad, some of the women bring huge dowries to their marriages, which the husbands take with them. Madhur Singh reports from Chandigarh that these women have little legal recourse, and many do not go to the police for fear of being branded as social outcasts.
It is wedding season in India, and in almost every neighborhood, the streets echo with celebratory music.
Colorful north Indian wedding celebrations can last for days.
Archana Sharma says she thought her wedding eight years ago, when she was 25, would be no different.
She says she agreed to enter into an arranged marriage after her father died and her mother and two younger sisters needed financial support. She married a much older, Canadian-based astrologer, whom the family believed was well settled.
He was too well settled, as it turned out. After spending six weeks with his bride, the groom went back to Toronto promising to send for her.
Instead, after six years of waiting, Sharma says she one day received divorce papers.
She says she felt used, explaining that women should be cherished and not treated as merchandise, because wives give birth and make the world go around.
Hers is an increasingly familiar story.
Various studies put the number of such abandoned brides in India at between 15,000 and 30,000. But social activists say the real number is much higher, as most cases go unreported because of the social stigma.
Patriarchal customs, inadequate laws and a fascination with going abroad all combine to cause the problem.
In the Indian state of Punjab is it common for families to have at least one member living abroad.
The head of the sociology department at Panjab University, Sherry Sabbarwal, says Punjabis, in particular, have a "craze" about going abroad.
"Punjabis have a penchant for anything foreign. We are very fond of showing off my imported car, and my imported whatever equipment I may have in my house. So I guess they like to show off their imported 'damaads,' their sons-in-law," she explained.
Nearly a half million Indians go abroad each year, primarily to find work. Sociologist Sabbarwal says many women want to join this exodus, in great part to escape from the patriarchal environment in India.
"There's this element of escaping the joint family system in India," she said. "The girl herself wants to go abroad so that she doesn't have to live with the in-laws."
Moreover, marriage to an Indian settled abroad is considered a status symbol, and a possible means for the entire family to emigrate.
Santosh Singh is coordinator at the government-run Family Counseling Center in Chandigarh.
She says very often such marriages are doomed because of a clash of viewpoints, explaining that Indians who have lived abroad for long still cherish an image of India that is no longer true.
But, she says, India has changed, and Indian girls have changed. Singh contends these grooms want a bride who will be coy and submissive and will have all the qualities that are impossible in today's world.
For whatever reason, grooms frequently end up abandoning their homegrown wives after receiving a dowry and engaging in a brief marital relationship.
Chandigarh's Family Counseling Center informs women and their families on how to verify the credentials of prospective husbands, including checking their passports, residency status and financial details.
An entire industry of private investigators and international law firms has come into being devoted to checking out prospective grooms and brides. And the government's Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has launched a program to provide legal, monetary and psychological help to women abandoned by émigré husbands.
Women's rights activists are now demanding the government sign agreements with other countries to protect those who end up marrying into the Indian diaspora.