"The women of our society have stood injustice and discrimination for a long time," says Binita. "I know because I am one of them." Unless the brides' parents pay dowry amounts demanded by the groom's family their daughters will not get married. This practice gives rise to multiple marriages, feeds the greed of in-laws and leads to domestic violence.
Ram Baran Sah's first marriage turned sour after he started beating his wife. He married for a second time to Lalita Mandal and went abroad to work. While he was away, his family raised questions about Lalita's character and soon Ram Baran returned home to marry a third time. Ram Baran paid elders Rs 25,000 to 'cancel' their marriage. Lalita, in turn, received Rs 100,000 as payback. Disowned by her husband and forsaken by society, Lalita has nowhere to go.
Dhanusa and Siraha are the epicentres of domestic violence against women, and the practice has its roots in the entrenched tradition of dowry. In these two districts in the last three years alone, 213 women lost their lives, 143 of those were suicides by women who could not bear the torture at their husbands' homes.
When 23-year-old Poonam Kumari of Dhanusa got married, her parents paid as much dowry as demanded. But her husband's family kept beating her in order to get more. Months later, her body was found hanging from a tree. When Poonam's parents sought justice, they were instead threatened by the elders of society and told to let go of it.
According to law, those who force dowries can be imprisoned for up to 30 days. The Domestic Violence Crime and Punishment Act, 2008 describes violence as any form of physical, mental, sexual and economic abuse. But most cases end with the perpetrators getting a clean chit.
Ghanodevi Mahara, 55, doesn't find it unusual at all to be beaten by her husband. In the early days after her marriage, she sought help from others, but they suggested that it was natural for wives to get beaten up after being told to 'shut up'. Her husband Ramswaroop is even more surprised to learn, in his old age, that beating his wife is criminal behaviour and punishable by law.
"In India, if a woman is involved in any accident during the first seven years of marriage, her whole family is treated as suspects and held responsible," says Rekha Jha, an advocate in the district court of Dhanusa. "In Nepal, they label murder as suicide and the killers walk free."
Parents are also loathe to send their daughters to school because they must then find son-in-laws more educated than them, consequently raising dowry prices. Aaratidevi Mahato, 22, was married off at 14 when in grade eight, and she was not allowed to attend school after that.
Puja Kumari Yadav of Siraha is in grade nine and she wants to be a staff nurse after SLC. "I study at night because I have to work during the day," she says. "I don't know if I will get through nine." Her father, meanwhile, reasons that Puja must get some experience in managing a household because she is a girl.
But Shila Mahato of Janakpur was something of a rebel. When her parents pressured her to get married when still in high-school, she threatened them saying she would report them to the police. Shila went on to complete her undergraduate degree, and her mother now complains of the Rs 900,000 dowry they had to pay her husband's family.
The government announced 2010 as 'Year Against Domestic Violence', but out of the model projects to be run in 15 districts, only eight were implemented. Even awareness programmes and paralegal services to women have brought little change.
There are 930 NGOs in Dhanusa and Siraha alone, most of which operate for 'women's welfare' and dozens that claim to organise local awareness programmes. But all this seems to have made little difference to the incidence of domestic violence in the eastern Tarai.
On the one hand, project-coordinators complain that the government doesn't care about the staggering number of crimes carried out against women, while on the other, police underline the necessity to deal with these cases on the basis of mutual agreement because there is no legal provision to imprison the perpetrators and carry out investigations.
Amidst all this, one question arises: who must then organise campaigns against such social evils? The answer is simple, the residents of Mithila themselves. Scholars Rambharos Kaapadi and Yogendra Prasad Yadav say it is now up to the younger generation to discard dowries and end domestic violence. But first of all, it is the educated, respected, and wealthy who must lead by example, sacrifice this medieval ritual and become examples to society at large.