For most of us, dowry is a distant concept - a word that we usually come across in our social studies textbook. It's clubbed together with 'Sati' as a social evil in our country, however, unlike 'Sati', dowry is an ugly reality in many Indian arranged marriages. Surprisingly, even educated women are often abused, harassed, and violated in the most heinous ways if they fail to offer a dowry. The proof lies in constant news reports of dowry abuse and dowry death cases.
In 2018, a 39-year-old woman from New Delhi died in an apparent suicide, which police investigated as dowry death. The woman, a Lufthansa airlines flight attendant, had married her husband in 2016 but shortly after their marriage, her husband allegedly began abusing her. According to the bride's family, the husband was repeatedly emotionally and physically tormenting her so that she hands him over more dowry.
Another shocking statistic is that there were 17 filed cases of dowry in the first 16 days of 2020 in Bangalore. A police inspector handling one of the cases tells the New Indian Express that in one of the cases, the husband took 1 kg of gold from the girl's family as dowry. He wasn’t satisfied with that, so he tortured his wife for more cash and when she refused to succumb to his demands, he burnt her alive.
In cases where the husband directly kills his wife over dowry, it becomes easy for the police to convict the accused. That is why, to escape the punishment by law, the husband does not murder his wife but abuse her mentally and physically to drive her to suicide. For instance, in Kerala, a man and his family deprived a 27-year-old woman of food until she starved to death. Why? Because their demand for a 2 lakh dowry wasn't met.
The disturbing practice of dowry is illegal and punishable by Indian law but many Indians still cling to it in the name of upholding traditions and customs. While it’s true that anti-dowry laws are available to bring justice to victims, a lot of cases still go unreported. Some reasons for this are rooted in how dowry came about and what it means to families.
Why do Indians partake in dowry?
One theory about the origins of dowry is that it stems from our gendered inheritance rules. Traditionally, women didn't inherit the family's wealth so dowry was viewed as a way of giving women their share as she's leaving home. It's surprising how this reason is still used as a justification as the Hindu Succession Act 1956 ruled that daughters must get equal rights to their family's property.
The second reason stems from the idea that women are freeloaders in a household and must pay some sort of compensation for freeloading. Since they’re not involved in paid labour but unpaid household work, they are considered freeloaders. She owes everything to her husband as she is living in his home and she is using his hard-earned cash. The dowry is seen as her way of contributing to the household monetarily.
The third reason why Indians partake in exchanging dowry is that the bride’s family associates dowry with pride. The amount is supposed to be shown-off at family gatherings so that people can awe at the amount of wealth in the bride’s family. Even education isn't able to put an end to this practice, in fact, it's reduced to another factor that determines the groom's market rate - higher the qualifications, higher the dowry.
On the other hand, a well-educated woman might be judged for her qualifications instead of lauded for them as in arranged marriages, the man should be always one-up his wife in every aspect whether it be qualifications or salary. So, a high-salaried woman would be matched with a higher salaried woman who would then demand a higher dowry because of his income. This is why sons are seen as assets and daughters as liabilities.
As seen in numerous cases, when the bride is unable to pay the promised 'gifts' to her husband, the groom's family and the groom often use violence to extract the dowry from the bride's family. Even after the dowry is paid, it's possible that the groom and in-laws would pressurize the woman for more cash prizes. Dowry has become so deeply instilled in our culture that legal provisions do little to keep it in check. Let’s have a look at the laws made to prevent dowry in our country.
What are the anti-dowry laws in India?
There are several dowry laws in our constitution, here is how they've progressed and amended over the years:
1. Under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, giving and accepting dowry is an offense. People found guilty of either one can be punished with 5 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 15,000. In 1983, there are amendments in the act to make it easier for wives to seek redressal for harassment by the husband's family.
2. Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code deals with dowry deaths which are officially described as - the death of a woman in the initial seven years of marriage as a result of dowry demand by her husband or his family/relatives.
3. The official anti-dowry law prohibits cruelty by the husband or his family towards a woman. It punishes perpetrators who force women to commit suicide for money or property. This amendment allows immediate arrest and jailing of a woman’s spouse and her in-laws in the case of harassment or cruelty. The case once filed cannot be withdrawn by the petitioner and is also non-bailable. So, a complaint can lead to the arrest of the accused and it would be rest upon the courts to decide whether to grant or refuse bail.
Some say anti-dowry laws are being misused
In 2014, reports started emerging that urban middle-class women are misusing anti-dowry laws to make a quick buck. To tackle this issue, in 2017, the Supreme Court had directed that no direct and immediate arrest shall be made under dowry harassment laws and that the police have to follow a nine-point checklist before making any arrests. Renuka Chowdhury, Minister of State for Women and Child Development, had raised the same concern in 2007 as well. She told the lower house of the parliament that over 19,000 false cases were registered under the dowry prohibition act, citing statistics by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2004-06.
Men's groups such as www.498a.org, savefamily.org, and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Husbands aka Crime Against Man Cell have sprung up to help men who are alleged victims of the anti-dowry laws. R.P Chugh, a Delhi advocate, tells Reuters that domestic violence is a two-way road and need not always refer to physical beating. He adds, "If you are a married man, you know the deadly effects of silent treatment, constant nagging or sulking for days."
However, women's groups argue that actual cases of male victimization are far less compared to the abuse and domestic violence women face at the hands of their partners. Jyotika Kalra, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, writes in the Hindu that it's concerning how in 2017, the Supreme Court endorsed the stereotype that women exaggerate and fabricate stories of violence to seek vengeance against their husbands. She feels this idea can snatch credibility from women who are genuine victims of dowry-related abuse.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, sheds light on the murders caused by dowry and the low conviction rates of the accused men and their families. In an interview with DW, she says that over 8,200 Indian women were murdered in 2012 for dowry according to India's National Crime Records Bureau and the conviction rate was at a low of 32 percent.
How can we protect women from dowry deaths?
If the 'women misusing dowry laws' discourse becomes more popular, it could cast doubt on genuine complaints. Instead of pointing fingers at women, law enforcement agencies must investigate the case to prevent misuse. Kumari says that findings by the Center for Social Research (CSR) revealed that nearly 50 million married women in India are victims of domestic violence, but only 0.1 percent (1 out of 1000) cases of domestic abuse are reported. This means there's still stigma attached to reporting dowry related violence.
The study also found that out of 100 investigated cases under Section 498A (cruelty to women) of the Indian Penal Code, only the accused persons are convicted in only two cases. Kumari agrees that it's important to safeguard innocent people from false accusations, through the nine conditions such as proper investigation, to prevent tampering of evidence. But she insists that law enforcement should be held accountable for it, rather than women.