Abuse persists as new forms of dowry crop up

From organising grand wedding ceremonies to helping the groom get a good job, dowry is camouflaged as 'favours' or 'gifts' these days
Last Updated 29 November 2020, 06:26 IST

Four years ago, a 23-year-old woman with speech and hearing impairment married a divorcee who was 15 years older than her. The family handed over handsome money to the bridegroom. Soon, she realised that money was closer to her husband’s heart than his wife. He started demanding money frequently. Within a year, life had turned hell for her, as refusal to bring more money would lead to physical harm.

When the harassment knew no bounds, she returned to her maternal home but her family convinced her and sent her back. Pushed to the wall, she died by suicide on November 26 this year in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam.

On the same day, around 2,400 km away in Rajasthan’s Alwar, a family was rushing to cremate a 26-year-old woman who had been married for a year, without even waiting for her parents to arrive. Her parents rushed to the village to prevent the cremation, as they felt she was murdered. They later told the police that the demand for dowry was growing and they couldn’t afford to pay.

On November 7, a woman in Karnataka’s Udupi district fell victim to dowry even before she stepped into wedlock. Her parents have filed a complaint saying that their daughter took this extreme step after the bridegroom’s family demanded Rs 10 lakh in cash and around 400 grams of gold as dowry. They even threatened to call off the marriage if her family doesn’t oblige.

In the past 20 years, on an average, 21 women have lost their lives to dowry in the country every day. This, while dowry remains illegal and attracts a jail term. At least 1.51 lakh women died between 2000 and 2019 due to dowry. Last year alone, there were 7,115 recorded cases of dowry deaths. For every recorded dowry death there might be many more that have gone unnoticed.

On the other side, the number of harassment cases filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act in the last 10 years is 65,939.

“More and more young women are filing cases of dowry harassment now. Earlier, women used to keep suffering and would approach the police after, say, five or six years. Now, we can see cases filed within four months or one year of the marriage,” Renu Mishra of Lucknow-based Association For Advocacy and Legal Initiatives tells DH.

At the same time, she says, the number of women coming forward might not be enough to tackle the menace, as patriarchal mindset and social pressure to 'save the marriage' are stopping women from taking their husbands and in-laws to task. “The system is so deep-rooted in our society that just laws cannot eradicate it,” Bengaluru-based advocate Anjali Ramanna tells DH.

Studies show that the dowry originated during 2500 - 1500 BC, the late Vedic period. Then, it was “voluntarily” given to the bride by her family “for her own use” as she would be cutting all ties with them. With women losing their status later, this became just a “compensation” for housing a woman who has left her family.

Women’s families feared the shame and dishonour associated with divorces, which prevented them from offering a shoulder to their suffering daughters. It is under this social construction of the dowry as a form of compensation for “putting up with” the bride that dowry deaths have emerged, writes Sainabou Musa in her 2012 study 'Dowry-murders in India: The Law and its Role in the Continuance of the Wife Burning Phenomenon'.

Camouflaged as gifts

Experts, activists, lawyers, and law enforcement officers point out that the way dowry was demanded and given has changed. Now, no one demands dowry. It is all 'gifts' or smoothly couched in phrases like, “we know you will not leave your daughter empty-handed.” It is no secret that dowry has changed colours.

Anjali emphasises, the usage of the word ‘dowry’ has reduced these days, especially in the urban areas. The means have changed, and the unjust treatment might not outright look like dowry harassment. Even if money is not taken at the time of wedding, the woman will be pressured later. Such harassments may not fit into the legal definition, but it is nevertheless there.

Anjali says, a working woman is expected to give her earnings to her husband. “In several cases we have seen a man who wants to start a new business putting pressure on his unemployed spouse for money,” she adds.

Renu Mishra concurs that the language of the demand has changed, which makes it difficult to prove.

Patriarchy dominates

Another trend that one could witness is the way women are systematically edged out by their own families when it comes to their legal share in property. There have been several instances where dowry is taken as share in property though the legal share would be much more. This actually helped the men in the family to hold on to the property while leaving the women without their due share.

A counsellor, who wished to remain anonymous, also tells DH about the “novel” transformation of dowry in the form of the bride's family being made to bear all the expenses of extravagant wedding ceremonies. The woman faces the brunt if the marriage is not as grand as per the expectation of the groom’s family.

While dowry takes new forms of harassment, the implementation of anti-dowry legislation attracts close attention. The number of dowry deaths have been decreasing in the past six years but if one takes the 2019 figure (7,115 cases), it is still above the 2000 figure of 6,995. The number of dowry harassment cases are on the rise — 2,876 in the year 2000 compared to 13,297 last year.

Low conviction rate

However, the story turns dismal when it comes to investigation and trial.

In courts, two in every three persons accused of dowry deaths go scot-free while four in every five persons accused under Dowry Prohibition Act escape jail.

In dowry deaths, 3,589 of the 49,806 cases under trial were disposed of by the courts last year. Conviction took place only in 1,253 (35.6%) cases. The pending rate was pegged at 92.8%.

When it comes to cases under Dowry Prohibition Act, courts completed the trial in 3,045 cases out of 51,469 cases under trial last year. Only 654 cases ended in conviction while 2,120 saw acquittal with conviction rate at a dismal 21.5%.

The scenario in Karnataka is more bleak. Of the 118 cases in which trial was completed, the state police could get conviction in just 7% (nine cases) of the total cases. DH asked Praveen Sood, Director-General and Inspector-General of Police of Karnataka, about the low conviction rates in cases of dowry deaths in the state. “No comments” was his response.

A senior police official in the national capital sought to blame it on insufficient evidence, lack of interest among the victims’ families and false cases foisted on families. However, police figures show that just 174 out of 10,411 dowry death cases, including those from previous years, were found to be false, while it was 462 out of 20,652 under Dowry Prohibition Act.

“There is a general perception in the society that women are misusing the provisions of anti-dowry laws in the country, due to which not many people like working for the cause of justice for victims of dowry harassment,” says Poornima G of Mahila Munnade in Mandya.

“The high pendency rate and the long wait for the final judgement acts as a deterrence to take up this cause,” says Poornima.

Many a time, the victims’ families chicken out from the case and go for out-of-court settlement, fearing that a prolonged court battle could be detrimental to the future of other daughters. In many instances, the culprit’s family manages to mask evidence or sometimes even tampers with it.

Activists say it is not that the laws are insufficient but when it comes to implementation, the police tend to side with the groom’s family, thanks to a strong patriarchal mindset that runs through the law enforcement agencies as well as in the society. Moreover, the pressure from the women’s families also wane as the fear of society overcomes the sense of justice.

As hundreds of victims continue to suffer in silence, one would do well to remember what Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India in June 1928: "Any young man who makes dowry a condition of marriage discredits his education and dishonours womanhood... A strong public opinion should be created in condemnation of the degrading practice of dowry, and young men who soil their fingers with such ill-gotten gold should be excommunicated from society."

(With inputs from Umesh R Yadav in Bengaluru)

(Published 28 November 2020, 22:49 IST)

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