Irrespective of the religion one follows, or the caste, linguistic group or economic class one belongs to, dowry continues to be one of the most discussed aspects of marriage.
The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 applies to people from all religions, it does not include the 'meher', in cases where the Muslim personal law is applicable.
Yet, cases in the courts prove that the practice of demanding dowry is prevalent in every religion. In fact, we have dealt with a significant number of cases of dowry harassment and death even among the academically qualified class of people, of every religious group.
In most cases of dowry harassment, the elders harp on about safeguarding the prestige and honour of the families, which is always at the cost of women.
The claims that women in live-in relationships, love or inter-faith marriages suffer the most is not correct.
Today, dowry is sought in many ways, including securing a good-paying job, favourable transfers and promotions in case of a government job. In many cases, women are forced to hand over their salaries to their husbands and in-laws.
The woman is also often made responsible for the loans and liabilities incurred by the husband or his family in addition to purchasing material goods for the husband.
There are also horrific instances of violence that women are subjected to, which leaves them doubting their sanity. We have attended to cases where women have told us they were punished with starvation, rape, being kept away from children, and even made to sign certificates that they are ‘insane or psychologically unfit to be married to the said man’.
Despite having laws against giving or receiving dowry, why does this crime continue? For one, we continue to be a deeply patriarchal society. Barring a handful of functionaries, a large number of government officials are also patriarchal, with misogyny and sexism being part of the landscape.
We consider an increase in the number of cases filed as an indication that the crime is being better reported, but police officers are apprehensive that this might just show them in a negative light, instead of highlighting their efficiency.
When it comes to the law, the government is yet to publicise that there is no time limit for registering a complaint under this law. There is no publicity about the dowry prohibition officers appointed by the State government, how one can reach this person or where to approach the officer in times of need.
How often have we heard of these officers working in tandem with the police or even the other way around, to collect evidence, conduct preliminary enquiries or even assist the aggrieved in registering a case?
The sub-divisional magistrates, city magistrates and police officers of high rank who are appointed as dowry prohibition officers are often already caught up with other duties and women complaining of dowry harassment is not a priority concern.
When it comes to dowry harassment, police often freely interpret the law without understanding the actual definition. The bride’s family is often advised against reporting or complaining of dowry harassment. Women complaining of cruelty because of dowry are told that such acts are regarded as domestic violence and so the police have no immediate role to intervene. The police officers worry about how to file the chargesheet in court if there are no witnesses.
Often even the 'dying declaration' by women are not correctly processed by the doctors and the police, and so this does not stand the rigour of the courts.
So, in many ways, neither the letter nor the spirit of this law is advanced by duty bearers.
Another sexist notion prevailing among people in the state mechanism is that a woman who is academically qualified, has her own income or whose husband has a standing in the society cannot claim dowry harassment.
As long as we gloss over such dowry crimes as a ritualistic or traditional requirement, they will not be seen by society as acts denigrating the rights of women.
(The writer is a human rights activist based in Bengaluru)