Transformation in Kerala: Road to a dowry-free village

“There are more than 4,968 unmarried men and women in the age group of 18 to 40 in our panchayat. Of these, 1,485 youths — including 807 men and 678 women in 15 blocs — have registered so far for a dowry free marriage,” said Aryadan Shoukath, president of the village council. The panchayat proposes to conduct a mass marriage in May.

Holding a mass marriage alone cannot surely be indicative of a comprehensive dowry-free initiative which addresses the misgivings of different layers of the society towards dowry. The marriage will be the culmination of a massive campaign undertaken in the last one year. “We found that over 1,000 people who applied for assistance under a housing scheme turned homeless because they had to sell them for marrying off their daughters,’’ said Shoukath whose award-winning Malayalam film ‘Padom Onnu: Oru Vilapam’ delved on the issue of child marriage and polygamy in the Muslim community.

Vicious cycle

According to him, at least 15 dowry marriages were taking place in the village every week mostly involving girls and boys who were minors. The boys married between 18 and 22 years only to start a living with the money that they received as dowry. “It is a vicious cycle and we found that the monthly debt of these families alone added up to Rs 2 crore.

In short, these families ran up an annual debt of Rs 24 crore just in one village. Rubbing salt to the wound was the fact that these marriages did not last long as they were conducted for the limited purpose of raising money.

The gravity of the problem made the grama panchayat sit up and devise a series of programmes to tackle the dowry menace by teaming up with the Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society (KMSS), an NGO. The year-long activities were intended to not just create awareness among the youth against dowry but also empower them with the right kind of education and training to get rid of unemployment.

Year-long activities

The strategy was to enroll the youths in a community college opened under the Indira Gandhi National Open University. The college offered one-year diploma courses and short-term certificate courses intended to help secure employment. The course included computer applications, land survey, small scale enterprises, building technology, desktop publishing, computerised financial accounting, office automation, school management, marketing and sales, postnatal mother and newborn care, front office management and fashion designing.

The village council and Mahila Samakhya Society promise to bear 75 per cent of the tuition fee to be paid by the unmarried men and women. They also offer job-orientation training and classes in functional English to prepare them to take up overseas jobs. The proposed dowry-less mass marriage in May is a culmination of these activities. KMSS programme director Dr Seema Bhaskar said there were demands from people of various other panchayats to replicate the programme in their areas. What makes the programme unique is that different social and political groups have imbibed the general mood against dowry.

Even though the Nilambur panchayat is ruled by the Congress-led UDF, the LDF government has been very supportive of the ongoing efforts. Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan is scheduled to open a website www.dowryfreevillage.com on Monday which would function as an interactive platform to share views on marriage, gender views and matrimonial property rights. Eligible bachelors can even log onto the website and propose themselves.

The Kerala Women’s Commission, which grapples with dowry-related domestic violence every day has also been doing its bit to encourage dowry-free marriages. It found out in a random study in oldage homes and women’s destitute centres last year that 75 per cent of the inmates remained unmarried because of dowry-related problems. “It is significant that such women remained unmarried because they were either the sole earning member of the family or were forced to take up the responsibility of the family or because their siblings objected to parting with the family property,’’ said the women’s commission quoting the study in its annual report for 2008-2009.

Certainly, the efforts of the Nilambur grama panchayat should serve as an eye-opener to all those who keep talking platitudes about weeding out dowry but draw a blank when it comes to executing them effectively.

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