Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 Not Effective Enough

By Nandini Rao, Womens Feature Service

It has been almost five decades since India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, to prevent the giving and taking of “any property or valuable security given … at or before or any time after the marriage” of two parties. The law was meant to protect women from this pernicious practice that denigrates them and assesses their value in monetary terms. In spite of the law that criminalises the custom in no uncertain terms, the giving and taking of dowry continues to be a part of contemporary reality. The result is there for all to see, in countless media stories of married women emotionally and mentally harassed, beaten, burnt and murdered for dowry.

In its concept note for the India Court of Women on Dowry and Related Forms of Violence Against Women, Vimochana, a Bangalore-based women’s organisation, noted “Dowry … is publicly condemned but privately condoned and practised; a subject of moral outrage only when the girl’s family finally collapses under the weight of the incessant demands for more money, jewellery, property…more material goods, or when it finally consumes and destroys its ultimate victim, the wife.”

So where are we going wrong? Maybe the legal system is at fault, or, more chillingly, the very institution of marriage and family that cheapens women’s lives.

In India – and in many South Asian countries – the die is cast from the moment a child is born. Even today, in many parts of the country, the birth of a boy is heralded with drums being beaten and sweets being distributed, while the birth of a girl is quietly pushed under the ‘chatai’ (mat) or ‘charpai’ (cot).

The National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3) of India, 2006, indicated a decline in child sex ratio (0-6 years) for rural areas, at 921:1000 (as opposed to 934:1000 in 2001). The NFHS-3 data indicates that in the age group of 15-49 years, 41 per cent women have no education at all (as opposed to 22 per cent men). Girls are expected to eat less, work more, participate in childcare and rearing and still stay healthy in the process. In other words, from a very early age, a girl is taught to “sacrifice” her personal well being in the name of her family and learn that she is the custodian of the ‘izzat’ or honour of the clan. The root cause of many of the injustices and inequalities Indian women face today can be traced to this code.

The notion of marriages being made in heaven is often heard in India. Since this relationship is divinely ordained, women have no choice but to accept it or – to use the ubiquitous and very Indian expression – adjust to it. The patriarchal practice of relocating a woman after marriage in a different setting is the easiest way to disorient her and if the marital family is hostile, her alienation is complete.

Being a caretaker of the ‘izzat’ of the family and, by extension, of the community, gives rise to unreasonable expectations. A woman is expected to accept her new reality unquestioningly. Irrational demands are often placed on her family before, at the time of and even after the wedding, but they are required to be entertained since the bridegroom’s relatives always have the upper hand in all matrimonial dealings. In return, the bride is expected to get the “protection” of the man who she has married. Often, even this is denied to her. Violence can easily become an inevitable part of a scenario where the superiority of the man is acknowledged and the inferiority of the woman reinforced at every turn.

With economic liberalisation and the globalised market place, dowry transactions have got even more commercialised. However Jagori, a women’s organisation based in Delhi, cautions against an overtly facile understanding of the phenomenon. In its info-pack, “Marching Together: Resisting Dowry in India” (2009), it observes, “… while increasing consumerism has given dowry a different dimension, it may be too simplistic to attribute its dogged survival only to an atavistic culture … Different sections (from within the women’s movement) have constructed the birth and survival of the practice through different perspectives, resulting in a complex weave of multiple layers woven through culture, economics, tradition, caste, hypergamy and ritual superiority. Each of these strands intersect, pointing to the complexities of the practice. They also raise a question mark on adopting legal redressal as the sole mechanism for fighting dowry”.

Today the giving and taking of dowry has been criminalised. Legislation to protect women against domestic abuse and violence include the Dowry Prohibition Act, Sections 304B and 498A (of the Indian Penal Code) and the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005. Yet women continue to hesitate to file complaints because they are worried about the social repercussions of such a move for their families and themselves. Fear of the financial consequences is also a dissuading factor and things are further complicated if they happen to have children. Finally the patriarchal mindset within the judicial system that often forces a compromise even if it means that the affected woman ends up going back to the very situation of violence she was trying to flee.

According to NFHS-3 data, one in every five women has faced domestic violence in her life. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2007 statistics show that from 2006-2007 there was a 6.2 per cent increase in the rate of cases filed under dowry deaths. However, cases of dowry deaths and cruelty by husbands and their relatives only constitute about 21 per cent of “Violent Crimes” and “Crimes against Women”. This fairly low estimation makes one wonder how many women victims of dowry harassment fall between the cracks of the criminal justice system or opt out of it altogether. According to demographic and health surveys, married women with no education are much more likely (46 per cent) than other women to have suffered spousal violence. However, spousal violence also extends to women who have 12 or more years of education, with 12 per cent reporting violence.

Going by these figures no woman is really safe, it seems, from the menace of domestic violence and dowry harassment. So who is responsible for ending this violence? When will we start saying “dowry murders” rather than “dowry deaths”? When will Indian society, irrespective of caste, religious, class or community backgrounds, accept women as equal partners within the family? It is only when a woman is seen as being “complete” in herself, socially, economically and culturally; when society accepts that marriage is a woman’s choice and not her destiny, will the crime of dowry even begin to get addressed.