Smothered, drowned, beaten, strangled and burned. Dowry and related crimes persist in India, even amidst the raging fight for equality. With one woman being killed nearly every hour as a result of dowry harassment, one wonders about the effectiveness of the laws that exist to deter and prevent such violence.
Tracing The Law
The government’s first action against dowry crimes was in the form of a narrowly and vaguely defined Dowry Prohibition Act (1961). Its complete inability to check incidents of dowry violence led to several vociferous campaigns in the 1980s that helped bring dowry crimes under the ambit of criminal law. Sections 498A and 304B were added, dealing with cruelty towards a woman and death of a woman within 7 years of marriage, respectively. Later, in 2005, in a bid to provide more comprehensive assistance to women, the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act was passed.
Yet, The Problem Persists
The harsh reality is that nearly six decades after the first law was enforced, women continue to be sexually, physically and mentally harassed and in many cases, murdered. As per data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 88,467 women, or an average of 22, died each day in dowry-related cases, just within the span of a decade (2005 -2015).
But this is just what the official records say. The actual frequency of dowry-related crimes goes way beyond this because approaching the police is often the last resort for women who’ve been subjected to immense mental and physical torture. “Even when a woman reaches the police station, it is not easy for her to get the police to record her complaint. Only if she can use some political influence or approach a senior officer and get his recommendation will the local police take down her complaint,” says Flavia Agnes, founder of Majlis, an NGO that has been working since 1991, to provide social and legal support to women on issues related to domestic violence and sexual abuse. In Majlis’s own experience of trying help women navigate the legal space, they’ve come across women, who, despite, having visibly grave injuries were sent back by the police, dismissed their claims as ordinary “wear and tear” of marriage.
To make matters worse, protection officers, meant to provide legal and financial assistance to victims are often, overloaded with work and are not well trained to help. Furthermore, unrelenting campaigns by people who believed women were misusing the law, paid off, when, as recently as July 2017, a Supreme Court order endorsed their claims by weakening Section 498A.
Section 498A used to be a cognizable offence, which meant that the police had the power to make arrests just upon receiving a complaint. But the order changed this. The Supreme Court issued guidelines that directed family welfare committees, consisting of “para-legal volunteers, social workers , retired persons/wives of working officers, and other citizens who might be found suitable,” to produce a report within a month, based on which, subsequent action by the police is to be taken.
The implementation of these guidelines is even worse. There are too many instances where the police forced women into counselling and that too, not by certified marriage counsellors, but by untrained police personnel, for whom an underlying motive is usually, to try and preserve the family. All this, without a word of advice to husbands, who abuse their wives.
Such actions indicate how dowry system is so deeply rooted in the Indian mindset that it subconsciously works to the tune of patriarchy. It has maimed the law because those responsible for providing justice, don’t believe in their victims’ cause.“There is an obstacle at every step for women accessing the police, the courts and other legal remedies. To change this, our basic attitude towards women accessing justice delivery mechanisms must change,” explains Agnes.
Sadly, parents themselves, don’t support their daughters. Talking from her experience of dealing with dowry cases, Agnes says, “When a newlywed bride complains of harassment and violence (dowry-related or otherwise) the parents do not want to help her to break the marriage. They ask her to adjust and stay in the marriage.” With no help forthcoming, these women are driven to commit suicide.
As a result, nearly half the population is being denied justice in a country, where not only does the constitution guarantee justice for every citizen, but a promise has also been made to achieve gender equality and provide access to justice for all as part of India’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Awareness & Sensitization Paves The Way Forward
A lot can change if women are just educated about the law to help them fight for rights they are entitled to. NGO Majlis’s work proves this. Gayatri Gawde is one of the women the organization helped by guiding her through the legal process and making her aware of her rights.
There is also, a dire need for a massive sensitization campaign on issues of caste and gender, which involves all stakeholders, including parents. “So long as it is mandatory for a Hindu father to marry off his daughter as a religious obligation, the dowry problem will remain. Only when we are comfortable with the notion of not ‘marrying the daughter within the same caste and class’ the problem of dowry will remain,” adds Agnes.
The fact that India ranks 4th lowest in the Global Gender Gap Index’s health and survival category should already set alarm bells ringing. Solving the dowry problem can put an end to many other social evils like child marriage and female infanticide, that plague our society too. More comprehensive efforts need to be made that do not perceive creating laws as the only solution but also involves educating and training important stakeholders to women’s issues and empowering women to become stakeholders in the decision-making process.Through this, we can change the mindset of people and attack the root cause of the problem.
Featured image for representational purposes only.