Print edition : August 14, 1999

OVER the last ten to 15 years, penal statutes have been amended under pressure from women's groups in order to prevent marital violence against women. These changes seek to protect women against all forms of marital violence by broadening the definition of cruelty, making penalties higher, and relaxing evidentiary requirements. The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, was amended in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

Dowry deaths constitute a special category of death that was first defined in a section introduced into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1986. Section 304(B) stipulates that a death of a woman within seven years of her marriage by burns or bodily injury wi th evidence of cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relatives in connection with a demand for dowry is a "dowry death" and punishable with imprisonment for not less than seven years.

Three years prior to this, Section 498(A) was introduced in the IPC. This states that any form of cruelty, whether it is from a husband or the relative of a husband, to a woman is an offence that is punishable with imprisonment up to three years. Cruelty , as defined in this section, includes any wilful conduct that could cause mental torture, physical injury, or drive the woman to commit suicide, whether in connection with any unlawful demand for property or not. In fact, the first part of Chapter XVI o f the IPC (Sections 299 to 311, which are offences affecting life) can also be invoked in case of a dowry death or suicide. Under Sections 299, 300, 301 and 304(A), culpable homicide, murder and death by negligence are crimes. Section 302 lays down the p unishment for murder: death sentence or imprisonment for life.

Sections 113A (Presumption as to abetment of suicide of a married woman) and 113B (presumption as to dowry death) were added to the Indian Evidence Act and can be invoked in cases of dowry murder or suicide. The Code of Criminal Procedure (mainly Section s 174 and 175) lays down the procedure and principles of investigation into a crime.

Despite these legal safeguards, the incidence of domestic and marital violence has continued to grow: indeed, violence has acquired more grotesque and outrageous forms, while the perpetrators of such violence can yet escape the law.

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