Taking on dowry

Published : Nov 22, 2002 00:00 IST

A national survey conducted by the All India Democratic Women's Association reveals that the dowry system is widespread and has permeated every section of society.

"Even as we did the survey, a very ordinary looking girl was beaten up with a spice-grinding machine. Her fault: she was not good-looking, nor did she bring enough dowry."

from the survey report presented by the Rajasthan team of the All India Democratic Women's Association.

"Be it any income group or caste, every section is obliged to spend up to Rs.1 lakh at least on their daughter's wedding."

Karminder, an AIDWA activist from Haryana.

THESE are voices that were heard in the course of a survey on the prevalence of the dowry system, conducted by AIDWA in 16 States and Delhi. The results of the survey were presented on September 1 and 2 at a two-day national workshop on "Expanding Dimensions of Dowry", organised by AIDWA and the Indian School of Women's Studies and Development.

The survey revealed that the dowry system permeated every section, class, caste and religion and even the more egalitarian tribal communities, particularly during the past one and a half decades, coinciding with the progressive implementation of neo-liberal economic policies. The survey revealed that it was no longer a problem of just the BIMARU States (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh); it was prevalent in States that had higher-than-average literacy rates and high prosperity levels and among communities that had not traditionally practised the system.

The participants in the workshop were mostly AIDWA activists who with their grassroots experience had collated information about perceptions on dowry from unmarried women and their parents. Their findings collectively reflected the nature of the stress and pressure that had accumulated among the lowest-income groups. The data collected and the analyses made were harsh pointers to the greed of the system, the denial of equal property rights to women, the denial of matrimonial rights, and the links dowry has with land ownership and also higher education. The survey was conducted in Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. An overview presented the historical genesis of the practice and its evolution.

The worst fears were confirmed in the responses to the 9,000 questionnaires that almost all crimes against women, including female foeticide and infanticide, were linked to the practice of dowry. Interviews with parents of unmarried young women revealed that the practice was not prevalent 30 to 40 years ago but had grown rapidly in the last 10 or 15 years.

The sample population comprised upper, middle and lower castes, but mainly middle- and lower-middle class families with monthly incomes of up to Rs.5,000. Muslim families in the same income category were also interviewed, and it was found that the system had penetrated this section as well in recent times. The sample also included smaller numbers of families of the upper-caste and higher-income categories. The majority of the families in all caste groups declined to give the daughter a share in the family property. Dowry was seen as a substitute for a share, and a small percentage of unmarried young women actually favoured the practice of taking dowry. However, other survey results and testimonies showed that a woman rarely retained control over the dowry amount as it was often appropriated by her in-laws.

Mythili Sivaraman, vice-president of the Tamil Nadu unit of AIDWA, observed that dowry was a phenomenon that went beyond the ritual of marriage. Pregnancy, child-birth and all kinds of religious and family functions are occasions when such demands are made. There are several reasons for the prevalence of the dowry system, but the main one is that it is a necessary precondition for marriage. "No dowry, no marriage," is a fear that is widespread. Some respondents said that a dowry brought higher status for a woman in her husband's home, some others said that it meant security and good treatment for a woman, and some others said that it was just an insurance against violence. Notably, several respondents, especially young women belonging to the lower income groups, said that the love and blessings of their parents were enough for them; however, very few of them thought that they could be married without a dowry.

The survey revealed that the practice had crept into societies that had hitherto been unaffected by it and the accompanying heightened consumerism. For some communities in Assam and Uttaranchal, the practice is relatively new. In other States, like Kerala, the expenditure on marriages had gone up and the liabilities in terms of debts ranged from Rs.15,000 to Rs.4 lakhs among urban parents. For rural families, the quantum is different but equally prohibitive. The starting of a new business, a journey abroad, and even the construction of a house are all occasions to ask for money from the bride's family. In several communities, especially among Dalits and tribal people, the system of bride price was gradually displaced by dowry. The withdrawal of women from the agricultural economy and the lower work participation rates of women even in prosperous States such as Haryana and Punjab have resulted in a decline in the status of rural women. Also, there is no direct correlation between dowry and the levels of education and employment. It is not necessary, as the survey has revealed, that a higher level of education necessarily leads to a lower demand for dowry.

A RESOLUTION adopted at the end of the workshop called upon all citizens, cutting across caste, community, region and political affiliations, to act collectively for the abolition of dowry. The resolution concluded that the giving and taking of dowry was perhaps the only crime that enjoyed wide social sanction among the victims as well as the perpetrators. The dowry system was related to structures and policies that subordinated and devalued women in the economy, in the family, in the social and cultural spheres and in public life, the resolution said. Such devaluation entailed marriage being the only option for a woman, and as a consequence, single women were reviled and humiliated, it said. This had the overall effect of increasing the vulnerability of women to dowry. The resolution rejected the justification that dowry was the daughter's share in the natal income or property. Dowry, it stated, could never be a substitute for equal rights in inheritance. Equal rights in natal and marital property and income emanated from the constitutional guarantee of equality and its denial was tantamount to violating the Constitution, the resolution emphasised.

It was resolved to launch a national campaign for the abolition of both the caste system and dowry because together they tended to reinforce the system of caste endogamy. Representative committees would be formed in several States to lead the campaign against dowry, said Brinda Karat, general secretary, AIDWA. The resolution appealed to religious leaders, especially leaders of the Hindu community, to denounce publicly all practices that strengthened son preference. The campaign, which would be launched shortly, would include public protests against ostentatious displays at weddings. It would seek steps to encourage inter-caste, own-choice and non-dowry marriages; to close down centres where sex-determination tests are performed; and to stop advertisements and media-related programmes that encourage the dowry system in all its myriad forms. There will be mass campaigns that would be marked by public pledges, protest against son preference-based religious rituals, and rejection of all efforts to include biased material in school and university textbooks and syllabi. Lastly, anti- dowry struggles would be made part of the mainstream political struggle, the resolution said.

It is significant that the issue has come up after a long interregnum; one of the reasons is AIDWA's rich experience in dealing mainly with working class women and the emerging reality that there has been no abatement of the practice despite the Dowry Prohibition Act and changes in the criminal law (the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Evidence Act). The system, if anything, has manifested itself in the most dehumanising forms of consumerism and avarice. What was earlier the prerogative of the ostentatious few has become a common phenomenon. While several respondents to the survey demanded that the laws be strengthened, it was clear that legislation alone was not enough to check the menace. Laws cannot lead to social transformation in the absence of a campaign or a mass movement.

As Supreme Court advocate Kirti Singh pointed out, the state did nothing to implement the law or create among the people awareness of the law. One of the most important amendments to the IPC (Section 498A), which deals with deals with cruelty and harassment for dowry, made cruelty a culpable offence, but it has been left open to interpretation. Cruelty in this case is defined as harassment of a woman by her husband or his relative to coerce her or her relatives into giving a dowry. It is defined as wilful conduct likely to drive a woman to suicide or to cause her grave physical or mental injury. Punishment for this extends to three years with a fine. The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, was also amended to provide that if a woman committed suicide within a period of seven years from the date of her marriage, and if it is shown that her husband or any relative of her husband subjected her to cruelty, the court can presume that such suicide was abetted by her husband or by the relative.

THE earliest legislation on dowry was passed in 1961 but it was a total compromise between those who were concerned with the issue and those who felt there was nothing wrong with the giving or taking of dowry, said Kirti Singh. The report of the historic Committee on the Status of Women in India (1975) held that there were hardly any complaints or convictions under the Act. In the early 1980s, the Joint Select Committee of the Parliament on Dowry noted that the practice had spread to all classes, communities and castes. The women's movement was witness to a rising number of dowry deaths during that period and subsequently launched a successful campaign in the early 1980s that resulted in some significant amendments being made to the Dowry Act, 1961. One such amendment broadened the definition of dowry to include that anything given in connection with a marriage and given either before, at the time of or after marriage would be deemed to be dowry. However, customary and traditional presents could be included in the definition of dowry only if their value was disproportionate to the financial means of the person who gave them.

Yet another amendment, Section 3(1) related to the penalty for giving and taking dowry. According to this, a person who gave, took or even abetted the taking or giving of dowry shall be punishable with imprisonment for not less than five years and a fine of not less than Rs.15,000 or the amount of the value of the dowry, whichever is more. The penalty for demanding dowry was made stringent; punishment for it extended from a period of not less than six months, extendable to two years with a fine. Giving or taking dowry was also made a cognisable and non-bailable offence, which meant that the police were bound to investigate all offences relating to dowry under the Act once they got to know about it. Another amendment, Section 8A of the Dowry Prohibition Act, held that where a person was prosecuted for taking or abetting the taking of a dowry or demanding a dowry, the burden of proving that he had not committed the offence under those sections was on him. Despite this, women's groups pointed out that unless the very act of taking/giving dowry was not proscribed and prevented from occurring (in majority of the cases, complaints were either made after the relationship had broken down or a murder had taken place), there would be little change.

After the initial amendments in 1983 and 1984 (mainly due to pressures from the women's movement), in 1986, the Act was amended again, empowering State governments to appoint Dowry Prohibition Officers, who not only had a preventive role but also had powers to collect evidence against people who took dowry. The efficacy of such officers is a different question.

However, the reality for the Indian unmarried woman, mainly from the middle- and lower-income groups, has remained unchanged despite legal and other interventions. The social mind-set has worsened, and the evidence for this can be seen even among the law-enforcing agencies. The tendency to demand more money comes from a perceived easy access to consumer goods. This phenomenon has been accentuated in the wake of the economic liberalisation unleashed during the past one and a half decades. It seems that the wide choice in the consumer goods industry has opened up a wide range of dowry items.

Utsa Patnaik, Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, mentioned the wide disparities in the calorie intake of the top 30 per cent and the bottom 30 per cent of the population. Patnaik, a guest speaker at the workshop, spoke of the "ballooning consumerism" and the fact that this kind of a rapid polarisation had never been witnessed in such a short period of time.

Representatives from other women's organisations too attended the workshop and pledged their support to the anti-dowry campaign. There were trade union, student and youth representatives as well. Clearly, it was not just a women's issue; for the campaign to be effective it had to involve all democratic sections of society.

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