Growing Up In 70s & 80s, I Remember The Horror Of Dowry Deaths
I still remember her face and my fascination with her. I was all of five or six, I think, and she was the new bride in the neighbourhood. Slight and nervous, pretty and constantly busy, she would sometimes come to play snakes and ladders with us kids on the landing between the flights of stairs connecting our two floors. Late one night, there was screaming, a blaze and the neighbours tumbled out. I was sent to bed and ordered not to peek out. She had died in a blaze, I’m told, a kerosene stove had burst while she was cooking dinner. That dinner was being cooked in the middle of the night was an inconvenient detail. The possible cause was never mentioned, at least not in public, but beneath it all, it ran, like a vein of gold in a rock. Bride burning. We moved out of the neighbourhood soon after, the story was forgotten, buried somewhere in the subconscious, until I grew up and realise what had happened to her, and was then horrified at how we had lived, albeit briefly, amidst murderers.
She wasn’t a rare case, I know. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I remember the horror of dowry deaths. It was real, tangible and everywhere. Kerosene stoves that supposedly burst when the women of the house were cooking, resulting in horrific burns and eventual death, were commonplace. We heard them, growing up, every other day. Strangely enough most of those who died were young, some new brides, some a few years into their marriages. The deaths were discussed in hushed voices in the neighbourhood, soon forgotten, new brides came into the households, life went on. Those who died, died unsung.
Laws were put into place, stringent laws, to tackle the omnipresent menace of dowry killings. But it is these same laws that are now being looked upon with a measure of reservation because there are cases where they have been misused to harass husbands and their families, never mind that the number of these is substantially fewer than those of actual domestic harassment, abuse and violence over dowry. On Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it was taking note of the misuse of Section 498 A and allowing for the accused to seek anticipatory bail. The court stated that although the purpose of Section 498 A was to protect women from cruelty they face in their marital homes, it was sometimes being misused to harass husbands and their families, causing social unrest. On Friday, the court stated that the police could examine the facts of the case as well as legal provisions before taking a decision. While reserving their verdict, the court stated that “There should be gender justice for women as dowry has a chilling effect on marriage on the one hand and on the other, there is right to life and personal liberty of the man.”
The gravity of dowry-related harassment in India is enormous. “India reports the highest total number of dowry deaths with 8,391 such deaths reported in 2010, 1.4 deaths per 100,000 women.”
According to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, we have the highest number of dowry-related deaths in the world. According to statistics, a woman was burned every 90 minutes, or dowry issues cause 1.4 deaths per year per 100,000 women in India. ( Crime statistics in India Archived January 29, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Government of India, 2011) Critics also believe that these figures are under reported.
There have been concerted attempts to tackle the menace of dowry and dowry deaths over the decades, beginning with Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 which prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of dowry. While the spirit of the law is all too good, dowry continues to flourish with an accepted rate card making the rounds of the marriage market for prospective grooms in coveted professions. The more stringent among them, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, enacted in 1983 allowed a woman to report the harassment over dowry and harsh action would be taken against the husband and the family accused of harassment.
While the spirit of the law is all too good, dowry continues to flourish with an accepted rate card making the rounds of the marriage market for prospective grooms in coveted professions.
I’m going to put my neck out here and state that while this law was direly needed to control the rampant instances of dowry-related harassment and even murders happening, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that this law has not ended dowry, or the harassment and killings over it. To add to this, the unfortunate fallout of 498A is that in some cases men and their families have been victimised unfairly by the women. We cannot overlook this elephant in the room when we talk about 498A.
Women’s rights activists, justifiably so, are not in favour of the law being scrapped, primarily because the instances of violence against women in their marital homes continues to exist, and often with fatal consequences.
This is a difficult conundrum. For one, the cases of harassment for dowry across states, religions and social strata continues unfettered despite the very stringent laws in place. On the other, these stringent laws themselves are at times being misused by women to harass their husbands and in-laws. Men’s rights groups have been campaigning stringently for this law to be scrapped. Women’s rights activists, justifiably so, are not in favour of the law being scrapped, primarily because the instances of violence against women in their marital homes continues to exist, and often with fatal consequences. This will make it even more difficult for afflicted women to find redressal. What is the balance? How will the law reconcile with the ground realities? These are questions that our lawmakers and judiciary need to contemplate and examine closely. That no innocent should suffer because of a loophole in the law must be a guiding factor in deciding how to deal with Section 498A. And while I think of all this, I also think of the young woman, barely out of her teens, whom I played snakes and ladders with as a child. I think of what her life might have been like if she had lived. And of the injustice of it all, that she and so many women like her, have their lives snuffed out just because we as a society continue to think of women as a commodity.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV