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Dowry: One Of The Most Cruel Evil Of The Society

The dowry system, like other societal ills such as child marriage, sati-pratha, and the pardah system, needs to be eradicated from society. In India, women are compelled to marry not only because they are forced, but also because their parents are forced to pay the price and suffer all of the expenses of the marriage. Though marriage is regarded as a sacrament in India, we can observe that now it is treated more like a transaction.

What Is Dowry?

When a marriage takes place in Indian subcontinent, the transfer of family property, gifts, property, or money to the groom’s family is called dowry. In societal terms, dowry refers to all of the expensive, valuable items provided by the bride's family to the groom's family. The dowry has rooted its origin since ancient times. Dowry is an old custom with no records of when or where it began. Dowry was practised in ancient Babylon, ancient Greece, the Roman era, and practically every corner of the world throughout history. It is, however, still widely practised throughout South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. However, the dowry customs of the past and present are vastly different.

Ill-Effects Of Dowry

The dowry was supposed to be a gift, but the tables have turned and the dowry is now a demand and the demands for dowry are steadily increasing, making marriage more like a business-transaction.

Dowry has resulted in an increase in harassment and murder cases; it places an economic burden on the bride's family; it has also contributed to an increase in child marriage, which has not yet been totally eradicated; and above all, it diminishes the status of women in society. On a daily basis, India sees approximately 20 dowry fatalities. Dowry deaths refer to a bride's suicide or murder perpetrated by her husband and his family shortly after the wedding because they were unhappy with the dowry. It usually comes after a string of previous domestic abuse from the husband's family. The majority of dowry fatalities occur when a young woman commits suicide because she can no longer tolerate the harassment and torment. Inheritance of the women is socially imparted to her as dowry in marriage leading to financial dependence on the husband or the in-laws. This economic handicap has hindered progress towards equality among men and women the most.

In 2019, the country reported more than 7.1 thousand cases[1] of fatalities due to dowry which was a gradual decrease from 2014.

In 2020, the situation appeared to improve, but only to the point of deterioration. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of cases of domestic violence recorded was at an all-time high. Between March 25 and May 31, women reported 1477 incidences of domestic violence against their spouses or family members. The worst thing is that 86 percent of women do not seek help and 77 percent do not even tell anybody about the occurrence.

The Dowry Prohibition Act, was passed in 1961 to avoid these harassments and fatalities which made the giving and taking of dowry illegal. In 1983, two provisions – section 498A of the Indian Penal Code and section 198A of the Criminal Procedure Code – were added to the Indian criminal code to reinforce the anti-dowry law and to prevent cruelty by the husband or his family towards the wife. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act passed in 2005 provides an extra layer of protection against dowry harassers. But these laws have been least effective so far to curb the dowry crimes.

The Dowry Prohibition Act 1961

The act defines dowry as any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person; at or before [or any time after the marriage] [in connection with the marriage of the said parties, but does not include] dower or mahr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) applies.[2]

According to the act, if any person, after the commencement of this Act, gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years, and with fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more.

The Protection Of Women From Domestic Violence Act, 2005

Section 3 [1] of the act defines domestic violence as any mental, physical, or sexual abuse or any economic distress caused to her, or any threat to cause such abuse[3]. The act is passed primarily to protect the wife or female live-in partners. Sisters, widows, and mothers are also covered by the law. This law also covers harassment in the form of dowry demands. The court can also issue protective orders, which prohibit the abuser from harassing the woman at work. The violation of any protective order is a non-bailable offence.

Other Criminal Provisions

The Indian Penal Code, 1860, was amended to include Section 304B, which made dowry death a specified offence punishable by a minimum term of 7 years in jail and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Section 498A IPC was also included specifically in 1983 to protect women from cruelty and harassment. When it is demonstrated that the woman was subjected to cruelty because of dowry demand before her death, section 113B of the Evidence Act, 1872 imposes an additional presumption of dowry death. Many people who were not caught by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 have been convicted attributable to Section 304B IPC and Section 113B of the Evidence Act.

Though there are several statutes and rules in place to prevent crimes against women, the sheer existence of such tough and strict acts and laws will not be successful unless they are implemented and enforced. Dowry is becoming more widely accepted in society. Despite efforts to strengthen the law by inserting/substituting certain provisions, such as the 1984 and 1986 amendments, dowry continues to climb constantly. Despite the fact that the laws give vast powers, neither the police nor the courts are capable of implementing them. It can take up to ten years for a case to reach court, and even once there, husbands and in-laws often get away with extortion or murder because the women and their families are unable to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that they were the victims of such crimes because there are rarely any outside witnesses.

"Any young man, who makes dowry a condition to marriage, discredits his education and his country and dishonours womanhood" as quoted by Mahatma Gandhi.

These laws have been widely criticised, yet citizens, particularly those who have been victims of such crimes, are unwilling to follow the rules and stand up to the offenders. The Indian judiciary gives citizens ample power to stand up to these crimes against women and struggle until justice is served. If every bride's father refused to provide dowry and every groom's father refused to take dowry, there would be no dowry violence, harassment, or deaths in the country.

End-Notes:
  1. National Crime Records Bureau Reports, 2020
  2. The Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, Bare Act
  3. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, Bare Act

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