DISHONOURING WOMANHOOD, ONE RUPEE AT A TIME

In 2012, Pravartika Gupta was burned to death as she slept with her one year old daughter because her family did not meet up with the schedule of paying the dowry installments. This comes after the groom’s parents had suddenly decided that they wanted an apartment too, along with the agreed upon demand for a Honda City and over 12 lakh rupees in cash.

The more I delved into my research, the more I began to find stories of women being locked in bathrooms for years, battery acid being poured into their genitals or women being strangled to death as they held their babies in their wombs.

Their blood is on our society.

In case you don’t know what a dowry is, it is a payment made in cash or kind by the bride’s parents to the groom’s parents at the time of their wedding. The amount of money the groom can draw depends upon where he lives, which caste and subcaste he belongs to, how dark the bride is and of course, how good a deal parents on both sides are capable of making. Outdated societal norm, which finds a very cozy spot in our culture even today, dictates that men earn the bread for the family while women spend their day in the kitchen making tasty dishes to go with the breads. So, it was believed that she wasn’t adding any monetary value to the family. After thorough brainstorming, dowry, in all its glory, was invented.

The government has made efforts to end this practice in the country and yet, here we are, dozens of ineffective ad campaigns, laws and speeches later, with a Pravartika staring us in the face from every nook and corner of this country. According to the 2014 figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, a woman is murdered every hour over dowry demands. About a 113,000 more women registered complaints of abuse by their husbands and his parents. I cannot even claim that this is the magnitude of the problem considering that most of the dowry related crimes go unnoticed and unreported. Out of 10 million weddings in 2014, only 10,000 cases of dowry were reported. With a conviction rate of just 32% in dowry death cases and a little over 15% for cruelty cases, I am not surprised that a bruised victim of dowry abuse, scared for her life, would think a thousand times before mustering the courage to walk up to the police station. Fix your legal system to investigate and prosecute better, if you want her to speak up.

Being a complex problem itself, the consequences of this illogical practice are far reaching.

The last population census showed an average ratio of 940 girls per 1000 boys. In many rural pockets, this ratio is even worse and is on the decline, especially for the population aged between 0 to 6. This means that female foeticide is still rampant. One of the primary reasons why we still see this happening is because the burden of having to give a dowry to the family that a daughter would be married into seems like a far tougher option than to simply, albeit barbarically, snatch the poor girl’s life from her before she can be born.

Haven’t we all been taught through our textbooks at a very young age that dowry was a “social evil”?

Didn’t we also learn, along with dowry, about the practice of Sati, where a woman immolates herself on her husband’s pyre?

If Sati can be accepted as a barbaric practice and a “thing of the past”, why can’t dowry?

Nobody seems to have an answer.

Speaking of textbooks, a textbook being used in government schools in Maharashtra had the following to say about dowry in a new, progressive India in a new, progressive 2017:

“If a girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes difficult for her to get married. To marry such girls, the bridegroom and his family demand more dowry.” This comes after textbooks in Chhatisgarh blamed the rising unemployment to women venturing to work in many sectors and textbooks in Rajasthan comparing housewives to donkeys. We need to impart the right values into our young impressionable minds if we want them to grow up to become respectable citizens who don’t compare women around them to donkeys or blame their joblessness on aspirational, career-seeking women.

We have 37 million more men that women in India. A research that aimed to find out why a low supply and high demand for suitable brides did not top the scale in favour of the women concluded that this practice was so ingrained in our society and tradition that social and economic realities do little to keep it in check.

So, let us just get everyone educated and we can have a dowry-free society. That would work, wouldn’t it?

Sadly, it wouldn’t.

Educated male elites in metropolitan areas seem to believe that the fact that they took the pain of educating themselves means that they are a commodity of higher value in the dowry market. Educated females that peak the interest of these men are often matched with males more educated and in a higher income bracket than them, which basically means, the more “valuable” you get, the more “expensive” your “purchase” becomes.

The Dowry Prevention Act of 1961 criminalizes giving and receiving dowry, which calls for imprisonment for at least five years and a penalty equal to the amount of dowry involved. What it doesn’t do is define dowry to include voluntary gifts that have no demands preceding them. Thanks to this loophole, you can now ask for a dowry without actually having to ask for one.

“Give your daughter whatever you want”

Congratulations, you just asked for a dowry.

In the words of the United Nations, the dwindling number of girls in India has reached “emergency proportions” and for many of them who survived to be born, life is far from easy. As a society, we derive pride from a culture that has withstood the test of time. But, what really is the point of the culture that has lived the longest but failed to smooth out its perverse irregularities as time progressed ?

— Revanth Vishnuvajhala

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