The chilling front page report, Police shielding accused in dowry case (DH. 2 May) is typical of the many accounts of dowry-related deaths that take place in the country every day. One cannot help but be struck by the offhand way in which generally a young woman's life and death is summed up, matter -of -factly, without any undue cause for alarm or probing of the causes. It is as much as one would report a traffic accident or the death of a cancer patient—tragic certainly, but such things are to be expected.
Dowry related deaths of brides have registered a sharp increase in recent years. Yet, for some strange reasons we have reduced them to cold and brutal statistics that pile up in the police stations, morgues of government hospitals, welfare homes, small town courts and prisons. It confirms our worst suspicions that the single largest minority in this country is being viciously battered into submission.
Yes, when the brides can pay no more, the "accident" takes place, especially due to 'kitchen fire'! These fire accidents are usually uniform in nature with the classical setting of the young bride found dead in the kitchen, clad in a kerosene soaked sari, trapped in flames and left alone to burn to ashes!
There are other covert forms of related oppression that have multiplied several times in recent years. Some of these lead to psychological torture, suicides and murder of married women, desertion by their husbands, rampant abortion of female foetuses, and poor families resorting to female infanticide for fear of not being able to provide dowry.
On the one hand, you have years of cultural domination by men where women have to choose between a lifetime of abject slavery at home and warding off mandatory passes at the work place, where they are rarely treated as equals. On the other, in many less than literate sectors of our society, they are treated as children of a lesser god. To be burnt as young bride, for not brining adequate dowry, or, worse still, as a young widow, on her husband's funeral pyre, to celebrate a barbaric religious rite. If she survives all this, and the ignominy of being forever treated as a receptacle for male lust, often forced into whoring or raped by her near ones, she could be lynched for being a witch. What perverse instincts impel such acts of aggression? And why do they go unpunished? No one can argue that these issues have not received their share of publicity today. In the print-media there are women's pages, general interest magazines carry articles and reports on contentious women's issues and even special supplements. Television boasts of woman's programmes. The other powerful medium – advertising – has always been over-eager to use women in ways women would rather not be used. Even politicians, who have often forgotten that women form any part of their electorate have bestirred themselves and, with unaccustomed activity, have launched a flurry of legislation ostensibly aimed at helping and protecting women.
Dowry continues to be the pivot around which most marriages in India revolve today. It is unfortunate and heartless that the growing middle class with its opportunities for upward mobility, is propagating and promoting the most perverted and promiscuous nexus between money and marriage.
Despite all the hype and hyperbole, the protective laws and action plans, the seminars and speeches, the basic patriarchal structures and attitudes have undergone very little change. The majority of women are still second class citizens, their worth measured purely in economic terms: how much dowry they will bring, how much work they can do inside and outside the home, how many male children they can bear.
Legislative enactments by government have so far been mere tokenism. In 1961 dowry was officially outlawed but in reality eradication was far from accomplished. In 1986 harsher legal amendments to the 1961 Dowry Act such as Section 174 CrPC enforced investigations of suspicious bridal deaths and punishment of seven years to life in imprisonment and possibly death for those found guilty and convicted of bride burning. In spite of these legal breakthroughs, shocking statistics on dowry deaths continue to show up in Indian media, with many more deaths unreported.
Social laws are required where culture has failed to institutionally stop family breakdowns due to dowry harassment, killing and abandoning of female infants, banishment of women who fail to produce sons. More importantly there needs to be a cultural rethinking on the status of women in our country. But, waiting for the real changes to occur for women in India is rather like waiting for the Godot.
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