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Dowry: a Social Evil
Strict laws required to prevent women from being treated as commodities
Smita Poudel (smita)     Print Article 
Published 2006-09-26 10:50 (KST)   
Recently my mother told me the story of one of her friends near Kathmandu who met a tragic end. Time and time again she repeated that the death was the "fate of women." It was because the people responsible for the woman's gruesome murder were none other than her own husband and mother-in-law. Her story has now been depicted in a television serial.

Although there was not an apparent motive for the murder, my mother said that there had been rumors from the early days of the marriage that the husband's family was not satisfied with the dowry the victim had brought with her. The same dissatisfaction led to her murder.

My mother emphasized that it is upon the husband and his family that the fate of a woman depends, so one should be very careful about arranging the marriage of a daughter, especially in dowry-related matters.

The concept of dowry is widely prevalent in South Asian Countries. In fact it is often taken as something indispensable in the marriage.

Dowry is the wealth given to a woman at her marriage, which may be in the form of movable and immovable properties.

The girl, no matter how well qualified she is, often needs a dowry to be the choice of a well-to-do family. The boy's family first of all talks about the details of the dowry the family can afford, and only then jumps to the next step, the girl.

The dowry is called Daijo in Nepal and Dahej in India. It is also often called Tilak, which is the money the girl's family must pay to the bridegroom's family. There will be no marriage unless the deal about money is finalized.

The family's status is thought to be boosted in society if they can give a large dowry. If they are financially weak and cannot afford the amount, they take loans and sometimes mortgage their lands and property. There are incidents where a wealthy father has turned into a pitiably poor person after paying dowry to all of his daughters.

On the girl's part also, she will have to bear mental and physical torture if her family fails to give the promised amount of dowry, or the amount demanded by her husband's family. There are many incidents where the girl is burnt alive or smothered for not bringing enough dowry with her from her home. The death of a girl for dowry-related reasons is called dowry death.

Although the situation is not that grave in Nepal, it is really alarming in the case of India and Bangladesh.

In 2004 statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau of India revealed that there were 7,026 confirmed and reported dowry deaths, including bride-burnings.

The dowry system has been continued in India despite the provision in the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 that: "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."

In Bangladesh dowry-related violence is widespread. The Asian Legal Resource Centre's (ALRC) statement on "Dowry-related violence against women in Bangladesh" is alarming, and includes such terrible cases as the murder and gang rape of a girl in the 22nd day of her marriage because her family failed to pay the full dowry claim.

The statement by ALRC, quoting Odhikar, a Human Rights organization in Bangladesh, says: "267 women including one child were victimized due to dowry-related matters. Among them, 165 were killed, 77 tortured by acid violence and one was divorced and 11 committed suicide due to incessant dowry demands." The data is for the year 2004.

In Bangladesh, the practice of giving or taking dowry was made into a punishable offense by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980. This was to prevent wives being oppressed and murdered on account of it.

Dowry is taken as something related to social prestige in Nepal. In my cousin sister's marriage, her family after a day of marriage demanded a gold chain for the bridegroom, and jewelry and clothes for her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

We had a debate in the family whether to fulfill their demand or not, but the discussion came to an end with the conclusion that it was a matter of social prestige, and my uncle's family ultimately decided to fulfill their demand.

It is even stricter in the Terai region than the other places because dowry or Tilak is a must. So girls are taken as a burden by the family and the home is surrounded by an atmosphere of gloom and sadness if a female baby is born.

The dowry system is responsible to a great extent for child marriage and discrimination against girls. If a girl is married at a tender age, a small amount of dowry will work, but if the girl is educated and qualified, she needs an equal amount of dowry to get a bridegroom of the same status.

That is why parents often arrange the marriages of girls at a tender age. Nepal's "Social Customs and Practices Act" prohibits the dowry system. But there is not a single case in which somebody has been punished and the tradition has been continued without question.

Even in the capital city Kathmandu, the educated and high-status families take it as the matter of social prestige. They spend lavishly on dowries and other expenses. The same trend is copied by the middle-class families. This has contributed to this bad situation.

Dowry deaths are rare in Nepal, but there are incidents in the Terai belt, which is on the border of India. Many girls from this region marry Indian men because of the open border, and in their marriages follow the traditions of India. Most of the incidents are not brought to light as they are taken to be private family affairs.

Although the situation is grave, there is a ray of hope because in villages some people have started campaigning against the dowry system.

Some six months ago I heard of a case where a girl discarded the marriage on her wedding day in Nepal because the bridegroom's family demanded a dowry, though earlier they said they didn't need anything except the girl. "They want me or the dowry? My family cannot afford this and I don't want them to suffer because of me," she said.

It is mainly because of lack of awareness that women have been turned into a saleable commodity. Most of the women are not educated enough to defy the pre-established social norms. Even those who are educated are continuing this ugly tradition in the name of social prestige.

Strict laws are necessary to prevent one from giving and taking dowry.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Smita Poudel

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