Fighting dowry: Kerala-style affidavits won’t help, a more concerted effort needed

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October 01, 2021 6:30 AM

Examining 40,000 marriages in rural India between 1960 and 2008—across 17 Indian states that house 96% of India’s population—the researchers found dowry was paid in 95% of the marriages.

Kerala, as per NCRB, saw six incidents of ‘dowry deaths’ under Section 304 B of the Indian Penal Code in 2020.Kerala, as per NCRB, saw six incidents of ‘dowry deaths’ under Section 304 B of the Indian Penal Code in 2020. (Representative image)

Kerala Governor Arif Mohamed Khan is insisting other universities in the state will follow Calicut University’s move to require an affidavit from students that they will not, indirectly or directly, give or take dowry. A medical student in the state committing suicide earlier this year because of dowry harassment seems to have spurred such action.

Some legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of the move—the contention is that revoking degrees of students who violate the affidavit submitted is neither provided for in the anti-dowry law nor is such a provision likely to stand, given it can run afoul of the Article 39 (a) (right to adequate means of livelihood) and Article 21 (right to life and liberty, extended to preserve right to livelihood). The larger question isn’t of the validity of the move or even its efficacy, it is of the conditions that led to it—the continued prevalence of dowry and the related harassment of women and their families.

Kerala, as per NCRB, saw six incidents of ‘dowry deaths’ under Section 304 B of the Indian Penal Code in 2020. This compares favourably with an Uttar Pradesh (2,274 incidents) or a Bihar (1,046) or a Madhya Pradesh (608). At such minuscule an incidence per lakh population that the NCRB reports this as zero, dowry deaths in the state are among the lowest in the country. But, with 2,707 cases filed under Section 498 A (cruelty by husband or his relatives), the state sees higher reported dowry harassment than Bihar (1,935), even though it is better of than West Bengal (19,962) and UP (14,454); Kerala’s cases per lakh population at 14.7, though, beats UP’s 13.2, albeit marginally. This shows the state’s high literacy and large matrilineal communities have failed to erase age-old societal violence against women.

A World Bank study earlier this year showed that despite anti-dowry legislation and a history of strong anti-dowry activism by the women’s movement in India, dowry has remained doggedly persistent. Examining 40,000 marriages in rural India between 1960 and 2008—across 17 Indian states that house 96% of India’s population—the researchers found dowry was paid in 95% of the marriages.

The study found that the average value of the bride’s family’s gifts to the groom was seven times the value of the gifts given to bride by the groom’s family. Thus, the poorer a woman’s family, the greater the burden of dowry. Many still seem to suggest that dowry is a way to give women their share in the ancestral wealth; however, this needs fixing the inheritance laws to accord women as much rights as men, and this has been happening progressively. Even so, dowry stands out as a crime considering tens of millions of households may not have anything to bequeath to their children, daughters included, but are still pressured to pay large sums, in cash, kind or both. Both the civil society and the government need to understand the reasons why anti-dowry legislation has had little retarding effect on the crime and what needs to be done to counter it.

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