Friday, November 26, 2021

Day 2: The Dowry Act at 60: A Review Panel

The year 2021 marks 60 years since the passage of The Dowry Prohibition Act (1961). However, 60 years later, it doesn't seem like a lot has changed. 

The second day of the Prajnya 16 Day Campaign Against Gender Violence was on contextualizing dowry, examining the dowry act, and tracing the various dowry-related movements. The 'Dowry At 60: A Review Panel' had Akila R (Advocate), Dr. Bharti Sharma (Activist, Shakthi Shalini), and Professor Sharada Srinivasan (University of Guelph) as the key panelists. The session was facilitated by senior journalist Ammu Joseph, who began by shedding light on how despite the campaigns launched by women groups against dowry and the changes in legislation, coupled with the changing perspectives of reports by the press on the issue, the problem of dowry demands and the resultant harassment of young newly-wed women continues to exist in our society.

A screenshot of the moderators and panelists taken using Zoom [a video conferencing platform]. The images have, in clockwise order from left to right Ammu Joseph, Bharti Sharma, Professor Sharada Srinivasan, and Akila R

clockwise [L-R]: Ammu Joseph, Dr. Bharti Sharma, Professor Sharada Srinivasan, and Akila R.

The audience was very lively, and towards the end of the session aimed to steer the discussion to a number of topics, including (but not limited to) the question of caste, the role of liberalization, the propelling of ideas through popular culture, ideas surrounding ostentatious weddings and the changes that have come to the forefront since COVID-19. 

You can watch a saved copy of the recording on our Facebook page or our Youtube channel.

An image of the first speaker Akila R
Our first speaker, Akila R opened the discussion by highlighting the legal remedies that are in place. She presented, in a concise manner, the various sections covered in the Dowry Prohibition Act (1961), and also drew us to the fact that laws formulated to protect women from demands of dowry and the resulting harassment have a gender-blind outlook.

  • "In addition to the Dowry Prohibition Act, there are several legal remedies for dowry demands and harassment. These may be civil in nature through divorce or matrimonial remedies or under the domestic violence act, and criminal through dowry prohibition act and other provisions of IPC."
  • "Through section 3 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, giving and taking dowry is an offense. Punishment has been enhanced now to over five years of imprisonment and a fine. What's interesting is that the law seems to accord the same gravity to taking and giving dowry. It is blind to the larger context of dowry.....they [the laws] are gender-neutral and context-neutral, and the implication or premise seems to be that giving and taking dowry is a choice."
  • "There are Dowry Prohibition Officers appointed and an advisory board in place. In Tamil Nadu, the District Prohibition Officers are designated as Dowry Prohibition Officers. They have a lot of important functions which help in creating awareness of the Dowry Prohibition Act."
  • "It is very interesting that there is Dowry Prohibition (Maintenance of Lists of Presents to the Bride and Bridegroom) Rules of 1985. It said that both the bride and the groom must maintain a list of presents given to them and that both parties must sign this....within one month of marriage, these lists are supposed to be submitted to Dowry Prohibition Officers...I can only imagine this creates a bureaucratic response."
  • "We have, over time, progressively increased the minimum punishment, but the reality is that when it comes to enforcement and taking cognizance, the law enforcement authorities and courts are not necessarily allies of victims of dowry....they approach with the presumption that this a false complaint and they are disgruntled wives. There is a rising very harmful rhetoric of how the law is abused. But, we have statistics that tell us that there is severe gross underreporting of crimes. The number of complaints of dowry deaths and dowry harassment is on the rise, but conviction rates are low. Despite the convictions being low, there is a rhetoric that complaints are false. Convictions may be low because of general faults in the system or women being forced to withdraw their complaints."
  • "There definitely is an aspect of Sanskritisation and this deeply entrenched idea that a woman has to be married off....there needs to be a rethinking of how families are structured and how relationships are structured...[in our society] dowry is not understood to be wrong but dowry harassment is understood to be wrong. It seems to be a part of our culture....unless we understand dowry itself to be a problem, it is quite difficult to proceed."

Watch Akila R's presentation here.

An image of the second speaker Bharti Sharma.
Dr. Bharti Sharma, our second speaker began her talk by sharing a couple of clips by Shakti Shalini Women Centre and led her talk by sharing the different experiences on dowry-related complaints that have come to the forefront.

  • "I would say that this particular cause [of dowry] lies in our socio-structure. This social structure, the Indian social structure, our social structure is deeply entrenched in gender inequality, power imbalance, and absolute gender norms that undermine the physical and mental health of survivors along with their dignity, their agency, their safety, and their autonomy."
  • "When a woman complaints, we have so far not come across, since 2010, a woman telling us that I am harassed on account of dowry. They talk about the violence they are suffering from, but dowry is never a reason why a woman or her family reaches out to us. So, it is very obvious that perhaps our society is not aware of the dowry act? Or, is it because we don't want to talk about dowry? Is it because then you have to go to court under the dowry act? We have to see why people do not complain about dowry."
  • "What is the use of legislation when it is not used? Does it not mean that something needs to be done to the legislation so that it is used? Our society knows that there is an evil of dowry still going on; they are both the victims and perpetrators."
  • "The law can be modified or amended. But the basic requirement is that we work at the level of the society and the community. Because this particular evil cuts across all aspects of the society; it doesn't see economic class, religion, caste, it doesn't see anything. It is everywhere. There are very few communities in the interior of India where there may not be any dowry situation. I would suggest that with this Prajnya 16 day movement, let us wake up and work together at the level of the legislations and the level of communities."
  • "It is very important that we work at the grassroots level - not only with men but also women...we have to devise different kinds of methods and strategies to work with different classes and groups of people to bring about the change."
Watch Bharti Sharmaji's presentation here.

An image of the third speaker Professor Sharada.

Prof. Sharada Srinivasan, our final speaker for the event explained the persistence or worsening of the practice of dowry despite the existence of legal remedies.

  • "Quoting from the abstract of my paper Daughters or Dowries? The Changing Nature of Dowry Practice in South India (2005), significant changes have occurred in the practice of dowry in South India. From being an upper caste/class practice, dowry has become an all caste/class phenomenon, replacing the symbolic exchange of gifts between families of the groom and the bride. It has become a euphemism for strategies to acquire higher standards of material life, status, and security, with negative consequences to women’s status, including their survival. The anti-female bias of the practice cannot be tackled from within the dowry trap. Raising the critical consciousness of women about their identity and self-esteem remains a critical component of effective strategies." 
  • "The way out of all of this is to really strengthen women's property rights and inheritance. That is really the way to fight dowry because we cannot fight dowry by taking part in the practice, right?..... The one clear way that legally is now possible is because of the amendment of the Hindu inheritance which allows for daughters to equally inherit ancestral property. So, that, I think is key to conquering the practice of dowry. This is easier said than done, I'm aware."
  • "Very often, in India and some parts of Tamil Nadu, people have always said there is a shortage of brides and presence of sex-selective abortion....the shortage of brides and demand for dowry operate on parallel tracks. The demand for a high-status groom has not gone down. If you need a high-status groom, you have to give a higher dowry."
  • "The middle-class weddings, nowadays, are a 3-day event with sangeet and mehandi. These events are often held at different venues showing the status of the girl's family and the groom's family. Events like the sangeet and the mehendi were not a part of Tamil weddings. These are recent additions."
  • "This notion that daughters are a burden and that they have to be handed over from the parents to the husband has to change among parents, daughters themselves and among husbands. This, of course, means that we work among men as has to balance between individual liberalism and collective responsibility."
Watch Dr. Srinivasan's presentation here

Watch the panel recording here on our YouTube channel.

No comments:

Post a Comment