India: Economic Growth & Development

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The current dowry fiasco in India

This powerful essay by Madhu Purnima Kishwar is a prime example of how one can get closer to the reality by transcending the dichotomy of Left vs. Right. None can deny the "Leftist" credentials of this author & yet one is startled by the conclusion she draws after almost three decades of social work in the trenches

Even though MANUSHI played a leading role in bringing national attention to domestic violence and the role dowry has come to play in making women's lives vulnerable, after nearly 28 years of experience with these issues, I have come to the firm conclusion that the terms 'dowry death' and 'dowry violence' are misleading. They contribute towards making domestic violence in India appear as a unique, exotic phenomenon by giving the impression that Indian men are the only ones in the world to use violence based on astute and rational calculations. By this logic, it would appear that men in all other parts of the world are truly stupid because they beat and kill their wives without any benefit accruing to them, whereas Indian men attack their spouses in the expectation of extorting financial rewards from their in-laws.

Ms. Kishwar goes on to list in exhaustive detail & makes her case like a seasoned trial lawyer:

  1. An Ill-Defined Crime
  2. Basic Flaws in the Laws
  3. Dowry vs Stridhan
  4. From Dowry to Groom Price
  5. Recompense for Disinheritance
  6. How People Justify Dowry
  7. Reasons for Dowry Increase
  8. Insecurity of Groom's Family
  9. Like many other laws in India - Draconian Yet Ineffective
  10. Phoney Laws, Phoney Heroines (Takes on the Nisha Sharma case)
  11. Consesus against extortion
  12. Harmful emphasis
  13. The Way Forward

In closing, one can do little better than pasting her forward looking recommendations in full

The present day dowry system in India symbolizes the disinheritance of women and the desperation of parents to push their daughters out of their homes after marrying them off, no matter how this affects their well-being. Failure to do so is considered a severe stigma on the family's izzat (reputation). Since the woman is being sent as a disinherited dependent, the receiving family has to be compensated.

Once women become equal inheritors, parents will not have to depend only on sons and daughters-in-law for old age security because daughters too will be empowered to take care of their parents. This will make families less male-centric and therefore, less prone to violent tussles. We need to combat the culture of disinheritance if we wish to effectively combat the growing hold of dowry culture. For this the following steps are likely to work better than anti-dowry laws:

  • Encourage parents through widespread, high profile campaigns, to gift mainly income-generating forms of property to their daughters (land, house or business shares) depending on the economic status of the family.
  • Encourage those parents who can afford it to ensure that their daughter has a house, room or even a jhuggi in her own name so that she is never rendered homeless, can never be 'thrown out of the house'.
  • Amend the Hindu Succession Act to give coparcenary rights to daughters at par with sons as the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu have already done.
  • Amend the Hindu Succession Act to make it illegal to routinely disinherit daughters through their wills unless they can provide strong extenuating circumstances for doing so.