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Dowry Deaths


The Global Persecution of Women


”Dowry Murder” from UNIFEM, Violence Against Women – Facts and Figures. Downloaded from, 16 Feb. 2007.

Dowry murder is a brutal practice involving a woman being killed by her husband or in-laws because her family is unable to meet their demands for her dowry — a payment made to a woman’s in-laws upon her engagement or marriage as a gift to her new family. It is not uncommon for dowries to exceed a family’s annual income.

While cultures throughout the world have dowries or analogous payments, dowry murder occurs predominantly in South Asia. According to official crime statistics in India, 6,822 women were killed in 2002 as a result of such violence. Small community studies have also indicated that dowry demands have played an important role in women being burned to death and in deaths of women labelled as suicides [22]. In Bangladesh, there have been many incidents of acid attacks due to dowry disputes [23], leading often to blindness, disfigurement, and death. In 2002, 315 women and girls in Bangladesh were victims of acid attacks [24].

(22). Referred to by General Assembly. In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General, 2006. A/61/122/Add.1. 6 July 2006. 90.
(23) Carrin Benninger-Budel and Anne-Laurence Lacroix. World Organisation against Torture, Violence against Women: A Report 1999. Geneva. OMCT.
(24) Bangladesh: Death for Man who Maimed Girl, New York Times, 30 July 2003.


"Bangladesh," DOS Report 2005.

Domestic violence was widespread. Although violence against women was difficult to quantify, recent research showed that up to 50 percent of all women were victims of domestic violence. Much of the reported violence against women was related to disputes over dowries. During the year [there were] 227 reported dowry-related killings. ...

Laws specifically prohibit certain forms of discrimination against women, provide for special procedures for persons accused of violence against women and children, call for harsher penalties, provide compensation to victims, and require action against investigating officers for negligence or willful failure of duty; however, enforcement of these laws was weak. In 2003 parliament passed an amendment weakening provisions for dowry crimes....

Md. Asadullah Khan, “Dowry: The crime continues,” Daily Star, Dakha, 10 Jan. 2004.

Not only in the cities and towns but even in the villages of Bangladesh, terror has come stalking. Now the weapon of fear is not only the gun but a can of petrol or kerosene and a matchbox. A woman on fire has made dowry deaths the most vicious of social crimes. It is an evil prevalent in the society and despite efforts by some activists and women's rights organisation to eliminate this menace, the numbers have continued to climb. In villages marriage was once considered a very sanctified bond united in the worst or best of times, in sickness or in health through the vicissitudes of life. But dowry related deaths have shattered that bond of peaceful and happy relationship.

A recent survey by the Bangladesh Human Rights Organisation, and Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association revealed that in 2001, there were 12,500 cases of women repression, in 2002 the figure rose to 18,455 and in the year ending in 2003 the figure climbed to 22,450.

The grisly act of a brute and greedy husband in Chapai Nawabganj as reported in the newspapers on December 27 last is a story better not be heard. Having failed to realise a dowry claim of Tk. 20,000/= Shamsher killed her wife Marina just on the 22nd day of their marriage. The most grisly side of the story is that Shamsher hired three other monsters for Tk 300/= and Marina was slaughtered by Shamsher after she was forced to be gangraped by four human monsters including himself.

Reports appearing in local dailies on September 6 last indicated that one housewife at Dupchachia Upazila in the district of Bogra and the other at Jhalakathi Fatema and Sajeda, respectively, aged around 19 years were killed by their in-laws in collusion with their husbands on their inability to meet increasing demands of dowry money. It's the brutality of these crimes that has awakened the country to the beast that runs loose in these greedy monster-turned husbands. Criminologists as well as Crime Assessment Wing of the government and some NGOs assert that crime rate among the youth, especially such deviant young husbands, has gone up by as much as 40 percent. And though crime wave flows across all races, classes and life styles, the survey makes particular mention of the fact that there is a noticeable increase in the dowry related crimes by young husbands from middle class or upper middle class families.

The country wide survey conducted by the Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association revealed that women repression incidents, mostly dowry related, has increased alarmingly over the last few years.

Although many cases of dowry harassment cases were reported of late, a staggering number of such cases were not. Despite all attempts to prevent it, an epidemic appears to be in the making. It is a phenomenon that escapes easy answers due to complex mix of social trends. The sudden affluence, of course of a section of people, that emerged starting from rural areas to the cities in the mid-to-late '80s is the primary factor. The money, as social scientists say, was not channelised productively. Instead of using it to enhance women's education, for instance, it was used to perpetuate ostentatious living. With get-rich-quick becoming the new goal of life, dowry became the perfect instrument for upward material mobility.

Growing consumerism, flashy life styles and in most cases joblessness and drug addiction are fuelling these crimes. If once a bicycle, a wrist watch or a small money for starting a business sufficed for the lower income groups, now a TV, home appliances and a motorbike or scooter other than cash money are the common demand. For the upper, middle class and better educated grooms the demand is soaring. They look for a flat ownership a plot of land at Dhaka or a chunk of share in business. People are inclined to believe that the quantum of dowry may still be higher among the upper classes but 90 percent of the dowry deaths and nearly 80 percent of dowry harassments occur at the middle and lower strata.

It is hard to believe but harder still to comprehend. Some of these tales are so horrifying. Beauty Akhtar of Dhamrai Upazila was married to Muntaj Ahmed of Arpara village in Manikganj about two and a half years ago. Beauty's father met his son-in-law's dowry demand by paying three lakh taka. But Muntaj's greed was insatiable. He started torturing her for more money and at one stage locked her in a room for three days without food. It so happened that on November 12 last, the entire family including husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law and other in-laws beat her with iron rod in a row. Somehow this incident of torture reached her father and he lodged an FIR Savar thana.

As reports go Beauty is recuperating at the Manikganj Hospital and her husband Muntaj Ahmed, father-in-law Ashrafuddin Ahmed and brother-in-law Ariful Hossain have since been arrested. Unhappily, there are more stories of dowry harassment that ultimately lead to death than are reported in the newspapers. For women it is a difficult battle to win. They are handicapped by history, victims of a firmly embedded gender system.

Some recent dowry related harassments and tortures leading to deaths that have created ripples at home and abroad have prompted Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to issue an appeal to all heads of public and private universities and Education Boards to wage a war against dowry in the country. All findings indicate that dowry demands in the country have multiplied tenfold over the last one decade. Precisely speaking, there is a sticky web of issues surrounding it. The much hyped luxury needs of the consumerist society is one. Most upper middle class families due to lack of proper education and culture have realised that this is an easy way to acquire wealth and live comfortably in the society. Unhappily, there exists a toothless attitude in a majority of modern families who participate in dowry based marriages instead of opposing them. People talk glibly about dowry prohibition or anti-dowry movement but when it comes to the wedding of their own sons and daughters, most people would do the same thing. P.M.'s D.O. letter to heads of educational institutions will not create any tangible impact unless the political parties have made it mandatory for members to take an oath that they shall neither give nor receive dowry. Shockingly true, down the years the lack of collective political will to curb dowry has become obvious.

The sons of land owners in the Dhaka Metropolitan city, owners of apartment blocks besides the grooms with MBA degrees and computer related degrees and diplomas are considered top-notch catches in the groom bazaar. The rich revel in the exchange of black money but the pressure on other classes to ape them has serious social consequences. In most cases affluent parents think that big dowries will strengthen their daughter's position in the husband's family. But appallingly, should the marriage go wrong, there is no way that this fabulous gifts in the form of cash, jewellery and property can be retrieved.

More intriguing, in most cases girls do not have any knowledge or participation in the deal. Dowry is often a monetary deal between two men -- the bride's father and the groom. Despite promulgation of Acid Control Act, 2002 and Dowry Prohibition Act the numbers of dowry related atrocities and deaths are climbing up and it is true, as the P.M. has indicated, a big social movement is a must to stop giving and taking of money. The law may help take temporary punitive action, but later women need real social, financial, moral and ideological support to stand firmly against an age old system that has almost got an unwritten societal sanction. Women face double peril. Inside the barred doors is humiliation, outside awaits public ire. Harassed and tortured women are now going to court or police for protection. But even if appeals for protection are met only scorn greets them when they return home. Despite every stigma, dowry continues to be the signature of marriage. The odd NGO groups, or women activists or Women Lawyers' Association may pursue one or two cases and rehabilitate some tortured women, but appallingly by and large any major success or breakthrough is hardly possible because social intervention is low and ignorance high.

No doubt, the laws remain stringent. But a dowry death is a relatively easier crime than murder to prosecute and so the crime continues. Due to several factors, most go unreported. And in the court, a majority of the victims belong to the under privileged classes and they have hardly any means to fight out the lengthy legal battles. While court appearances and seeking police protection in all these types of torture and violence by husbands appear to be a traumatic experience, most women prefer to sweep their bitter experiences under the carpet. However, the strength must come from the society and the government. Almost all agencies tend to "exploit women's labour without supporting it," maintaining it and enhancing it. In a bid to weed out this menace from the system that scenario must be changed.


”Fiji,” DOS Report 2001.

In addition to the rise in domestic violence, in previous years there have been a number of deaths of Indo-Fijian women that appeared to be bride burnings. (Bride burning is an attack on a wife by members of the groom's family dissatisfied with dowry payments. These attacks are often staged as kitchen accidents or suicides and result in the fatal burning of a victim.) Police investigations concluded that the victims had committed suicide, burning themselves so severely as to cause death. However, the women's rights community asserted that these deaths were bride burnings. There were no confirmed reports of such deaths during the year.

”Fiji,” DOS Report 2001.

In addition to the rise in domestic violence, there have been approximately 30 "suicides" by Indo-Fijian women that appeared to have been bride burning. Police investigations report that the women burned themselves so severely as to cause death, but the women's rights community believes that the deaths are the result of bride burning.


Rebecca Ruiz, “India’s All-Women Police Pursue Dowry Complaints,” Women’s eNews, 13 September 2006.

India has established roughly 300 all-women police stations to help curb dowry-related violence. One officer says the main benefit is establishing complaint records.

BANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)--In her three years working at the Basavangudi all-women police station in Bangalore, Constable Mylaaiah Rangajura has taken hundreds of statements of women with dowry-related complaints. Some are freshly bruised, others have been starved for days and some fear that their husbands or in-laws will burn or strangle them to death, a tragically common end to a dowry dispute.

When a wife's husband and her in-laws are called in for lengthy interviews, Rangajura listens as family members explain and often deny the accusations of abuse and harassment.

While dowry was once a gift from a bride's family to a daughter often consisting of cash, jewelry and fine clothing, it has increasingly come to be seen as a payment to her husband and his family that reinforces or improves their financial and social standing. Abuse frequently begins when additional dowry demands are unmet. It is a form of emotional and physical blackmail that continues until the wife's family finally relents.

"The in-laws will say that she is lying and that the woman will not adjust to the in-laws," says Rangajura, who wears the same uniform as most male police officers: a khaki shirt and pants with a thick black belt.

Rangajura takes notes as her supervisor tries to negotiate reconciliation, the most common approach to solving dowry disputes. "Sometimes there is no compromise," she says, referring to the more egregious cases that involve severe physical and mental abuse, "but you have to think about what both parties want."

Part of Overall Antiviolence Effort

Rangajura is part of India's effort to address the problem of domestic violence, particularly dowry-related violence.

Though outlawed in 1961, dowry practices have continued to flourish, regardless of religion, caste, educational background or whether marriages are arranged or "love" matches.

Dowry-related violence increased more than three-fold between 1990 and 2000. Dowry deaths rose by 38 percent during that same time period and since then about 6,000 to 7,000 women have been murdered each year.

In 2005, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded a dowry death every 77 minutes. Still, many argue that extremely low reporting and conviction rates mask the true number of dowry deaths, which could reach as high as 25,000 per year.

In 1992, the government of Tamil Nadu opened the first all-female police station in Chennai, largely in response to complaints that the social stigma of confessing one's family problems to a stranger and the possibility of being raped kept women away from male-dominated stations.

Mangai Natarajan, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has authored the most extensive studies on female police stations in Tamil Nadu. She says the stations give women a safer, more comfortable place to report domestic violence. "They don't want to talk about their personal relationships with a man," Natarajan says. "They think they won't get any justice."

In 2005, India adopted a federal domestic violence bill that offers victims state-sponsored advocacy and aims to speed up the legal process by creating more courts and hiring additional judges.

India, in addition to Brazil, has pioneered the use of the all-women police station. In 2005 India had 295 units. Brazil, which began opening the stations in the 1980s, now has more than 300.

Authority Figures and Counselors

Part authority figure and part counselor, the women who staff these stations are supposed to be trained to field complaints ranging from violence to neglect to infidelity to dowry harassment.

As leverage, they often use the pressure of social embarrassment to remind an errant husband and his family that their behavior is unacceptable and, in many cases, illegal.

"Families do have a great respect for police officers," Natarajan says. "Women will threaten their husbands with going to the police and it's effective."

In 1990 the federal government created the National Commission for Women to ensure progress on issues such as female feticide, poverty and sexual harassment. In the years that followed, 26 state commissions were mandated to address these problems at a local level.

Women who turn to branches of the women's commission often see it as a middle ground between reporting a dowry crime at the local police station--which can put women at odds with their families--and seeking the help of an advocacy group that doesn't have the government's backing.

The emphasis on counseling and "patching things up" in the all-women police stations has left some victims feeling betrayed, says Ranjini Srikumar, temporary chair of the Kerala State Commission for Women.

"The women officers say, 'Oh, it doesn't matter, my husband beats me too. Don't make such a big deal, it happens to all of us,'" Srikumar says, adding that some women have told her they had better experiences at regular, male-dominated stations.

Though female officers do receive gender sensitivity and counseling training, it often occurs infrequently and differs from station to station.

Shobana Khatavkhar investigated dowry cases at the Basavangudi women's police station in Bangalore from 2003 to 2005 and acknowledges that some officers can be callous and that training could be improved.

Of the 75 or so dowry cases Khatavkhar examined, she says only five resulted in a conviction. The main benefit of filing reports, she says, is that it creates a permanent police record.

"When asked about dowry harassment, they always deny it," she says, referring to the accused husbands and in-laws. "But (the station) keeps the record and then they won't continue to harass because it's on file."

Detecting the Warning Signs

A.K. Siddamma, an investigator for the Karnataka State Commission for Women, worked as a police officer for 33 years and investigated 180 dowry deaths for 10 of those years. She ticks off the signs of neglect and abuse that might escalate to murder: "The husband won't buy his wife proper clothes, won't give her food, will beat her and threaten her."

When a husband is asked to appear in her office as part of the investigation, Siddamma says she tries to restore the bond. "When you took your husband or wife," she says, "you took him or her to look after. I tell them that marriage is more important than dowry."

However, she says some cases must be referred to the police.

Gouramma Venkata Ramana is a staff member at Vimochana, a Bangalore women's nonprofit organization that has scrutinized unnatural deaths for most of the last decade.

Through a translator, she said that the police often fail women who come forward with complaints of abuse. "The police are given training to see that while dealing with family matters, they ought to make sure the family does not break up and instead comes to an understanding," she says.

Of the 714 unnatural death cases Ramana investigated last year, she determined that at least 150 of them were dowry-related.

Rampant domestic violence, she emphasizes, is the underlying problem and a likely contributing factor to the other deaths. She believes reducing the level of domestic violence requires encouraging women to step forward and helping them once they do.

"Education is important," Ramana says. "But we are also here to support the women when no one else will listen or help."

British Home Office, “India,” Country of Origin Information Report, 2006.

6.428 As reported by the BBC on 16 July 2003, dowries and the problems associated with them have meant that many Indian families are desperate to avoid having girls. Legislation against sex determination tests was passed nearly a decade ago, but the practice is still widespread. The Pre-natal Diagnostics Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act 1994 (amended 2002) bans sex determination tests. [32bb]

6.429 As noted in the US State Department Report 2005 (USSD) published on 8 March 2005:

“Providing or taking dowry is illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961; however, dowries continued to be offered and accepted, and dowry disputes remained a serious problem. In a typical dowry dispute, the groom’s family harassed a new wife for not providing a sufficient dowry. This harassment sometimes ended in the woman’s death, which the family often tried to portray as a suicide or accident. In 2004 the government registered 6,250 dowry death cases under the Dowry Prohibition Act, in which husbands or in-laws murdered women for not providing sufficient dowry. In September the Delhi Commission for Women reported 677 cases of abuse against women from January to July, of which 92 percent were dowry related and 22 percent a result of harassment by in-laws. In 2004 Delhi police’s crime against women cell recorded 7,987 dowry-related cases. Of these, police counselled 1,853 families to a compromise, filed criminal charges in another 1,200 cases, and in five thousand cases the victim did not pursue the matter. In 2004 there were 122 dowry-related deaths in Delhi. In March the West Tripura sessions court sentenced three persons to five years’ rigorous imprisonment for abetting the suicide of a woman by torturing her for dowry in 2003.” [2c] (Section 5)

“The media often reported cases of dowry murder. On August 19, 19-year-old Charanpreet Kaur was set on fire and killed by her father-in-law because her parents could not meet her in-laws’ ever-increasing demands for dowry. Kaur made a statement to police before she died, and her husband and in-laws were arrested. At year’s end, all accused were in New Delhi’s central jail awaiting formal murder charges.” (USSD 2005) [2c] (Section 5)

The same report continues:

“The Tamil Nadu government reported an increase in cases filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act from 175 in 2003 to 294 cases in 2004. In 2004 the government won convictions in 32 cases of dowry harassment, including 8 involving murder. Lawyers confirmed that wife-battering cut across all religions, caste, and educational levels. Convictions potentially took several years. For example, during the year the Chennai high court convicted two accused persons of a dowry death case initially filed in 1995.” [2c] (Section 5)

6.430 As reported in the US Department of State report 2005: “Under the law, courts must presume the husband or the wife’s in-laws are responsible for every unnatural death of a woman in the first 7 years of marriage – provided that harassment was proven. In such cases, police procedures required that an officer of the rank of deputy superintendent or above investigate and that a team of two or more doctors perform the postmortem procedures; however, in practice police did not follow these procedures consistently.” [2c] (Section 4)

As reported by the BBC news service on 1 June 2000, if convicted, prison sentences can stretch to 14 years. [32l]

6.431 As noted in a BBC news article dated 16 July 2003, this type of murder is often referred to as “bride burning” in India. Payment and acceptance of a dowry has been illegal in India for 40 years but is still widely practised. Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 (amended in 1984 and 1986) bans paying and receiving dowries. [32bb] As reported by the BBC on 16 July 2003, in 2003, Nisha Sharma, a prospective bride from Noida just outside Delhi had her groom arrested after he demanded a dowry. The groom and his mother were arrested under the rarely enforced 1961 Anti-Dowry Act. Both were awaiting trial. [32bb] According to a BBC news item dated 8 October 2003, Nisha Sharma became an instant celebrity as politicians and non-government organisations honoured her for her boldness in calling the police. [32cb] According to the US State Department report 2004, in the case of Nisha Sharma, the potential groom was detained for 14 days while formal charges were filed for violating the country’s laws against dowries. The case received considerable publicity and the story has been included in the school curriculum in Delhi to teach children the problems of the dowry system. [2c] (Section 4)

6.432 As reported in a BBC news article dated 29 September 2004, “The new English textbook for the sixth standard – age 11 to 12 – in schools run by the government of the Indian capital, Delhi, includes a chapter on Nisha Sharma.” The State Council of Education Research and Training who prepared the book stated that the story was included to draw children’s attention to social problems. Nisha Sharma became a role model after calling off her wedding because her fiance asked her parents for more dowry money. [32fj]

6.433 As recorded in the USSD report of 2005: “Usually at a disadvantage in dowry disputes, women have begun to speak out against dowry demands. In February a woman from Bhiwani, Haryana, refused to join her husband after her marriage ceremony because of a dowry demand by her in-laws. The local panchayat stood by the woman’s decision.” [2c] (Section 5) According to a BBC news report dated 28 November 2003, “Thousands of people in the southern Indian city of Bangalore have staged a march and rally against the system of dowry.” The Karnataka State Women’s commission (KSWC) organised the rally. Apparently the women were joined by many men. [32cd]

6.434 It was reported by the BBC in an article dated 14 November 2003 that India’s illegal dowry system was still thriving, leaving women vulnerable to abuse. The Crime Women Cell is a women’s crime unit in south Delhi set up to protect women in a male dominated society:

“The police unit has been given new powers to arrest and detain suspects… Despite the corruption and bureaucracy, hundreds are convicted of dowry crime every year... Crimes against women have soared in the last 10 years with many more being committed than are recorded, these are serious crimes. The head of the Crime Women Cell stated that dowry was the main problem, with increasing numbers of women going to the unit.” [32ch]

6.435 As noted in a BBC news article dated 30 September 2004, a triple suicide attempt was made by three sisters afraid any dowry demands for their potential marriage would financially cripple their father. The sisters were from a village in Calcutta. The three drank pesticides whereupon the youngest died and her two sisters survived but were in hospital. One of the sisters said that her mother had a brain disease and her father had struggled for months to get sufficient money together for dowries. In their suicide note the girls said they wanted to save the family from continuing struggles for dowry money which had led to bitter arguments. The father denied the situation was that bad but admitted that on occasion marriages have broken down because he could not find a dowry. “He said the dowry system – while technically illegal – is a way of life… If you have a daughter, you have to give a dowry, if you have a son, you will receive one when you are married. It is the way of our society.” The article further states that although the dowry system is officially illegal in India, it is common outside the main cities. A doctor at the hospital where the girls were admitted stated that a survey was carried out some months earlier whereby it was found that 35–40 people attempted suicide in that area every month. He said that extreme poverty was the principle cause of suicides linked to dowries. [32gb]

"India," DOS Report 2005.

The Home Ministry reported that in New Delhi during 2004, there were 130 reported dowry deaths....

According to press reports, the rate of acquittal in dowry death cases was high, and due to court backlogs, they took an average of six to seven years to conclude. ...

Providing or taking a dowry is illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961; however, dowries continued to be offered and accepted, and dowry disputes remained a serious problem. In a typical dowry dispute, the groom's family harassed a new wife for not providing a sufficient dowry. This harassment sometimes ended in the woman's death, which the family often tried to portray as a suicide or accident. In 2004 the government registered 6,250 dowry death cases under the Dowry Prohibition Act, in which husbands or in-laws murdered women for not providing sufficient dowry.

In September the Delhi Commission for Women reported 677 cases of abuse against women from January to July, of which 92 percent were dowry related and 22 percent a result of harassment by in-laws. In 2004 Delhi police's crime against women cell recorded 7,987 dowry-related cases. Of these, police counseled 1,853 families to a compromise, filed criminal charges in another 1,200 cases, and in five thousand cases the victim did not pursue the matter. In 2004 there were 122 dowry-related deaths in Delhi. In March the West Tripura sessions court sentenced three persons to five years' rigorous imprisonment for abetting the suicide of a woman by torturing her for dowry in 2003.

The Tamil Nadu government reported an increase in cases filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act from 175 in 2003 to 294 cases in 2004. In 2004 the government won convictions in 32 cases of dowry harassment, including 8 involving murder. Lawyers confirmed that wife-battering cut across all religions, caste, and educational levels. Convictions potentially took several years. For example, during the year the Chennai high court convicted two accused persons of a dowry death case initially filed in 1995.

Usually at a disadvantage in dowry disputes, women have begun to speak out against dowry demands. In February a woman from Bhiwani, Haryana, refused to join her husband after her marriage ceremony because of a dowry demand by her in-laws. The local panchayat stood by the woman's decision.

The media often reported cases of dowry murder. On August 19, 19-year-old Charanpreet Kaur was set on fire and killed by her father-in-law because her parents could not meet her in-laws' ever-increasing demands for dowry. Kaur made a statement to police before she died, and her husband and in-laws were arrested. At year's end, all accused were in New Delhi's central jail awaiting formal murder charges.

Under the law, courts must presume that the husband or the wife's in-laws are responsible for every unnatural death of a woman in the first seven years of marriage--provided that harassment was proven. In such cases, police procedures required that an officer of the rank of deputy superintendent or above investigate and that a team of two or more doctors perform the postmortem procedures; however, in practice police did not follow these procedures consistently.

John Lancaster, “Women on the Rise in India Feel the Riptide of Tradition. Course on How to Be a Dutiful Housewife Has Strong Resonance,” Washington Post, 8 November 2004.

Every year, more than 6,000 Indian women are murdered by their husbands and in-laws -- sometimes doused with kerosene and burned to death in purported kitchen accidents -- for failing to yield to demands for bigger dowries, according to national crime statistics.

Tim Sullivan, “In prospering India, dowry crimes take toll on daughters-in-law,” AP Worldstream, 22 July 2004.

NEW DELHI – The ladies of the Tihar Jail dowry wing can tell you about all sorts of tragedies that befall daughters-in-law: kitchen fires and suicides, plunges from apartment balconies and mysterious ailments.

What they tend not to mention is that they are accused – and sometimes convicted – of involvement in those tragedies, alleged accomplices to a tradition of dowry that is growing ever more voracious.

"Televisions and fridges, sometimes even cars, this is what people ask for now," said Jyoti Chaudhary, an assistant superintendent who oversees the jail's dowry wing, a cocoon of seemingly gentle women in a prison holding some of India's most violent criminals.

Around here, they simply call it "the mother-in-law wing."

"Instead of earning these things, people now want to snatch them from someone else," Chaudhary said.

It can be dangerous to be a daughter-in-law in India, where marriage and money are tied together in ancient traditions.

According to official figures, about 7,000 Indian women were killed in dowry cases last year, a number that rights groups say is perhaps half the actual total. The decade that ended in 2000, a time when India's economy leaped forward, saw a 38 percent rise in killings, and a tripling in harassment complaints.

The fact that dowry has been illegal since 1961 means little. The vast majority of Indian families, from the urban elite to illiterate farmers, still pay some form of dowry to seal their daughters' wedding agreements. Created long ago to ensure that brides had wealth of their own, the tradition has essentially become a fee paid by the bride's family to the groom's.

When trouble arises, it can be horrific. Authorities talk of brides held down by sisters-in-law as husbands douse them in kerosene and set them alight, locked in closets until they starve or beaten in front of their husbands' families.

Wealth has only compounded the problem.

There has been a sharp spike in the number of dowry-related crimes in recent years, closely paralleling a galloping Indian economy that has brought the trophies of middle-class life – TVs and motorbikes and matching dining room sets – tantalizingly close for hundreds of millions of people.

For some families, the call of advertisers is impossible to resist, and demands for cash and gifts often continue long after the weddings.

Women may be increasingly educated and well-paid here, but the tradition has kept up with the times by growing even more burdensome to them. The lure of easy money spans Indian society: rich, poor, educated and not, married by arrangement or for love.

"The economic changes are not making things better, they're making people more greedy," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a prominent women's organization.

The growing consumerism is reflected in the increasingly crowded cells of Tihar's dowry wing, where about 100 women are held. A few have been convicted, but most are awaiting trials in India's torturously slow judicial system, a wait that can last many years.

A conviction can draw a life sentence, though mothers-in-law are more commonly accused as accessories, and face terms that seldom go higher than eight years.

By prison standards, the dowry wing is fairly comfortable. There's a grassy yard, cable television, ceiling fans to stir the stifling heat and large communal cells where the prisoners – "ladies" to their jailers – unroll sleeping mats every night.

Behind the 20-foot steel gates, barred doors and concrete walls topped by guard towers, it's an enclave of gray hair, middle-class dreams and, the prisoners insist, universal innocence.

"Not even one person here is guilty," said Durga Sharma, a fiftyish schoolteacher jailed after the death of her son's wife. "These are people from good families."

Sharma insists her daughter-in-law died of an unknown stomach ailment. The police says she was killed in a dowry dispute.

The prisoners blame their fates on conniving in-laws, corrupt policemen and investigations that often entail arresting entire households. The husbands and sons of most of these women were also imprisoned (though many are out on bail, leaving wives and daughters behind bars).

"I didn't commit any crime ... no one in my family did," said Shanti Devi, a soft-spoken 59-year-old housewife whose daughter-in-law – depending on whom you believe – either committed suicide or was pushed from a 5th-floor apartment. Who is said to have pushed her isn't clear.

"I never asked for dowry," insisted Devi, who said her daughter-in-law was mentally ill, constantly screaming and pulling at her own hair. "But if her family wanted to give us something as a gift, we would happily accept it."

In India, the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is often deeply complicated. Sons commonly remain at home with their parents, and their wives are expected to move in too, taking over many household chores.

It's a situation rife with potential clashes, and the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law has long been a staple of neighborhood gossip and Indian soap operas.

But TV dramas don't convey the horrors brides can face.

Often, the murders are disguised as suicides or kitchen injuries from burst kerosene stoves, authorities say. Sometimes, the crimes are actual suicides where authorities say husbands or in-laws drove the women to kill themselves.

The grim statistics in part reflect increased awareness and more reporting of dowry crimes. More police units today are dedicated to protecting women, and prosecutions of dowry-demanding families occur fairly regularly. By law, women who die within seven years of marriage must be autopsied.

For all that, filing charges remains difficult for the vast majority of women, requiring them to confront generations of tradition and often to find ways around less-than-helpful authorities.

But the jump in dowry statistics also reflects growing demands.

For a few, particularly in sections of the educated elite, dowry payments have become symbolic.

But for many, marriage remains a hard-fought negotiation, and courtship is often replaced by husband-shopping.

Want to marry your daughter to a banker? The Times of India pegged his cost at about $15,000, paid to his parents in cash and gifts. A businessman with an MBA is at least $32,000. And a member of the Indian Administrative Service, the country's elite bureaucrats: at least $44,000.

Lower down the economic ladder, among the middle-class aspirants who fill Tihar, the numbers have also changed.

Where grooms' families once asked for bicycles, today they'll demand motorcycles or cars. Those who would have asked for furniture now submit long requests for electronic goods.

Mamta, a 22-year-old newlywed who asked that her full name not be used, said she was given a simple choice: "A motorbike or 25,000 rupees (about $550), that's what my husband's family told me I had to bring."

The daughter of a construction worker from a working class New Delhi neighborhood, Mamta said her dowry included the "usual things": a television, washing machine, refrigerator and some furniture.

But days after her marriage, another new bride moved in down the street, bringing a new motorbike for her in-laws.

"My husband's family saw the motorcycle, and they told me I had to bring one for them," she said.

When Mamta refused, her husband beat her and locked her in the house. When her brother paid the 25,000 rupees, her in-laws demanded a car.

Threatened with more beatings, she fled to a women's' shelter.

"I feel nothing for my husband, and he never had any feelings for me," she said in an interview two weeks after running away, her bruises only recently faded.

But she still wants to go back. She's hoping a shelter counselor can work out an arrangement with her husband and his family to guarantee her safety.

Her alternatives, she says, are limited. Divorce would bring shame, possible poverty and no guarantees.

"If I get married again, my new husband could be even worse than this one."

Amanda Hitchcock, “Rising number of dowry deaths in India,” World Socialist Web Site, 4 July 2001.

May 27: Young housewife burnt alive for dowry

LUCKNOW: For nineteen-year-old Rinki dreams of a happily married life was never to be. Barely a month after her marriage, she was allegedly tortured and then set ablaze by her in-laws for dowry in Indiranagar in the small hours of Saturday. Daughter of late Gyan Chand, a fish contractor who expired a year ago, Rinki was married to Anil on April 19... However, soon after the marriage, Balakram [Anil’s father] demanded a colour television instead of a black and white one and a motorcycle as well. When Rinki’s mother failed to meet their demands, the teenage housewife was subjected to severe physical torture, allegedly by her husband and mother-in-law... On Saturday morning she [her mother] was informed that Rinki was charred to death when a kerosene lamp accidentally fell on her and her clothes caught fire. However, prima-facie it appeared that the victim was first attacked as her teeth were found broken. Injuries were also apparent on her wrist and chest.

June 7: Woman ends life due to dowry harassment

HAVERI: Dowry harassment claimed yet another life here recently. Jyoti, daughter of Chandrashekhar Byadagi, married to Ajjappa Siddappa Kaginelle in Guttal village (Haveri taluk) had taken her life after being allegedly harassed by her husband Ajjappa, mother-in-law Kotravva, sister-in-law Nagavva and father-in-law Siddappa for more dowry, the police said. Police said that the harassment compelled her to consume poison... The Guttal police have arrested her husband and father-in-law.

June 7: Body found floating

HAVERI: The police said that a woman’s body was found floating in a well at Tilawalli (Hanagal taluk) near here... The deceased has been identified as Akhilabanu Yadawad (26). The police said that Akhilabanu was married to Abdul Razaksab Yadawad five years ago. In spite of dowry being given, her husband and his family tortured her to bring some more dowry. Her father, Abdulrope Pyati in his complaint, alleged that she was killed by them. Her husband and his two brothers have been arrested, the police added.

These three chilling reports from the Times of India are typical of the many accounts of dowry-related deaths that take place in the country every year. One cannot help but be struck by the offhand way in which 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 much as one would report a traffic accident or the death of a cancer patient—tragic certainly, but such things are to be expected.

The character of the articles points to the fact that the harassment, beating and in some cases murder of women over dowry is both common and commonly ignored or even tacitly condoned in official circles—by the police, the courts, politicians and media. These crimes are not isolated to particular groups, social strata, geographical regions or even religions. Moreover, they appear to be on the rise.

According to an article in Time magazine, deaths in India related to dowry demands have increase 15-fold since the mid-1980s from 400 a year to around 5,800 a year by the middle of the 1990s. Some commentators claim that the rising number simply indicates that more cases are being reported as a result of increased activity of women’s organisations. Others, however, insist that the incidence of dowry-related deaths has increased.

An accurate picture is difficult to obtain, as statistics are varied and contradictory. In 1995, the National Crime Bureau of the Government of India reported about 6,000 dowry deaths every year. A more recent police report stated that dowry deaths had risen by 170 percent in the decade to 1997. All of these official figures are considered to be gross understatements of the real situation. Unofficial estimates cited in a 1999 article by Himendra Thakur “Are our sisters and daughters for sale?” put the number of deaths at 25,000 women a year, with many more left maimed and scarred as a result of attempts on their lives.

Some of the reasons for the under-reporting are obvious. As in other countries, women are reluctant to report threats and abuse to the police for fear of retaliation against themselves and their families. But in India there is an added disincentive. Any attempt to seek police involvement in disputes over dowry transactions may result in members of the woman’s own family being subject to criminal proceedings and potentially imprisoned. Moreover, police action is unlikely to stop the demands for dowry payments.

The anti-dowry laws in India were enacted in 1961 but both parties to the dowry—the families of the husband and wife—are criminalised. The laws themselves have done nothing to halt dowry transactions and the violence that is often associated with them. Police and the courts are notorious for turning a blind eye to cases of violence against women and dowry associated deaths. It was not until 1983 that domestic violence became punishable by law.

Many of the victims are burnt to death—they are doused in kerosene and set light to. Routinely the in-laws claim that what happened was simply an accident. The kerosene stoves used in many poorer households are dangerous. When evidence of foul play is too obvious to ignore, the story changes to suicide—the wife, it is said, could not adjust to new family life and subsequently killed herself.

Research done in the late 1990s by Vimochana, a women’s group in the southern city of Bangalore, revealed that many deaths are quickly written off by police. The police record of interview with the dying woman—often taken with her husband and relatives present—is often the sole consideration in determining whether an investigation should proceed or not. As Vimochana was able to demonstrate, what a victim will say in a state of shock and under threat from her husband’s relatives will often change markedly in later interviews.

Of the 1,133 cases of “unnatural deaths” of women in Bangalore in 1997, only 157 were treated as murder while 546 were categorised as “suicides” and 430 as “accidents”. But as Vimochana activist V. Gowramma explained: “We found that of 550 cases reported between January and September 1997, 71 percent were closed as ‘kitchen/cooking accidents’ and ‘stove-bursts’ after investigations under section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedures.” The fact that a large proportion of the victims were daughters-in-law was either ignored or treated as a coincidence by police.

Figures cited in Frontline indicate what can be expected in court, even in cases where murder charges are laid. In August 1998, there were 1,600 cases pending in the only special court in Bangalore dealing with allegations of violence against women. In the same year three new courts were set up to deal with the large backlog but cases were still expected to take six to seven years to complete. Prosecution rates are low. Frontline reported the results of one court: “Of the 730 cases pending in his court at the end of 1998, 58 resulted in acquittals and only 11 in convictions. At the end of June 1999, out of 381 cases pending, 51 resulted in acquittals and only eight in convictions.”

Marriage as a financial transaction

Young married women are particularly vulnerable. By custom they go to live in the house of their husband’s family following the wedding. The marriage is frequently arranged, often in response to advertisements in newspapers. Issues of status, caste and religion may come into the decision, but money is nevertheless central to the transactions between the families of the bride and groom.

The wife is often seen as a servant, or if she works, a source of income, but has no special relationship with the members of her new household and therefore no base of support. Some 40 percent of women are married before the legal age of 18. Illiteracy among women is high, in some rural areas up to 63 percent. As a result they are isolated and often in no position to assert themselves.

Demands for dowry can go on for years. Religious ceremonies and the birth of children often become the occasions for further requests for money or goods. The inability of the bride’s family to comply with these demands often leads to the daughter-in-law being treated as a pariah and subject to abuse. In the worst cases, wives are simply killed to make way for a new financial transaction—that is, another marriage.

A recent survey of 10,000 Indian women conducted by India’s Health Ministry found that more than half of those interviewed considered violence to be a normal part of married life—the most common cause being the failure to perform domestic duties up to the expectations of their husband’s family.

The underlying causes for violence connected to dowry are undoubtedly complex. While the dowry has roots in traditional Indian society, the reasons for prevalence of dowry-associated deaths have comparatively recent origins.

Traditionally a dowry entitled a woman to be a full member of the husband’s family and allowed her to enter the marital home with her own wealth. It was seen as a substitute for inheritance, offering some security to the wife. But under the pressures of cash economy introduced under British colonial rule, the dowry like many of the structures of pre-capitalist India was profoundly transformed.

Historian Veena Oldenburg in an essay entitled “Dowry Murders in India: A Preliminary Examination of the Historical Evidence” commented that the old customs of dowry had been perverted “from a strongly spun safety net twist into a deadly noose”. Under the burden of heavy land taxes, peasant families were inevitably compelled to find cash where they could or lose their land. As a result the dowry increasingly came to be seen as a vital source of income for the husband’s family.

Oldenburg explains: “The will to obtain large dowries from the family of daughters-in-law, to demand more in cash, gold and other liquid assets, becomes vivid after leafing through pages of official reports that dutifully record the effects of indebtedness, foreclosures, barren plots and cattle dying for lack of fodder. The voluntary aspects of dowry, its meaning as a mark of love for the daughter, gradually evaporates. Dowry becomes dreaded payments on demand that accompany and follow the marriage of a daughter.”

What Oldenburg explains about the impact of money relations on dowry is underscored by the fact that dowry did not wither away in India in the 20th century but took on new forms. Dowry and dowry-related violence is not confined to rural areas or to the poor, or even just to adherents of the Hindu religion. Under the impact of capitalism, the old custom has been transformed into a vital source of income for families desperate to meet pressing social needs.

A number of studies have shown that the lower ranks of the middle class are particularly prone. According to the Institute of Development and Communication, “The quantum of dowry exchange may still be greater among the middle classes, but 85 percent of dowry death and 80 percent of dowry harassment occurs in the middle and lower stratas.” Statistics produced by Vimochana in Bangalore show that 90 percent of the cases of dowry violence involve women from poorer families, who are unable to meet dowry demands.

There is a definite market in India for brides and grooms. Newspapers are filled with pages of women seeking husbands and men advertising their eligibility and social prowess, usually using their caste as a bargaining chip. A “good” marriage is often seen by the wife’s family as a means to advance up the social ladder. But the catch is that there is a price to be paid in the form of a dowry. If for any reason that dowry arrangements cannot be met then it is the young woman who suffers.

One critic, Annuppa Caleekal, commented on the rising levels of dowry, particularly during the last decade. “The price of the Indian groom astronomically increased and was based on his qualifications, profession and income. Doctors, charted accountants and engineers even prior to graduation develop the divine right to expect a ‘fat’ dowry as they become the most sought after cream of the graduating and educated dowry league.”

The other side of the dowry equation is that daughters are inevitably regarded as an unwelcome burden, compounding the already oppressed position of women in Indian society. There is a high incidence of gender-based abortions—almost two million female babies a year. One article noted the particularly crass billboard advertisements in Bombay encouraging pregnant women to spend 500 rupees on a gender test to “save” a potential 50,000 rupees on dowry in the future. According to the UN Population Fund report for the year 2000, female infanticide has also increased dramatically over the past decade and infant mortality rates are 40 percent higher for girl babies than boys.

Critics of the dowry system point to the fact that the situation has worsened in the 1990s. As the Indian economy has been opened up for international investment, the gulf between rich and poor widened and so did the economic uncertainty facing the majority of people including the relatively well-off. It was a recipe for sharp tensions that have led to the worsening of a number of social problems.

One commentator Zenia Wadhwani noted: “At a time when India is enjoying unprecedented economic advances and boasts the world’s fastest growing middle class, the country is also experiencing a dramatic escalation in reported dowry deaths and bride burnings. Hindu tradition has been transformed as a means to escaping poverty, augmenting one’s wealth or acquiring the modern conveniences that are now advertised daily on television.”

Domestic violence against women is certainly not isolated to India. The official rate of domestic violence is significantly lower than in the US, for example, where, according to UN statistics, a woman is battered somewhere in the country on average once every 15 seconds. In all countries this violence is bound up with a mixture of cultural backwardness that relegates women to an inferior status combined with the tensions produced by the pressures growing economic uncertainty and want.

In India, however, where capitalism has fashioned out of the traditions of dowry a particularly naked nexus between marriage and money, and where the stresses of everyday life are being heightened by widening social polarisation, the violence takes correspondingly brutal and grotesque forms.

Surinder Awasthi, “Crime against women on the rise in Punjab,” Times of India, 9 January 2001.

Dowry deaths have also increased - from 169 in 1999 to 182 in 2000 - an increase of about eight percent. Besides, the cases of cruelty towards women by their husbands and family members have increased in the recent past and according to one estimate about 400 cases of such cruelty were reported in 1998 alone. Only two cases of dowry death were reported in 1966 while the first case of dowry harassment was registered three decades ago in 1971.

Freedom House, “India,” Freedom in the World, 2000-2001.

Each year, several thousand women are burned to death, driven to suicide, or otherwise killed, and countless others are harassed, beaten, or deserted by husbands, in the context of dowry disputes. Although dowry is illegal, convictions in dowry deaths continued to be rare.

Meeta Rani Jha, "Chappal Sticks and Bags," SikhNet, posted 19 Sept. 2000.

Dowry has always been part of marriage in India, but the dramatic increase in dowry-giving in the post-independence period, reflects the declining value of women in the Indian society. Though the giving and taking of dowry is a legal offense since the passage of a legislation in 1961, the custom has flourished, invading lower castes and working class communities among whom this was not a practice.

Such requested products as videocassette recorders, washing machines, refrigerators, and scooters reflect the higher dowry demands asked from the girl's family. Sudha Tiwari of Shakti Shalini (a women's shelter in Delhi), blames the excessive demands by the boy's family on the western influence of capitalist materialism and the promotion of mindless consumerism by the mass media.

The first protests against dowry in the contemporary Indian women's movement were made by the "Progressive Organization of Women" in the city of Hyderabad in 1975. Though some of their demonstrations numbered as many as 2,000 people, the protests did not grow into a full-fledged campaign. The Mahila Dakshata Samiti was the first women's organization in Delhi to take up the issue of dowry and dowry harassment, but it was Stri Sangharsh whose campaign made "dowry murder" a household term. These organizations use many different methods: investigation and collection of evidence; recording witness accounts; working with specialist lawyers' collectives; using the mass media; mobilizing anti-violence women's networks; organizing local and national marches; lobbying the courts and the Government with high level of publicity; publicizing corrupt police system which colludes with the batterer and his family.

If a girl's parents are not able to meet the demands, even after the marriage the violence may escalate over many years, forcing many woman to either kill themselves to escape daily torture or be killed. Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita, in their book In Search of Answers: Indian Women's Voices from Manushi, tells the tragic story of Dr. Shakuntala Arora, who was a lecturer in a women's college and who died of burns. Her family and her colleagues feel that emotional and physical abuse and torture over many years drove her to kill herself.

The harassment of Dr. Shakuntala Arora started at the time of her wedding, when the bridegroom insisted on a scooter as an item in the bride's dowry. Shakuntala's parents had to comply with this demand or else the wedding would have been called off. When Shakuntala moved into her in-laws' house, she was asked to pay off wedding costs of 25,000 rupees, which she was forced to obtain from her parents. Any resistance on Shakuntala's part led to physical and emotional abuse. Shakuntala was allowed a meager pocket money from her salary as a lecturer for food and transport. At the birth of her first child, she received no help from her husband. Her husband became increasingly more violent at her second delivery; he kicked her in the stomach before taking her to the hospital. Only a few weeks after her cesarean section, Shakuntala, badly beaten and in tears, with a small baby in her arms, entered her mother's house to seek temporary respite from the tortures of her husband. She had no money to pay off the taxi. These were some of the economic, physical and emotional tortures that turned Shakuntala's life into a nightmare. Two days before her death, she was beaten up and forbidden to attend her brother's marriage ceremony, because she had failed to get money from her widowed mother.

The term dowry and "dowry deaths" has become synonymous with wife-battering and domestic violence. It has become a key issue and rallying cry in practically all movements in which women are active. However, we need to remember that dowry is only an excuse used by patriarchal families to continue to torture and kill women. The unfortunate consequence of using this term as a rallying cry is that it minimizes the regular abuse and killing of women. The result is that dowry-related wife murders and suicides are criticized, but other domestic violence may not be since it is thought that the wife could have been provoking the abuse.

Parvathi Menon, "Dowry Deaths in Bangalore," Frontline, 16(17), August 14-27, 1999, pp. 64-73.

Investigations by a women’s group in Bangalore point to a high incidence of unnatural deaths among newly married women following dowry-related incidents, with the persons responsible for them largely being acquitted.

Hoardings put up by the traffic police at prominent places along Bangalore’s traffic-congested road exhort reckless drivers to go slow. Grim statistics loom over traffic snarls – 704 men and women died in traffic accidents in the city in 1997, 726 in 1998 and 168 until June 1999. Reckless driving is truly a problem in India’s sixth largest metropolis, and the seriousness with which it is being addressed is gratifying to the citizens of the city.

There is, however, another category of deaths that occur on a daily basis in the city, for which no such public recognition or concern is awarded. These figures far outnumber traffic-related deaths (or indeed any category of avoidable death).

They are exclusively of women - mainly young, newly married women. In police records they are classified under three specific categories, which invoke different sections of the law. They are 'dowry murders" (committed by the woman's husband or members of his family for additional dowry or non-payment of promised dowry); "suicides" (forced or voluntary, but in most cases related to dowry demands); and "accidents" (a majority classed under "stove-burst" or "kitchen-accident"). Deaths under these three categories add up to an alarming figure. In Bangalore city, 1, 1 33 women died in murders, suicides and accidents in 1997, 1,248 in 1998, and 618 till mid- July 1999 (see Table 1).

On an average, therefore, almost one hundred women have been dying violent deaths every month in the privacy of their homes. And these are the official figures. When 44 persons died of plague by September 1994 in Surat, the epicentre of the plague outbreak of that year, the epidemic assumed the proportions of a national crisis. Yet, public acknowledgement of the unnatural deaths of young women in Bangalore city is restricted to perfunctory two-line news items in the daily newspapers, where they are reported as 'accidents" or "suicides" over "dowry harassment'. Thereafter, they drop from public consciousness into the anonymity of a police or court 'case'.

A dowry murder comes under a distinct class of violence. Motivated mainly by greed, the crime is committed within the four walls of a home on an unsuspecting wife by her own husband or his family; there are rarely any eyewitnesses who are prepared to give evidence against the murderers. The large number of these deaths is an indication that the law is not a sufficient deterrent for those who commit these crimes. Nor have these grotesquely violent murders sparked the kind of social outrage that could pressure the government and its law-enforcing machinery into acting swiftly and firmly in enforcing the law. The scale of this problem, its causes and consequences, have not been adequately acknowledged by the state and its agencies, the media, or the public at large. "Such figures certainly impress upon us the need to relook at what we understand by the police classification of “unnatural deaths”, says Donna Fernandes of Vimochana, a women's Organisation which first uncovered the horrifying dimensions of the problem in Bangalore. 'Our investigations have proved that for large numbers of married women, the right to live in safety and in a climate free from intimidation and violence is under great threat. Why is there this social unconcern when women are dying in such large numbers?'

DOWRY-RELATED violence against married women by the families they marry into is a phenomenon that is on the increase all over the country, particularly in urban areas where such violence gets reported on. Women's groups have been engaging with this issue at various levels in different parts of the country. In the absence of comparable data from other cities, it may be premature to conclude that the high incidence of unnatural deaths of young women in Bangalore is, in some way, a problem specific to this city. What has put Bangalore on the map of cities with a high incidence of dowry-related atrocities against women is an exceptional research-cum- social-intervention project by Vimochana. This study has, for the first time, quantified this problem and put it firmly in the public realm. Vimochana’s sustained two-and-half-year campaign on the issue of unnatural deaths of women resulted in the setting up, on April 7, 1999, of a Joint House Committee on Atrocities against women to investigate these deaths and make recommendations for their prevention. The Joint Committee, which was chaired by BJP MLA Premila Nesargi, presented its report on July 1. There are therefore two detailed public documents on the phenomenon of the high rate of unnatural deaths of women in Bangalore - the Vimochana documentation and campaign material and the House Committee Report. There is also detailed, month-wise statistics compiled and maintained by the State Crime Records Bureau, which Vimochana has collated and analysed in its study. Together these provide a reliable database on the numbers of women dying; the classification of their deaths by the police (whether murder, suicide, accident); the ways by which they die (burning, hanging & poisoning, and so on); the reasons for the death; the nature of the police investigation into each of these cases; the reasons for the slow pace of judicial redress; and the reasons why so many dowry death cases end in acquittal of the accused. Vimochana's database, which it began compiling from early 1997, also includes a detailed register of the women who are admitted into the burns ward of the Victoria Hospital, their ages, 'marital status, reasons for death, and case, details. ...

[Regarding] unnatural deaths and stove-bursts in the early phase of the study, as it collated police statistics, Vimochana noted a major anomaly between its figures and those of the police.

It found that a large number of deaths were being classified in police records as "accidents" under "UDR" (Unnatural Death Register). The category of "dowry deaths” in a technical sense only included those cases that had been booked by the police under the relevant sections of the law. The “Accident” cases that were closed for want of evidence, however, were largely due to “stove-bursts” or “kitchen accidents”. On the basis of its follow-up investigations with the families of the victims of these co-called accidents, Vimochana camp up with some startling findings that changed the whole perception of this social problem, the assumptions that underlay it, its causes and the course that remedial action must take. Vimochana alleged that a large number of murders and suicides, punishable under law, were being made to look like "accidents" by the husband and members of his family. These cases were closed by the investigating police officers for want of hard evidence of a crime. When a professional eye looked at the whole category of unnatural deaths (and not just 'dowry deaths’), the number of women dying in suspicious circumstances rose sharply. Vimochana's contention is that a large number of the cases simply escape detection and punishment in the prevailing social conditions.

Frontline attempted an independent assessment of some of the findings of the Vimochana study, as well as of the House Committee Report. Data provided to Frontline by the police department! for Karnataka as a whole show that out of 3,826 deaths recorded as accidents in 1997, 1,715, or around 50 per cent, were connected with fire accidents, including stove and cooking gas cylinder bursts. V. Gowramma, a Vimochana activist and the recipient of this year's Neerja Bh anot award (which was instituted in memory of the 23-year-old Pan Am airhostess who died showing exemplary courage in helping passengers escape during a hijack attempt in Karachi in 1986), says: "We found that of 550 cases reported between January and September 1997, 71 percent were closed as 'kitchen/cooking accidents' and 'stove-bursts' after conducting investigations under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedures. When the cause of death in a majority of registered dowry death cases is due to burning, such a high rate of "stove-burst" accidents involving daughters-in-law can hardly be regarded as natural or coincidental. ...

“It is an unfortunate fact that in a strictly legal sense, an accidental stove-burst is not an offence under the law," Bangalore City Police Commissioner L. Revannasiddaiah observed to Frontline. However, what is the use of an investigation if it does not arrive at the truth? If there are two or three stove-burst accidents in a day, in which only daughters- in-law die, we must look behind the formal facade and take up investigations immediately." Noting that the police are now trying to do this, he asked: "Have you ever heard of a mother-in-law or a husband dying in a stove-burst?"

Since September 1997, two Vimochana volunteers have been posted permanently at the burns ward of the Victoria Hospital, where most of the serious burns cases in the city are admitted. 'About seven cases are admitted on an average every day, with the numbers going up to ten following certain traditional festivals, when it is the practice for women to be sent to their natal homes with additional demands for dowry," explained Donna Fernandes. "The burnings usually take place past 1 a.m., well past cooking time, which itself throws the ‘stove-burst' theory into doubt. Women come with burns of 7O per cent and more, and on their death leave behind babies and small children."

There are several reasons why murders or forced suicides often get registered as a "stove-burst". "The first reaction of a woman who has been burnt by her husband or his family is to say it is a stove- burst," says Rudrappa Hanagavadi, Special Executive Magistrate for Bangalore, who is responsible for the conduct of inquests in cases relating to women who have died under suspicious circumstances. "Her dying declaration, which is supposed to be taken in private by the policeman in the presence of a doctor, is invariably a public procedure, and she is afraid to tell the truth." Members of the husband's family often threaten to harm her children and her natal family if she does not say she was injured in a cooking accident. Often, relatives and friends of the victim are reluctant to raise doubts about the nature of the death as they fear harassment by the victim's husband and his family. They also do not want to get involved in laborious police and legal proceedings. The police, for their part, do not try to penetrate this community resistance to look for evidence of what really could have happened.

HERE are pressures on women to conceal the truth about what happened to them even when they know they are dying. This correspondent visited the Victoria Hospital burns ward on July 13. On that day, five women were admitted. There was Shabrin Begum, 20, who had been married for one month, and had been admitted with 90 per cent burns; Selvi, 18, married for two years and admitted with 80 per cent burns; Lalitha, married for eight years and admitted with 80 per cent burns; Aniyamma, 40, with five children, admitted with 60 per cent burns; and Rehana Taj, 15, from Kolar district, unmarried, and admitted with 45 to 50 per cent burns.

In her first dying declaration, Shabrin, an articulate PUC student, said she was injured in a kitchen accident. In her second declaration, she said her husband and mother-in-law set her on fire; based on this declaration, the police have filed cases against them under Sections 498(A) and 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (FIR Crime No. 479/99 filed on July 16, 1999 at the Madivala police station). Selvi gave three dying declarations: in her first declaration she said she was injured in an accident; in her second declaration, she said she had attempted suicide; in her third declaration, she alleged that her mother-in-law attempted to murder her. A case has been booked under Section 3O2 of the IPC(FIR Crime No. 261/99 filed on July 16, 1999 in the Srirampura police station). Lalitha gave two dying declarations, the first saying that she was injured in a kitchen accident, the second that she did it to herself out of "despair'. Her relatives did not wish to file a complaint, and Lalitha herself said nothing about dowry demands. With tact and persuasiveness, the police could have elicited the real causes behind Lalitha's despair. But her case (UDR No. 17199) was closed as a suicide after her death on July 16, 1999.

Who Is dying and why?

*Manjula smiles shyly from out of her marriage photographs. She was married in May 1998, when she was just 18, to Vruthesh Prasad, a, mechanic in the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. Her father gave her a dowry worth almost Rs.2 lakhs. Manjula used to complain to her mother and sister that she was being harassed by her husband, his brother and other members of his family for more dowry but her family told her she must adjust and that they would try to meet the demand. On July 7,1999, more than a year after her marriage, Manjula was dead. She was found in her brother-in-law’s bathroom, a pool of blood under her head and between her legs, her upper torso and face burnt. Her husband’s family said she had committed suicide (there was a tin of turpentine and a box of matches lying near her), but her own family filed a police complaint. A case has been booked against four persons under Section 498(A) and 304(B) of the IPC (FIR Crime No. 388/99).

*‘I never imagined that he would be like this,” a shaken B.P. Krishnaswamy said of his son-in-law, H. Narasimhamurthy, a primary school teacher at Bapu Palika Mahila Prautha Salai in Yeshwantpur. Krishnaswamy trades in vegetables. His daughter, B.K. Rojavathi, a primary school teacher in Seshadripuram Primary School in Yelahanka, narrowly escaped an attempt on her life by her husband. She was married in May 1999; her husband was given a dowry of Rs.30,000 in cash and another lakh of rupees worth of jewellery and household goods; soon after the marriage, Rojavathi’s husband and father-in-law demanded more dowry from her. On July 16, her husband, under the pretext of taking her to a temple, took her instead to the isolated Soldevanahalli forest and tried to strangle her with a chain that she was wearing. When that was not successful, he returned with a cane of kerosene from his scooter, and poured it over her. A forest guard saw him just as he tried to light a flame. Narasimhamurthy fled the scene, the police was informed and Rojavathi was quickly taken to hospital. Cases have been booked against her husband under Sections 498(A) and 307 of the IPC (FIR Crime No.446/99 files on July 16 at the Nelamangala police station). He is absconding, as is the rest of his family. Rojavathi, the whites of her eyes suffused with blood owing to the effects of strangulation, and her body bruised from the blows she sustained, is slowly recovering from her injuries and shock.

* H.T. Indira, a young wife and mother, died in November 1998; her husband's family tried to pass it off as suicide by hanging. A charge-sheet (CC No. 2033/99) was filed within a month of her death under Sections 498(A) and 304(B) of the IPC; it names four accused - her husband P.Thyagaraj, brothers-in-law P. Sivakumar and P. Krishnamurthy, and mother-in-law Padmamma. Says Indira's sister Chandramma, who has undertaken a out of the house with the child an s slept on the steps that night. She told a neighbour that she was leaving as she could bear it no longer." According to Chandrammal Inctra's brother was to have brought her home but she died before that. 'This is not a suicide, I know," asserts Chandramma. 'My sister was forced to commit suicide."

These three recent incidents share a certain pattern of social behaviour and individual response. The giving of dowry, an act illegal in itself, is not perceived by the victim's families as socially condemnable, or as having made the woman's position vulnerable right from the day of the marriage. The husband and his family view her primarily as a money-source and increase their pressure until it results in her death or suicide. What is also significant is the absence of support structures for the woman - a counselling centre, a shelter home, concerned neighbourhoods –which could prevent the worst from happening. She cannot even turn to her own family when in the throes of distress.

Some broad generalisations have been made from the database now available on unnatural deaths of women. Its victims are generally young (Vimochana's study, in fact, looks only at the death of married women between the ages of 18 and 40), and in a large number of cases the death occurs within the first two years of marriage. A large number of victims (and perpetrators of the violence) are from poor or lower middle-class back- grounds, although this is not an issue that affects poor women alone. In most cases, the woman would have undergone mental and physical harassment prior to her death. Lastly, a majority of dowry murders and suicides are by burning. Police figures made available to Frontline on suicide deaths alone show that more than 50 per cent of suicides are committed by the woman setting herself on fire. In one of the several studies that Vimochana undertook, it found, for example, that out of 711 women who died in 1998 under unnatural circumstances, 454 died of burns. Significantly, 441 were between the ages of 18 and 30.

In 90 per cent of the cases I deal with, the women are from poor backgrounds" Hanagavadi told Frontline. "Migrants, like construction workers and those who live in slums, account for a large number of those involved in such cases."

The House Committee recommendations

Vimochana and the House Committee concur on one point. The special laws that are in place to deal with atrocities against women are undermined at every stage of investigation at both the police and judicial levels. The House Committee made exhaustive recommendations covering every stage of the police investigation and judicial procedure - the registration of the complaint when a death or injury under suspicious circumstances takes place, the preparing of the First Information Report (FIR), the recording of a victim's dying declaration, the inquest proceedings, the postmortem and forensic investigations, the framing of the charge-sheet, and the judicial process after that. The Committee presented five draft bills to the House dealing with atrocities against women. One of these, the Karnataka Prevention of Domestic Violence and Atrocities Against Women Bill, 1999, deals specifically with the issue of marital violence and dowry-related deaths.

The Investigative process

While the reasons for the large number of violent crimes against women must be sought in a fast-changing social and economic milieu which reinforces rather than retards patriarchal notions and values, accountability for the failure to prevent such crimes must be shared by the institutions of civil society: the legislature, the police, the judiciary, and, to some extent, the media as well. The death of a woman in unnatural circumstances has to go through two procedural tiers. The first is investigation by the police and the inquest officer (a government official at the level of a district magistrate) with assistance from doctors who perform the postmortem as well as forensic experts. Upon the thoroughness of this investigation depends the fate of the case once it gets admitted into the courts. This is the second procedural tier. If the charge- sheet in a particular case has sound investigative backing, it will have a much better chance of standing up in a court of law.

Deaths, whether murders or suicides, that are related to the relentless demand for dowry constitute a special category of crime. Given the cultural context, tremendous social pressures operate upon the victim and her family, pressures that seek to obscure truth and scuttle the investigation. In Bangalore, there is a swell of resentment among the families of victims and activist groups against the police department for what is perceived as a lack of thoroughness and integrity in pursuing cases of unnatural deaths among women. The House Committee was severe in its criticism of police investigations and set out elaborate ecommendations on how the investigative mechanism could be sensitised, streamlined and improved.

"There is only one institution in this society that is charged by law to intervene in a situation like this, and that is the police," says Revannasiddaiah. 'But you must understand this institution too is a product of this society. We have not been structured, resourced, motivated and kept in readiness to meet this requirement, and we too proceed on the old track.' But he adds that the old mind-set of the police force is changing and that he is making a conscious effort to sensitise the force in its perceptions and investigative approach towards domestic violence against women.

The Vanitha Sahaya Vani was set up seven months ago by the police department for women in distress to call in for help and counselling. While this was initially welcomed by women’s activists, it has come in for some criticsm as the success of this facility, they say, is now being measured in terms of the numbers of “reconciled” cases, and not by the additonal number of offences detected. For a woman desparate enough to call the helpline, advice to “adjust” to the unequal terms of her marriage closes one more door or escape route.

Under Revannasiddaih's initiative, the police department work with Vimochana and a group of concerned IAS officers to bring out a manual of guidelines for investigating offences against women. He has also constituted a new forum, Parihar, under the police department, which he hopes will meet the needs of women in crisis - in homes or at workplaces.

Registration of a complaint

The House Committee Report has drawn attention to the need for the police to register a complaint immediately after receiving information about grievous injuries sustained by a woman under suspicious circumstances. "After they receive a complaint the police should go to the house and seal it off, which they do not always do," notes Hanagavadi. They tend to wait until the death of the woman, by which time valuable evidentiary material slips out of their hands. The FIR must, on the basis of initial investigations, book a case under the relevant sections of the law. "Who decides whether a death in suspicious circumstances is a murder or a suicide or caused by a cooking accident or a stove-burst?" asks Donna Fernandes. "If done by an incompetent investigating officer, a chance of a cursory investigation is very high. We believe from our investigations that the temptation to classify and reduce unnatural deaths as accidents and suicidal burns is high as it reduces workload and suits the purposes of reporting." Members of families of victims who testified before the House Committee had grievances relating to the FIRs and the carelessness with which they were made. It is mandatory for a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), and in cities an Assistant Commissioner of Police, to investigate all cases of attempted suicide and death, under suspicious circumstances, of young married women within the first five years of marriage. However, according to Vimochana activists, the police do not always follow this injunction.

The dying declaration

The recording of the statement of the victim, which often becomes her dying declaration, is a part of the investigative procedure, but it often turns into a procedure for absolving the real perpetrator of the crime. It is quite common to find a burns victim giving more than one dying declaration. Meant to be recorded in privacy, the dying declaration is often taken in the presence of the victim's husband and his relatives. As mentioned earlier in the story, when this correspondent visited the burns ward of Victoria Hospital, there were three women who gave more than one dying declaration each. One of them, Selvi, gave three in the course of one afternoon. "Such a case is unlikely to stand in court. The defendant lawyer will present it as conflicting evidence," a Special Public Prosecutor in Bangalore told Frontline.

The inquest

A crucial part of the investigative process, the inquest, is to be conducted by an officer of the level of a magistrate. He must visit the spot of the death, examine the body, collect physical and verbal evidence, and give a report that indicates the cause of death. Both Vimochana and the House Committee have recommended that the inquest be made an independent inquiry accountable to a higher review committee. The House Committee has also recommended that the magistrate hold a public hearing within a week of the woman's death, at which all evidence, including the postmortem and forensic reports, should be presented. The final report should be a public document.

"Because of the alarming increase in the incidence of dowry-related deaths, Assistant Commissioner were appointed to assist Tahsildars in conducting inquests," explains Special Executive Magistrate Hanagavadi as we drive to Kengeri where he is to conduct an inquest in the case of a death by hanging that had been reported. "It is a horrible job, seeing the deaths of young women every day." As an Assistant Commissioner, Hanagavadi has three other charges and is on the move the whole day. The post of Special Executive Magistrate (SEM) was created in March 1998 to look exclusively into unnatural deaths of women. A person is appointed to it for a year and this is extendable by another year. Bangalore has two SEMs.

A large crowd had gathered outside the one-room dwelling where Bhagyamma, a young wife and mother, had hanged herself from the ceiling; her four-month-old baby lay in a crib nearby. On examination of her body, it was found that she had written her suicide note on her two legs, obviously hoping that it would escape detecti6n until the police arrived. In it she squarely blamed her husband, a grounds man at the stadium of the Sports Authority of India, for her death. She could no longer-bear his torture, the suicide note said ''She asked that her child be taken care of by her mother after her death. Bhhdamma's inquest report (No.42/99-2000) was sent on July 20, 1999 to the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court.

The judicial process

Once a case enters the courts, it often takes months for it to be heard and tried. In Bangalore, there used to be only one Special Court to try cases of atrocities against women. By August 1998, there were 1,600 pending cases in the court, "the highest pendency rate for a sessions court anywhere in the country," a Special Public Prosecutor told Frontline. Three new courts were set up that month to clear the backlog of cases. The average time taken for case to be disposed of is six to seven years.

There is a high rate of acquittals in cases of dowry murders or suicides. The same Special Public Prosecutor told Frontline that of the 730 cases pending in his court at the end of 1998, 58 resulted in acquittals and only 11 in convictions. At the end of June 1999, out of 381 cases pending, 51 resulted in acquittals and eight in convictions.

What are the reasons for this? Families of the victims, ignorant of the law and its procedure, get demoratised with the long wait before a case can be decided. "In 90 per cent of the cases, witnesses turn hostile," the Special Public Prosecutor told Frontline. "Money plays a major role. Since most of the aggrieved families are poor, they are willing to make out-of-court settlements. It is common to find that during the trial, they will suddenly change their story and say that the victim had a health problem or that her death was an accident. In fact, in eight of my cases, the parents gave their second daughter in marriage to the same person after the case was filed!" The second reason, according to him, is the 'perfunctory police investigation' that spoils the case right from the start. The "half-hearted presentation of cases by the prosecutors who are burdened with 10 to 12 cases at any given point of time" is yet another reason he cites for the high rate of acquittal. However, the "most important reason" according to him" is the liberal view taken by the judiciary in cases of dowry deaths."

Vimochana, in collaboration with the National Law School University, proposes to have a public hearing before a Truth Commission from August 15 to 17, 1999 in Bangalore. The Commission will comprise representatives of the Law Commission, former judges, lawyers and women activists. Complaints from parents who have lost daughters in suspicious circumstances, in which justice was not perceived to have been done, will be heard. The findings of the Truth Commission will be made the subject matter of a public interest petition before the Supreme Court with a view to bringing relief to the aggrieved families. Geetha Ayappa, a lawyer who has been working with Vimochana in the campaign, looks ahead to a new stage of pressing for action: "We will use the evidence we get to invoke the Supreme Court's intervention to protect a woman's right to life."

”Why do dowry deaths occur?” PUCL [People Union for Civil Liberties, India]Bulletin, Sept. 1982.

Why do dowry deaths occur? This was the central point of concern of a sociological study by Nalini Singh based on a survey of the marriages of 38 young women, aged 17-24 years, in each of which the wife died an unnatural death, reportedly due to harassment over dowry. She suggested that it is primarily the societal perception of woman being less productive than man that define woman's place in society. This manifests in what she calls "Zero-political Status", and denial of basic civil rights to them. She observes that dowry is a clear affirmation of the fact that one's gender determines one's worth or significance. Since worth is distributed unequally amongst the sexes at birth, worth-deficiency amongst females can be offset by material additives that is dowry. The roots of this worth deficiency of women are so deep-rooted that even the brides who earn more than their husbands are made to feel an obligation to supply dowry goods and services along after their marriage just as are the women who earn nothing.

The dowry deaths, therefore, she observes, do not occur because there is a mismatch between gifts demanded by in-laws and presents received, but because young married women customarily have no political significance in their new families. The continuous demand for dowry is but one of the ways in which the deficient political status is exploited. This deficiency is used to maltreat her in countless other ways too. Therefore, she says, the term 'dowry-deaths' is a misnomer because dowry related harassment occurs as part of a larger mandate to oppress a human with zero-political status. Dowry is hardly ever the single cause of so called dowry deaths. In other words, even if demands for dowry were to be satisfied fully, young women would continue to face torture and harassment in their in-laws homes because of their custom-sanctioned-inferiority that robs them of their basic human rights.

According to Nalini Singh, from the earliest days of a marriage the in-laws ruin the life of a bride on the assumption that the young woman has surrendered her total being to them; she bends over backwards to demonstrate that she has no political status, and slips in the bottom of the authority structure; while her parents reassure her that self-effacement is virtuous in woman. If there is much agreement on women's mute compliance with predetermined norms, then why are our daughters dying in marriage? As revealed by Singh's survey, the truth is that young women do not reconcile themselves to the complete absence of political significance in their affinal family. Yet they simulate absolute obedience, because that is what their fraudulent upbringing recommends. This obedience is taken for the real things by those in authority over them. In pursuance of in-law's perception that the bride's parents owe them an unlimited amount of dowry (or Compensation), they, the in-laws, establish a conduit for this flow through the bride. Stripped of a political locus stand, she cannot oppose this demand on grounds of injustice and appears to exercise either one or both of the two options-one, she succumbs, and procures the demanded goods from her parents (after initially deflecting some of the hard edge of the demand by tolerating physical brutality herself), and two, she does not comply, clothing her stand with the unsurrendered fragment of her persona. It is noteworthy, she states, that many women finally adopt the second alternative at great personal risk, and high emotional cost, and offer sustained resistance to demands for dowry.

This resistance proves extremely provocative to authoritarian family members of the husband's family, not so much because of the monetary deprivation, but because of its real potential for destabilizing the power structure which sanctions exploitative behaviour within the family. The young woman's subdued non-cooperation with the demand for extortion of dowry from her parents might not be the solitary issue on which she resists blind authority, but there might be some other issues, which expose her as opinionated, as for instance, the desire to work or study, despite family opposition. All such actions are regarded as signals of disrespect and revolt. When a young woman, who is a political amputee by tradition, resists prestigious traditions such as dowry, she is a logical candidate for retaliation by the in-laws. Dowry death are a manifest example of this retaliation by the flag-bearers of patriarchial authority. In some cases, the retaliatory wrath of the in-laws expresses itself in murders of the young women by burning with kerosene (most frequent in urban areas) or drowning (common in rural areas). Other methods employed to murder include poisoning and physical battery.


During the year, the press reported on hundreds of incidents of violence against women, and drew attention to the killings of married women by relatives over dowry or other family-related disputes. Most of the victims were burned to death, allegedly in kitchen-stove accidents; some women reportedly were burned with acid. For example, in December, Mohammed Sajid was convicted of attacking and blinding his 17-year-old fiancée with acid in Punjab. The court sentenced Sajid to seven years in jail and ruled that Sajid be blinded by acid in a public setting. Police said the defendant was likely to appeal his conviction and sentence. During the year, in Punjab, 99 burn cases were reported. Human rights monitors asserted that many cases were not reported by hospitals and that, even when they were, the police were reluctant to investigate or file charges. Furthermore, human rights monitors agree that most "stove deaths" in fact are killings based upon a suspicion of an illicit sexual relationship or upon dowry demands. Increased media coverage of cases of wife burnings, spousal abuse, spousal killing, and rape has helped to raise awareness about violence against women.


”Dowries blamed for Ugandan wife beatings,” BBC News, 25 March 2004.

The Ugandan practice of wedding dowries - known as the bride price - is to blame for much of the country's domestic violence, experts say.

A grass-roots women's organisation, Mifumi, has been leading the campaign in Uganda for the abolition of the practice where a man pays his future wife's family for her hand in marriage.

Should the marriage end, the wife is expected to refund the bride price - often paid in livestock. But as women tend to have less wealth than their husbands, many are trapped, advocates say.

"Because women are paid for with the bride price, it is like they are bought," Dr Dan Kaye, a gynaecologist and student of women's studies at Makerere University, told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"So depending on where they go, they don't have much power."

Dr Kaye explained that this meant they had no decision-making ability, and no option to do anything to which their partner did not consent.

"For contraception, for immunisation, even going out of the home to seek aid if they have a medical problem, they need permission," he said.

"This permission they don't have, because they were bought."


Mifumi director Atuki Turner said the groom was able to "treat or mistreat" his wife as he wanted because the bride price was a contract between him and his wife's father.

"If the woman is in an abusive relationship, she cannot leave because she is bonded to that marriage," she said.

"If she want to leave, she must return the cows.

"You need to live in a rural area with women to see them beaten, hurt, humiliated, burnt - and all in the name of the cow. Because when men fight and beat women in our villages, they say 'I am beating my cow'. That is what we are fighting against."

Bride price is defended as a traditional practice in Uganda. Dr Sylvia Tamale, of Makerere University's women's studies department, said it was important to look at its "historical context".

"We should realise that it wasn't always a commercial issue, as it is today," she stressed.

"It used to have values attached to it, traditionally."

But she acknowledged there was now a strong link between bride price and domestic violence.

"What you have is something completely different - and yes, I believe it contributes to women's violence, it contributes to the bondage of women in very abusive relationships," she said.

"Therefore I think it should go."

'Violent mentality'

Beatrice Appolot, a regional councillor, described her experience of surviving a horrific attack by her husband.

"On that night, my husband beat me badly, stabbed my body all over, including my private parts," she said.

"I became unconscious. I was taken to hospital and stayed for four months."

However, she added that getting rid of bride price would not in itself end domestic violence in Uganda.

"African men - especially Ugandan men - have the mentality of being violent to their spouses," she said.

"Bride price alone may not solve the problem."

Meanwhile, on the streets of Kampala, not all are keen to see the end of bride price.

"Bride price is gesture of appreciation that I have taken your daughter," said one man, Paul Kabile.

"If I'm a parent and my daughter has been taken, I would want something.

"Therefore if you bring me a car, I will always look at that car and think 'this is my daughter, she is doing well elsewhere'."

Background Research

IRB, Human Rights Briefs: Women in India. Ottawa: DIRB, October 1995.

The government officially banned dowry in 1961 with the Dowry Prohibition Act, but this law proved ineffective (The New York Times 30 Dec. 1993; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 115-116; Calman 1992, 132). In fact, the practice is reported to be on the increase (San Francisco Chronicle 7 Mar. 1995; Dallas Morning News 7 Mar. 1993, 3; The New York Times 30 Dec. 1993). The director general of the Anthropological Survey of India, K.S. Singh, in his report on an eight-year study of Indian habits and customs, indicates that 40 per cent of the 4,635 communities in the study believed in dowry giving (India Today 15 Apr. 1993, 50-52). While it was formerly the practice only among Brahmins, dowry giving has spread to all castes as well as other religions (FEER 28 Oct. 1993, 41; India Today 15 Apr. 1993, 52; Calman 1992, 56; Kumari 1989, 7-8).

The pressure to provide a dowry is keenly felt by families. Female foeticide and infanticide are said to occur in part because families consider girl children to be poor investments (WIN News Autumn 1990a, 22; Calman 1992, 126). Whereas a boy is viewed as an asset, a girl can have a devastating economic impact on a family since dowries can cost up to five years' salary (ibid.; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 112). The pressure to provide a dowry is also felt by female children themselves. In Kanpur three sisters were reported to have committed suicide in order to spare their parents the humiliation of not being able to provide a dowry, without which they could not get married (IHDSF 15-18 Feb. 1988, 9). One study indicates that increasing development and education do not seem to be eradicating the practice of dowry (Kumari 1989, 23).

The Dowry Prohibition Act was amended in 1984 [ The Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act of 1984 was strongly criticized by women's groups and in the media. See Calman (pp. 134-137) for a critique.] and 1986. The 1986 amendments reverse the burden of proving that there was no demand for dowry to the person accused of taking or abetting the taking of dowry (ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 115-116; Calman 1992, 132, 134-137). They also increase the minimum penalty for acceptance of a dowry or for assisting in the negotiations for a dowry from a 6-month to a 5-year jail term and a fine of around $US 1000.00 (San Francisco Chronicle 7 Mar. 1995). The law, however, is "rarely enforced" (ibid.).

While illegal, it is customary in India for a bride's family to provide a dowry: the practice is viewed variously as a way for the bride to make an economic contribution to the marriage, as a means of paying for her maintenance or as a form of inheritance which ostensibly tries to redress the fact that women have fewer property rights than men (Calman 1992, 125; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 110; Kumari 1989, 2, 8). Despite two 1985 supreme court judgements which declared the property given as a dowry to belong to the bride, in practice, the dowry goes to the husband and his family (Kumari 1989, 21 n.12; Calman 1992, 126) and their desire for wealth and status frequently overrides the merits of and putative concerns for the bride (Kumari 1989, 1; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 110).

Through their daughter-in-law's dowry, families can acquire material goods that may otherwise have been outside their means, and they commonly demand more dowry after the wedding (The New York Times 27 Aug. 1994). Brides often become victims of mental and physical abuse when they fail to meet these demands. In a large number of cases the abuse culminates in suicide or murder (ibid.; FEER 28 Oct. 1993, 40; The Irish Times 30 May 1994; Kumari 1989, 1; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 110). A widower can remarry and collect a second dowry (Dallas Morning News 7 Mar. 1993, 3; Calman 1992, 127).

The 1993 census indicates that approximately 5,000 dowry-related deaths, including suicides, were reported in eight states and the capital. The highest number were recorded in Uttar Pradesh (1952), followed by Maharashtra (746), Andhra Pradesh (575), Madhya Pradesh (370), Bihar (336), Rajasthan (271), Karnataka (266) and Punjab (147). New Delhi reported 107 dowry-related deaths for that year (The Irish Times 30 May 1994; Press Association 5 May 1994). Official estimates are believed to under-report the actual number of cases, and numerous cases are dismissed as attempted suicides or accidental deaths (ILHR Mar. 1991, 5; Calman 1992, 127; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 113). Many of the deaths are attributed to accidental burns caused by kerosene stove explosions or "mysterious kitchen fires" (ibid.; The New York Times 27 Aug. 1994; Kumari 1989, 2; Calman 1992, 127). Reportedly, some 40 to 80 per cent of all burn cases in India are young, newly-married women (ILSA 1992, 113; ILHR Mar. 1991, 6). Although most of this type of violence occurs in urban areas, dowry deaths are reported to be increasing in rural areas as well (ibid., 114).

The 1986 amendments to the Dowry Prohibition Act also address dowry violence, making dowry-related murder a crime under the Indian penal code (ibid., 137; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 117) and creating a presumption of guilt against a husband or his relatives in cases where a woman has died under questionable circumstances and where it is proven that she was subjected to harassment or cruelty in relation to demands for dowry (ibid.; Country Reports 1993 1994, 1350). The 1983 Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, which defines "cruelty" and makes it an offence under the Indian penal code, requires authorities to conduct a post-mortem in the death or suicide of any woman married less than seven years (Calman 1992, 137; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 117). The 1983 legislation attempts to strengthen the prosecution of dowry deaths further by making the "abetment of suicide" an offence; it also introduces an amendment to the Indian Evidence Act which raises a presumption of abetment against a husband (or his relatives) whose wife has committed suicide in cases where they were married less than seven years and where there is proof that he (or his relatives) subjected her to cruelty (ibid.; Calman 1992, 137).

A number of sources consider these laws a serious effort on the part of the government to bring an end to dowry deaths, but all point to the lack of adequate enforcement as a major problem (Kumari 1989, 81; ILHR Mar. 1991, 6; BCTWLJ 1993, 71; ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 118). The number of reported cases has increased significantly since 1986 when, according to government statistics, 1319 dowry deaths were registered (ibid.; ILHR Mar. 1991, 6; Country Reports 1993 1994, 1350). Country Reports 1992 points out that approximately 95 per cent of reported dowry deaths do not result in convictions (Country Reports 1992 1993, 1144; see also ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 118). There have been a few exceptions. For example, in March 1993, three family members were sentenced to death in a dowry case (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1350). According to the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), a documentation network which investigates, documents and disseminates information on human rights in the region, and Country Reports 1993, of the 329 arrests for dowry deaths between 1989 and 1991, only 45 cases went to trial and only 3 persons were convicted (SAHRDC Feb. 1992, 33; Country Reports 1993 1994, 1144). At the same time, government reports indicated that the total number of dowry deaths in 1991 alone was estimated at 5,157, "up about 7 percent from 1990" (ibid.). In most cases it is difficult for the plaintiff to meet the burden of proof (ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 118). Acquittals have reportedly been obtained due to corrupt police and physicians who tamper with evidence (Human Rights in Developing Countries Yearbook 1991 1991, 184; Country Reports 1992 1993, 1144).

Critics suggest that there is tacit acceptance of the dowry system by the largely male-dominated establishment and accuse the police of deliberate inaction in dowry cases (ILHR Mar. 1991, 7; see also ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 139-140; Rhoodie 1989, 399). Country Reports 1993 states that "... lawyers handling dowry cases complain that judges and prosecutors (usually men) are uninterested in cases of domestic violence and are susceptible to bribes" (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1350; see also ILSA Journal of International Law 1992, 140).

The 1986 amendments to the Dowry Prohibition Act call for the appointment of regional dowry prohibition officers to investigate claims of dowry abuse (Calman 1992, 137). Another attempt to address the issue has been made by the Delhi Administration Directorate of Social Welfare, which set up a reconciliation-cum-guidance bureau and Anti-Dowry Cell to educate the public and to provide counselling and mediation services or legal assistance. The Anti-Dowry Cells are intended to provide a place for women who are victims of dowry violence to discuss their situation in private (Kapur 8 Aug. 1994). The organization has, however, been described as "ineffective"; complaints reportedly remain unattended for too long and counselling lacks privacy and professional continuity (Kumari 1989, 85-86). According to Naina Kapur, some people have criticized the Anti-Dowry Cells for merely espousing "traditional family values" and counselling women to return to their husbands. She states that there are often complaints that the officers involved do not believe the women who approach them and will not file the case in the appropriate police records (Kapur 8 Aug. 1994).


The Global Persecution of Women