By Dr Sambit Dash & Ms Tanaya Patnaik*
A spate of dowry-related crimes against women has captured headlines since a few weeks leading to uncomfortable discussions around a practice that is widely prevalent in India. Odisha is no exception to this abominable practice and sees a high rate of dowry related crime. The problem of dowry is a multifactorial one with more than 95% marriages in India conforming to the ill practice. Only when governments, civil society and law enforcement act in a concerted manner, can the issue be even attempted to be addressed. This essay will attempt to discuss the not conversed about deep-rooted problem in Odisha and few ways in which the solutions can be framed.
Magnitude of the problem
As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report of 2019, with 1.5 dowry deaths per lakh female population, Odisha stood 6th in India. On an average, 21 women died each day in 2019 due to dowry-related crimes in the country and a total of 342 women were killed in Odisha. Under the Dowry Prohibition Act, Odisha registered 1.1 cases per lakh population and was 7th in India. In 2019-2020, as per Odisha State Commission for Women data, 51 dowry deaths and 644 dowry desertions were recorded.
These figures have to be juxtaposed with the overall status of women in the Odia society, especially with the parameters that have some bearing on the practice of dowry, like employment of women, their education levels, financial independence, etc. These are reflected in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), a comprehensive and robust household survey. As per NFHS-4, only 28 percent of women in the age group of 15-49 were employed (vs 84% males). If women have money they have earned, only a third of them can decide how to use it.
A little over half the women (56%) have a bank or savings account that they themselves use and 30% of females do not participate in decisions about their own health care. In a serious indictment of lack of independence in mobility, only 20 percent of women are allowed to go by themselves to the market, a health facility, and places outside the village/community. At the same time just 39% of women have a mobile phone that they themselves use.
Atrocity by husbands is normalized in the Indian society. In Odisha, a massive 59% of women believe it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife under some circumstances. This fact becomes all the more disturbing when it is coupled to the finding that among women who have completed at least 12 years of schooling, 46 % say that a husband is justified in beating his wife for one or more of the specified reasons. The practice of dowry, its normalization in society hinges on these disturbing facts.
The legal angle
Dowry laws, first having passed in 1961 have undergone several reforms over the years, the latest being as recently as 2018, and yet have failed to achieve their purpose. As recently as May 2021, the Supreme Court ordered to widen the ambit of dowry-related crime. As per the statute, it is illegal to:
(a) give or abet the giving or taking dowry;
(b) demand any dowry directly or indirectly from the parents or guardians of a bride or bridegroom;
(c) incur marriage expenditure, the aggregate value thereof exceeds Rs. 15.000;
(d) display the gifts given to bride or bridegroom in the form of cash, ornaments, clothes or articles;
(e) take or carry in excess of 25 members of the marriage party exclusive of minors and 11 members of the Band;
(f) serve more than 2 principal meals;
(g) deny conjugal rights on the ground that dowry has not been given or the dowry given is insufficient.
A cursory look at these provisions will make every Indian realise how distant they are from reality. We need to ask why dowry related laws have failed to act despite their decades of existence and several modifications. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the lack of social support. Dowry has widespread social sanction in the Indian society and laws cannot operate in vacuum. Secondly, the lack of enforceability. This can be attributed both to the legal loopholes and again, social acceptance of the practice. Loopholes like “gifts” being acceptable makes large holes in the application of the law. Further, enforcement authorities cut from the same cloth as the society disincentivizes effective application.
Hence, the clamour for stricter laws, harsher punishments, perhaps is not going to address the larger problem in any manner. However, an area that leaves a scope for better implementation is in The Dowry Prohibition (Maintenance of Lists of Presents to the Bride and Bridegroom) Rules, 1985. The rules state that the presents to the bride and bridegroom in a wedding be documented with approximate value of the present, name of the person who has given the present and their relationship to the beneficiary. This document shall be signed by both bride and bridegroom. This part of the law can be strengthened and perhaps as an additional move, with encouraging more and more registration of marriages (the rate remains poor in the country), this document should be made mandatory to attach. This could work as a nudge to alter behaviour, the most crucial aspect of the dowry problem.
The evolving forms of dowry
The prevalence of dowry culture in India has been rapidly rising post-Independence. Today, nearly 95% of marriages involve dowry and it pervades urban-rural, rich-poor and caste-religion divide, though the rate of prevalence is higher in certain groups. In a growing and aspirational India, it might superficially appear that the educated, elite lot with enviable education and modern lifestyles have transcended this undesirable practice of dowry, and that it happens in Bharat and not India, but in reality the picture is quite different than what we would like to believe. Although, dowry in the traditional sense, where an aforementioned and negotiated amount of money and specified material gifts are given from the bride’s family to the bridegroom’s family, failing which it is understood that the marriage would not transpire, is not practiced brazenly as before in urban families, this demonised and denunciated matter of dowry has been artfully reinvented over time to gain acceptance among the educated class.
This reincarnation of dowry from demand to loving gifts and ‘tokens’ of affection is rampant all around us. We are all silent observers of dowry and dowry-related violence in some form or the other. Shouldering the expenditure of a fancy wedding, demands for a destination wedding, gifts for the bridegroom’s family and extended family – and all of this specified to a T by the bridegroom’s family with lists, brands, price ranges etcetera have been so normalised that most of us have been conditioned to not view this as dowry. In a World Bank study on evolution of dowry in India, published on June 30 this year, the researchers S Anukritiet. al., shows that dowry is positively correlated with higher caste status and that upper caste marriages have the highest dowry followed by OBSs, SCs and then STs. However, the same study brings out an encouraging fact about dowry in Odisha, by stating that at least the average dowry in Odisha has seen a decline of late (in rural India up to 14% of household income was average net dowry in 2007).
It is well acknowledged that the scourge of dowry is not going to go away unless some drastic change occurs in the marriage market or laws and is dependent on a host of factors. One of the first principles is that no woman should be forced to live a life of abuse and humiliation. Providing her a way out of that situation should be the responsibility of a morally conscious system and is a chase-worthy goal.
Why a woman continues living at her husband’s home despite torture, physical and mental violence and a veritable threat to her life? We would be fooling ourselves if we think, and a toxic idea often perpetrated through movies, that it is ‘for love’. No woman tolerates violence and extreme emotional stress for love or any emotional attachment for the perpetrator. It is often because of lack of alternatives that women suffer.
One of the foremost reasons women live in dowry-related abusive marriages is financial insecurity and dependence on the husband’s income for survival. Leaving the husband’s home in an act of revolt against dowry-related violence or any form of injustice requires courage but it also requires funds to sustain. That is why we see a lesser number of uneducated and unemployed women take this step. The question of how she will fend for herself and her children without adequate financial resources looms large.
Female Labor Force Participation, an indicator of female workforce, as per NSSO 68th round (2011-12) was 25.1 in rural Odisha vs. 60.6 of men and average of 42.7. In urban Odisha, FLFP was 15.8 vs 60.3 in men and an average of 39.5. While one may point that the averages are close to the national average, but in a research paper titled “Women’s work in response to urbanization: evidence from Odisha”, the author Arup Mitra points that the higher numbers are attributed to large number of tribal dominated districts where tribal women, owing to the demand of sustaining household income participate in livelihood activities or migrate, contributing to higher FLFP. Therefore, FLFP would be below the national average and this needs to rise, especially since women have suffered much more job losses than men during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The other predominant reason that stifles women is inadequate, or, at times, no support from their parental family. In many cases parents force their daughters to put up with the injustices, making it clear to them that they cannot return to their parental home in case she takes a decision to walk out, guilt trip her into believing she is responsible for her troubles, responsible for the ill repute she is bringing to their family, responsible if her other sisters don’t find a suitable groom because of her decision and so on and so forth. It is an extremely sad commentary on our society when the fear of ‘what others will say’ outweighs the safety and happiness of our daughters.
This social limitation needs to be overcome chipping at the patriarchal and misogynistic society one block at a time. It is important to normalise not getting married, normalise remarriage, normalise a woman living alone, normalise a woman living alone with her kids.
Hitchhiking Mission Shakti
In most dowry related cases, it is observed that the husband and the mother-in-law are the major perpetrators of violence and abuse. The dowry related experience the mother-in-law had with her mother-in-law and her socio-economic status has a significant influence on her behaviour pattern. This has been shown in numerous studies on the dowry system in India.
Sometimes when routine measures and laws deem to be ineffective, it is probably worth trying out some unconventional approaches to find a solution to a lingering problem. Odisha government’s Mission Shakti initiative which aims at empowering women by promoting self-help groups (SHGs) has been one of the major success stories of the last decade. There are more than 70 lakh women and thousands of SHG leaders under the fold of Mission Shakti in Odisha. These SHG leaders have been successful in creating an identity for themselves and the government has ambitious plans for these groups.
It might be an idea worth considering to leverage these SHG groups and the influence of their leaders to make a dent in the dowry system which is prevalent in rural Odisha. The Naveen Patnaik government has a good sway with women voters and this is an opportunity the government should seize to address this dowry issue by nudging women to break the chain (a term that has become familiar post Covid-19). A carefully thought out, structured plan of action involving the SHGs might prove to be fruitful and also create a model for the rest of the country. If Naveen Patnaik could help usher this social change, he would have done an unparalleled service to Odisha.
The importance of capacity building cannot be stressed enough. There has to be sufficient legal recourse that women could fall back to. As per NFHS-4, only 13 percent of women who have ever experienced physical or sexual violence by anyone have sought help in Odisha. Over three-fourths of women have neither sought help nor told anyone about the violence. Abused women who have sought help most often seek help from their own families, and while family support is of paramount importance, institutional support needs to be provided. Only 3 percent of abused women who sought help for the violence sought help from the police. This points to the lack of confidence women have in police. This needs to change. Adding more counsellors, working with NGOs working at grassroots level, creating more women legal help cells, empowering commission of women are some of the capacities that Odisha needs to build and build rapidly.
The all-pervasive and perverse culture of dowry operates with impunity because of the huge social sanction it garners. Only when certain cases grab national headlines does the conversation around it occur. Then it is all back to square one. A growing and aspirational India and Odisha cannot afford to be bogged down by this social evil. Odisha has to shed its image of being a state with low women empowerment and high rate of crime against women. The change that needs to be brought about has to occur at multiple fronts beginning from the political where the ruling BJD with its vast popularity among women voters can try to usher this social change. Police reforms and capacity building to support women in distress is a no brainer, yet sees snail paced progress. There is no substitute for inclusive economic development, a bandwagon that women need to ride and which would provide the much-needed economic freedom. Development also ushers social changes, and thus it is imperative that it is not restricted to Bhubaneswar and few other major cities. Post Covid-19, due to economic distress and large-scale unemployment, there is a possibility of rise in dowry demand, to mitigate the financial burden. This problem is compounded by the fact that women have lost more jobs than men during the pandemic. Governments, civil society, change agents should pre-empt such situations and pay attention to the scourge of dowry in the state.
About the authors:
*Dr Sambit Dash works as an Assistant Professor (Selection Grade) at Department of Biochemistry
Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus).
*Tanaya Patnaik is the Executive Director of Sambad Group.