The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”:
“The persistence of dowry crimes
As many analysts and women’s activists are quick to point out, femicide by husbands is not unique to India, nor is it more prevalent there than in many other parts of the world. The rate of intimate-partner violence in the United States, for example, is at least commensurate with that of India when compared on the basis of population. The women’s movement in India, however, has gone to great lengths to publicize this particular form of violence against women, shedding light on the combined forces – including the lack of basic human rights and the tolerance of violence against them – that put some women and girls in mortal danger at the hands of their partners.
Although India outlawed the modern dowry system in 1961, the practice has escalated among the expanding middle class, crossing religious, socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. The National Crimes Record Bureau of the Government of India recorded 6,917 dowry-related deaths in 1998, a 15 percent increase over the number reported in 1997. Because incidents are grossly underreported, these statistics probably represent only a small sampling of the violence occurring across India every day. In 1999, the founder of the International Society against Dowry and Bride Burning in India estimated that 25,000 brides are killed or maimed each year as a result of dowry disputes. In 2000, a United Nations report estimated that on average five Indian women a day were killed in “accidental” kitchen fires by husbands whose demands for dowry payments had not been met. “Mina” is one of these statistics.
Beaten and harassed by her husband for almost four years for not bringing in enough dowry, Mina eventually left him and filed a harassment case with the local police. Her husband convinced her to return to him, however, and shortly thereafter she suffered a fatal “accident”. According to her husband and his family, Mina “fell on a chimney.” As she lay dying from the burns that covered more than 94 percent of her body, Mina was asked by police – as is customary – to make a declaration regarding the accident. She did so, absolving her husband and his family of any responsibility for her death.
From empowerment to exploitation
A chief historic motivation for bestowing dowry, as practiced in ancient Greece, Rome, India and medieval Europe, was to provide a degree of financial autonomy to a bride, how otherwise had little or no right to property after marriage. According to various traditions, dowry might flow from the groom and/or his family to the bride – thus ensuring her economic wellbeing in the event of her husband’s death or the dissolution of the marriage – or from the bride’s parents to the bride and her new husband, as a form of bequest, or premortem inheritance, for their daughter.
Now practiced primarily in Asian cultures, dowry payment in its current manifestation typically involves the transfer of wealth from the parents of the bride to the groom and his family. Although women and girls are no longer the direct beneficiaries, some researchers maintain that the practice still confers benefits to the bride by enhancing her status in the marital home. Evidence from India, however, indicates that the positive effects of dowry for wives have more than diminished. Once considered a beneficent and even spiritual act observed only by the wealthiest and holiest castes (with the lower castes practicing the more pragmatic tradition of bride price, involving compensation by the groom’s family to the bride’s family for the loss of human capital), the dowry system today often functions more as a commercial transaction and has been resolutely embraced by the middle and lower classes.
India’s modern dowry: groom price
Several theories have been advanced to explain why the middle and lower classes in India replaced the custom of bride price with the dowry system. Some suggest that it was an attempt by lower casts to emulate higher castes. Dowry payment became a status symbol, one that bestowed greater respectability on the bride and her family and increased the likelihood of the bride “marrying up”. It continues today because of caste-related systems of wealth dispersion. Another hypothesis contends that the interrelated influences of colonialism and the rise of a male-dominated market economy led to the devaluation of women, who lost their productive worth.
Others cite demographic shifts in South Asia as a possible reason for the change. Reductions in overall mortality that began about 60 years ago have resulted in there being more young people than old in the region. Because women are likely to marry at a younger age than men, there is a surplus of marriageable women. Increasingly inflated dowry payments are sometimes six times the bride’s family’s annual income. These dowries now function as a groom price – a means for young women to compete for respectable husbands. According to this hypothesis, recent declines in fertility and increases in sex-selective abortions should reverse the trend of escalating dowries over time and may even result in a return to bride price as the shortage of eligible women and girls results in men competing for wives.”
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