Defending women from "dowry death"

Is India going too far in its efforts to prevent violence against married women?

Published May 10, 2007 1:15PM (EDT)

Today's news (via the Hindustan Times and elsewhere) about India's attempts to expand certain provisions of the Dowry Prohibition Act sounds like a good thing. After all, in a country where, in the past decade, an estimated 10 million girls suffered gender-selected termination and infanticide -- and many of the females lucky enough to survive live with an array of heinous traditions including forced marriages, wife beatings, honor killings and widow colonies -- anything that strengthens women's rights before the law can't be bad, right? But a proposed amendment to extend a seven-year clause protecting women from so-called dowry deaths makes me wonder about the limits of legislating justice.

In case you lack the lowdown on India's dowry customs, here's a whirlwind history: Part and parcel of the society's poor valuation of females, the ancient practice dictates that families must pay to have other families take their daughters off their hands. Over the centuries, the dowry tradition has amounted to legal extortion -- the families of many daughters go broke attempting to please their daughters' in-laws, a tradition that has made some families regard female infanticide and sex selection as lesser evils. The custom has also been the cause of thousands of bride burnings and other domestic atrocities.

The Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1961, and banned the practice of demanding cash and other gifts from a bride's family -- before or after the marriage. (Typically, we think of dowries as just happening around wedding time, but some families demand cash and other valuable securities for decades after a marriage takes place.) Not only does the DPA prohibit the receiving of dowries -- punishable with a minimum of five years in prison and fines not less than 15,000 rupees, or the amount of the dowry, whichever is more -- but anyone demanding a dowry can get from six months to two years in jail, plus up to 10,000 rupees in fines. Verboten, too, is trading one's daughters or sons in exchange for property or a share of a business interest. And although the government hasn't banned all wedding day gifting, the law specifies that all presents should be given only to the brides and grooms, and requires that the couple maintain a written list of wedding gifts with their values, the gift givers' names and givers' relationship to the couple.

Though the DPA has been credited with curbing the country's dowry troubles somewhat, dowries remain very common. The act has also spawned its own counter form of extortion: Many husbands have complained that their wives' families have used the laws to extract money from them. In some well-publicized cases, American men who returned to India with Indian wives, or traveled to India to marry Indian women, found themselves accused of dowry pressure, had their passports seized and were put in jail. After substantial payouts to the brides' families, the charges were dropped. These cases have been frequent enough to prompt the U.S. State Department to issued a warning on its India travel page.

In the '80s, the DPA was amended to include a clause on situations known as "dowry deaths." According to this clause, if a wife dies of unnatural causes (like bridal burning) within seven years of her wedding and her family charges that she was under "unreasonable pressure to supply a dowry," all parties accused of causing dowry death face minimum seven-year penalties. It seems these deaths are so prevalent that the measures taken to prevent them have been extreme: Anyone accused of this crime is considered guilty until proved innocent. The new law under consideration would extend women's "protection" against dowry death from seven years to the length of her marriage.

In India, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 women are killed annually in disputes over dowries, so obviously the little-enforced anti-dowry protection laws are like spitting on a kerosene fire. And one can't blame legislators for trying to give their laws some teeth. But guilty until proved innocent? It's hard to see how justice can prevail without the requirement that a perpetrator be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Or is it unrealistic to apply Western legal ideals to other countries' circumstances?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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