Inability to implement the dowry ban is one of the state’s greatest legislative failures

On May 29, 2017, Manjula Devak, a 28-year-old PhD scholar allegedly killed herself and was found hanging from a ceiling fan in her hostel room at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. According to her parents’ account, Manjula’s husband, Ritesh Virha and his parents harassed her for pursuing her PhD studies. They used to beat and abuse her and started demanding dowry. Ritesh, a software engineer, allegedly asked Manjula to arrange Rs two million from her father as he could start his own business after he quit his job in Bhopal. Manjula is not the only woman to have resorted to suicide due to harassment over dowry payment. A spate of incidents of female suicides and women’s murders linked to India’s dowry system occurs immensely. Official figures from India’s National Crime Statistics Bureau show that dowry deaths of 8000 young women, many of them new brides, are reported every year in the country.

Not unlike India, heartbreakingly, the custom of dowry, the root cause of many evils, has been prevalent in all segments of Pakistani society where a large number of marriages involve transfer of huge money from bride’s family to groom’s family. The ubiquitous existence of the custom has affected girls very badly. A bride whether she is Muslim, Hindu or Christian is asked to bring dowry consisting of jewellery, clothing, and money with her to a marriage; when she fails to bring the desired dowry in her marriage, she has to face horrible consequences. Ironically, marriages of such girls put an end to their happiness, because their lives after marriages are jam-packed with tortures, harassment, blackmailing and degrading treatment, resulting ultimately in incidents of suicides, divorces and killings. This is despite the fact that many of the people are reluctant to express their anger against this harmful practice. It seems that it has been accepted as a necessary tradition that cannot be discontinued.

In Pakistan, domestic violence is the most pervasive form of violence against women. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, four women are killed every day, either by their husbands or any other family member. Dowry related violence is a form of domestic violence and dowry is one of the main reasons of domestic violence. There have been abundant incidents of dowry related violence, many of them go unreported. In March 2016, a woman’s head was shaved in Kasur, when the dowry she brought failed to meet her in-laws’ expectations. In Gujranwala, in the same month, a 22-year-old girl was killed for not bringing a bike for her husband as part of dowry. In 2015, a 25-year-old woman was murdered. She was forced by husband’s family to swallow acid after she failed to arrange a substantial dowry amount in Daska city. On April 4, 2015 in Charsadda, a person named Mir Ahmed Shah allegedly shot dead his fiancée and nine of her relatives including two children and four women for refusing to pay him dowry.  Not only have these women been victim of brutality of dowry-deaths, but countless innocent lives have been cut short. According to a report, more than 2,000 dowry-deaths occur in the country every year. Pakistan, with objective to grapple with this very issue, and provide relief to brides and their families, had passed the West Pakistan Dowry (Prohibition of Display) Act, 1967 and the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976 but unfortunately, not unlike other laws related to violence against women, these have yet not been implemented.

The upper class families, that are somewhat responsible for developing this tradition, continue to send the lavish dowry along with their brides. But the practice is horrific for the poor families, which are unable to arrange handsome amounts to give to their daughters in marriages. Most of them cannot get their daughters married. This is one of the key reasons responsible for the discriminatory treatment with girls, and for depriving them of their fundamental rights in our society.  The birth of a daughter is considered a burden. This is why the birth of a son is celebrated with unconceivable joyousness, while the birth of a daughter is bemoaned with deep frustration.

The practice of dowry is rampant among minorities especially in Hindus; its unfettered and unregulated development is one of the significant factors responsible for some of the marriages of Hindu girls with Muslims after their consented conversions to Islam. In Pakistan, a majority of the Hindu families belongs to lower middle class, who are unable to accumulate abundant dowry for their daughters. In this state of affairs, some of the girls of these of families convert their religion and marry with men of their choice, who accept them in marriage with no dowry.

Because of the ever thriving trend of dowry, the financial status of young girls’ families occupies significant place since their natural pulchritude and cultural beauty are of no value. Young girls, who produce a massive dowry which makes groom’s parents contented and satisfied, are accepted readily and many of the girls who are unable to accomplish such demand of grooms’ family, are plainly rejected. The rejections have horrible consequences because they create psychological disorders, mental illness, trauma and self-loathing among the rejected women. As a result, with the developed sense of chagrin and helplessness they lead a painful and secluded life, which in some cases become unbearable for them, forcing them to end their lives.

Though the practice of dowry is illegal in Pakistan yet it continues to exist in the society unrestrained — that means the legislation has failed to curb it. The state of affairs requires the government to introduce a comprehensive social mobilization programme in collaboration with the media and civil society for the change of mindsets, sensitizing people to the baneful practice.

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