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Why a grassroots mass movement is necessary to fight dowry

Accepting dowry should be made a social stigma, and all generations should be addressed. Get superstars to endorse this

We live in an age where moral outrage spreads faster over social media than you can blink, and yet a dowry death hardly moves the needle on our moral compass.

A convoy of cars brings the newlyweds to the bridegroom’s house. After a while, the other cars pull out and drive off. Eventually, one car remains, still wrapped in satin ribbon. It is a part of the bride’s dowry. This scene is as much from the Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen as it is from real life — a scene that symbolises entrenched patriarchy within the family home.

Last week, a young woman named Vismaya Nair was found dead in her house, days after messaging a relative that her husband had beaten her up. After her death, her parents accused the husband of torturing her for dowry. They had already given a car, 100 gold sovereigns, and an acre of land. But he wanted more.

Vismaya is just one more in the endless statistics of horrifying dowry deaths in India. They are so common that if a young woman dies with burns or other injuries within seven years of marriage, it is deemed to be a dowry death.

We live in an age where moral outrage spreads faster over social media than you can blink, and yet a dowry death hardly moves the needle on our moral compass. Why does this disgraceful anachronism, a practice as condemnable as sati or child marriage, continue to thrive?

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Not for want of legislation: the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed 60 years ago. Nor for lack of education: Kerala has near-total literacy. And yet weddings continue to be lavish, with brides’ parents often taking loans and nearly bankrupting themselves. The bride is now a commodity, handed over as a package, bundled up with gold, white goods, a car and a piece of land no less than an acre.

In 2021, it is time to change these regressive social norms. Accepting dowry should be made a social stigma, and all generations should be addressed. Get superstars to endorse this along with their soap and soft drink endorsements. The young should also speak up. Women should flatly refuse to give dowry as part of marriage; men should refuse to take it, in any form. Why should parents of brides be forced into giving expensive “gifts”, which are really a dowry by any other name? Simple, inexpensive, dowry-less marriages should be normalised, rather than Bollywood-style extravaganzas spread over days.

The larger context for the practice of dowry is the poor presence of women in the workforce, and their consequent lack of financial independence. Women should be supported to take up jobs and have independent incomes. This means we should expand childcare and safe public transport, reduce discrimination in hiring, and create affirming workplace environments. At home, men should share domestic work and care responsibilities.

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Discrimination pervades all aspects of life. States should look at gender-disaggregated data across the life cycle – birth, early childhood, education, nutrition, livelihood, access to healthcare, etc – to address gender inequality. Teachers and textbooks mould beliefs and values. Boys and girls should be systematically sensitized on the core value of gender equality.

As a larger initiative, laws and regulations should be screened to remove gender bias, replacing words like “manpower” with gender-neutral equivalents. In survey questionnaires, the “head of the family” is assumed to be male by default; husband and wife should be defined as joint heads. In some states, when a government employee dies, a job can be given to an eligible son or unmarried daughter – but not to a married daughter.

As for domestic violence, there should be zero tolerance. Like so many women before her, Vismaya’s death was preceded by other instances of assault. Families should store evidence and report at once, instead of sending battered women back fearing “what society will say”. Support systems must be expanded to help victims with shelter, counselling, legal follow up, and livelihood support when required. Women are not lifelong victims, but empowered survivors seeking justice and dignity.

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To become a mass movement, this must start at the grassroots. We know that marriage registration protects women’s rights. With over two and a half lakh gram panchayats in rural India, if registration is decentralised to panchayat secretaries, it will be accessible to rural families. People will be able to register marriages easily. Families can spend less.

Similarly, millions of women’s self-help groups in India have been a quiet force for financial support in times of stress. However, the near-exclusive focus on economic issues has been at the expense of social awareness and gender conscientization. Women’s self-help groups should be systematically oriented about violence against women and the existence of local support systems. By actively spreading awareness and displaying solidarity, women’s self-help groups can play a powerful role in building a more equal society.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 2, 2021 under the title ‘Breaking the chain’. The writer is in the IAS. Views are personal.

First published on: 02-07-2021 at 04:15:04 am
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