Updated: June 28, 2021 8:38:51 am
The death of a 24-year-old student, allegedly a fallout of dowry-related violence, last week has forced the spotlight on the status of women, power relations within families, and gender dynamics in the institution of marriage in Kerala. It reveals a contradiction within the state’s famed development narrative. The resignation of the chairperson of the state Women’s Commission following a public outcry over what was seen as her insensitive conduct on public television is a sign that the issue may be receiving the attention it deserves. The police have since arrested the husband of the dead woman under sections related to dowry violence.
Over 50 dowry deaths have been reported in the state in the past five years, as per police data. Though the number of deaths has been low for 2020 and 2019 — just six cases each— dowry-related violence is frequently reported in the media. However, most of these cases do not reach the courts since families and state institutions tasked with the responsibility of filing cases prefer to negotiate a resolution outside the law. This is despite the state having legislated against dowry — the Kerala Dowry Prevention Act — as early as in 1961. Now, the chief minister has proposed a slew of measures, including fast track courts, streamlining existing 24×7 helplines, and a more alert and helpful police, to address a regressive tendency that unfortunately also seems to have wide social acceptance. The case of dowry needs to be located within the larger context of politics and economics. Women have contributed to Kerala’s success in improving social indicators such as literacy, education, birth rate, life expectancy and yet their presence in political and economic leadership roles continues to be minimal. Women constitute less than 10 per cent of Kerala’s legislators — in the legislative assembly and Parliament — though they outnumber the men in local bodies. Just three ministers in the 21-member state Cabinet are women. On the economic front, work participation rate for women is around 20 per cent, while education levels have been rising. Women are forced to confine themselves to their homes while forsaking economic independence. The economic expansion since the 1990s encouraged conspicuous consumption, which enabled practices such as dowry to spread deeper in society.
It will take more than executive interventions to end the dowry system, it prevails within the private space of family. In fact, resistance arising from within the institutions of marriage and family will be more effective in curbing the practice. Political and economic empowerment of women will, of course, help.
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