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They still burn brides

KALPANA SHARMA

IT has taken 16 long years for a court to convict five people charged with the murder of a young woman. She was killed by her husband, his parents and sisters. The reason? She did not bring in enough dowry, and also refused to stand by and accept the torture and harassment that was meted out to her.

On April 27, 1982, Mina married Kamlakar Bhavsar in Nasik. Like many other women in this country, she must have entered her marital home not knowing that she would leave it as a corpse. Instead of finding happiness, she found herself being beaten and harassed for not bringing in a large enough dowry. Finally, Mina left her marital home and filed a case against her husband for harassment.

But the story did not end there. On the pretext of a pooja, Mina was lured back into her marital home on April 28, 1986 and mysteriously "fell on a chimney", suffered 94 per cent burns and died. Thanks to the perseverance of the additional public prosecutor, Pravin Singhal, the case reached the Bombay High Court this month where it was conclusively established that Mina's dying declaration had been forged. The order by a lower court acquitting her husband, his parents and sisters for abetting in Mina's murder has now been set aside. The five accused have been sentenced to three years imprisonment on one count and 10 years rigorous imprisonment on another.

This is just one case. And it has taken 16 years. There are thousands of such cases that never even make it to the lower courts. This is partly because of loopholes in the law. But it is also because those given the task of following up on the cases do not persist. Parents of girls who have been brutally murdered usually give up in despair and live with their sorrow. They also live with their guilt because in many instances, they encouraged their daughters to return to the site of the torture, and eventual death.

Thus, as another wedding season begins, we need to remind ourselves that so does the dowry season. "Bride Burnings", "dowry deaths", these are phrases we do not read about any more in our newspapers. It would seem that women are not routinely falling on kerosene stoves and being burnt to death as they did in the past. Perhaps there are more sophisticated ways to kill a woman now, particularly a young bride.

For even if the media does not write about dowry deaths anymore as it did in the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s, when women's groups across India vigorously demonstrated against this regressive custom and demanded changes in the law, we must not fool ourselves into believing that the problem has disappeared. In fact, the prevalence of female foeticide in the more prosperous districts of this country, as is evident from the declining sex ratio, is ample proof that the value of a daughter has not increased over time. For the majority of families, girls continue to be viewed as a burden.

According to a 16 state survey by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the practice of giving and taking dowry, and the consequent harassment to young women, continues unabated. This, despite changes in the law, additional provisions in the criminal procedure code and years of campaigning and awareness building by women's groups and others. The survey, which drew upon responses to 9,000 questionnaires, confirms that far from declining, the practice has actually grown over the last decade.

What is worse, it has spread to communities where dowry was never a custom. For instance, Muslim brides get a Mehr and do not take a dowry with them. The AIDWA survey found that dowry has now become a common practice amongst some Muslim communities. Similarly, amongst tribal groups, the groom's family is supposed to pay a bride price. Today, the reverse is taking place and tribal girls are coughing up a dowry.

Somehow the urgency of dealing with this type of rooted custom has now vanished. Women's groups are engaged on a range of issues. But the dowry issue, which brought together a diverse spectrum of groups in the late 1970s, has virtually fallen off their maps. Of course, it is possible that this issue is not a rallying point anymore because women's groups have recognised that at root, it is not just one custom, but larger issues such as women's inheritance rights to property, equal rights and economic empowerment that must be taken on board simultaneously.

Yet, it is refreshing to look back two decades and capture the freshness — and in some ways the innocence — of those early anti-dowry campaigns. Some of this comes across in a small (in terms of actual size) book, The gift of a daughter: Encounters with victims of dowry by Subhadra Butalia (Penguin, 2002). Mrs. Butalia is now 81-years-old. She was considerably older than the young women who were part of that early anti-dowry campaign. What is special about her book is not just that she should decide to record her experiences at an age when most women presume that their life is over, but that she should do it with such charming honesty.

The book is simple, unvarnished and candid. It narrates the horror that a middle-class woman like Mrs Butalia felt when she realised that a young woman, who she could see from the balcony of her house everyday, was set on fire and murdered while the neighbours watched helplessly. "The girl was burning, she was screaming and people from the houses around rushed out. It was as if we were all paralysed." Mrs. Butalia was one amongst several women who did not remain paralysed. She was one of the first few women who publicly went out and demonstrated against dowry, followed up on dowry cases, helped to set-up centres for women in distress and argued for changes in the law.

The book is a record of those early years. Some of the stories are familiar; others have not been told before. The thread that runs through all of them is not just the crazed demand for a dowry by the victim's husband and his family, but the lack of support she got from her own parents as she suffered torture in silence. Women's groups who wanted to help the victims found themselves in a spot when the parents told them to back off — because they had other daughters who also had to be married off. "Married off" — that sentiment remains virtually undiluted two decades after the furor over the first bride burnings. And because of this, brides continue to be harassed, tortured, burned — or "killed off".

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