FIFTEEN-year-old child bride Babli Akter’s fate took a horrible turn when she was allegedly killed by her husband Rashedul and her in laws on January 27 this year as her family could not pay the Tk 3 lakh as dowry (Manabzamin, January 28, 2017). Dowry is nothing more than marital extortion. Dowry marriage mostly consists of greed, humiliation and violence. Many women every year in Bangladesh are being killed, abused and even commit suicide simply due to the pervasive illegal practice of dowry related violence. According to Odhikar’s statistics, between January 2001 and January 2017, about 3,090 women were allegedly killed, 2064 were abused and 220 committed suicide because of dowry. This statistics shows just the tip of the iceberg as a lot of dowry related violence is kept in confidence to retain the ‘honour’ of the family. If there were no giving or taking of dowry, there would not be any dowry related violence. Dowry is illegal in Bangladesh under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 and Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain 2000 (amended 2003). However, it still continues.
Last month along with fellow human rights activists, I went to Narayanganj to gather community perceptions of dowry. We chose Narayanganj because many reported cases of dowry related violence occurred there in time. We organised four FGDs and talked to approximately 40 people including victims of dowry violence, students, housewives, women rights activists and men and women working in different professions — teachers, social workers, public representatives, journalists, lawyers, and prosecutors. What did we find through the FGDs in Narayanganj?
The participants in Narayanganj said that dowry has become a part of the culture and tradition, and although it is bad, it is existing in all sections of the community — upper, middle and lower income groups. However, in lower income group dowry related violence is more gruesome. Even though it is illegal by law, no police action is against dowry demands and dowry giving takes place. Sometimes it’s hard to find out about dowry transactions as it is done in a private and confidential manner. Parents of girls think if they give dowry, their daughters will be able to live in their in-laws house peacefully. Participants said dowry demands were of two kinds — implied and expressed. Grooms from upper and middle income families think that if they don’t ask for anything, the brides’ families would provide better dowry willingly. On the other hand, lower income groups tend to directly ask the bride’s family for money as dowry. In the upper income families, apartments, cars and similar goods are given to the groom as dowry while middle income groups give mostly furniture. Some participants said that the desire for dowry grows when they see others demand and receive it. As a result, the malignant practice of giving and taking dowry remains in the society. Most of the time, dowry is a continuous process; so many women face dowry demands and subsequent violence by their husbands and in laws all through their married life. For example, some female participants said if a husband wants to set up a business or even if they wanted to buy something valuable for any purpose, they frequently demand money. And the husband/in laws do not call it dowry — they call it ‘gifts’. Interestingly they extract these ‘gifts’ through applying either psychological or physical violence. Some participants at the FGDs commented that before marriage, some would-be-grooms and their family empty their apartment or house expecting that brides will bring furniture and electronic goods to fill the empty rooms. When we were discussing the issue with male participants at one of the FGDs, one middle aged participant said that he received furniture from his wife’s parents during marriage, but didn’t even realise that those were dowry, as this was common in the community. Some participants said that grooms and their families engage in an unhealthy competition as to how much dowry they had received from the bride’s family. Many grooms did not want to improve their capacity and become independent earners rather they selfishly live on their in-laws money and assets.
Some participants of the FGDs said that in middle income society, women over twenty are considered aged and thus not suitable for marriage. There is a saying, Kurite Buri that means ‘you become an old woman at the age of twenty.’ Therefore, for those who have exceeded twenty years of age, many of their parents feel compelled to provide more dowries to the groom as a compensation for her ‘old’ age. Many brides below twenty and after twenty leave their educational institute without being able to graduate, cannot enter the work force, live miserably due to dowry demands and related abuse. Besides, in mostly lower income sections, child marriage is still widespread. Moreover, parents of darker skinned girls are providing more dowry; as darker skin is considered as mayla, or dirty in this patriarchal society. It was also highlighted through the FGDs that when husbands/in-laws abuse for dowry, the young brides family and others advise her to become pregnant as they think that after having a child, husbands/in laws will behave better and be more sympathetic. However in most of the cases such advises do not work and wives become even more vulnerable with their children. When a woman gives birth to a baby girl the husbands and in laws become worried since then they have to marry her off in the near future with dowry. Some participants said that the husband/in laws even ask for Tk 10 lakh as dowry from the wife’s family to be deposited in the bank for the new born girl child. If a woman due to dowry related violence seeks divorce or separation, neighbours, relatives, friends blame the woman for bringing a bad name on her family as she is incapable of maintaining family life. One distressed victim participant said that after being severely beaten and abused for dowry, she filed a case under Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980. The husband was in jail for four days and came out on bail and threatened to kill her. During her marriage, the dower money was fixed at Tk 5 lakh. However, her husband said that he would not give her the dower money that she is entitled to, would rather bribe the police taka 2 lac in order to slow down the judicial process against him for dowry demands.
Lawyers, journalists, public representatives and others said that the non implementation of the Dowry Prevention Act 1980 is the reason behind such dowry related violence. Section 3 of the law states the penalty for giving or taking dowry: ‘If any person, gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to five years and shall not be less than one year, or with fine, or with both].’ However, this section is not seen to be used. Some participants alleged that Section 4 of the law where penalty for demanding dowry is mentioned is often misused through false cases to harass the husband and in laws. In most of the cases, the parties settle the matter among themselves or the court orders them to settle the matter outside court. Often victims of dowry lose their willingness and hope to run the case till the end. Some participants said that the judicial process is slow, corrupt, and expensive and government district legal aid offices do not help them. Some of them do not even know of the existence of the government’s free legal service. Some blame microcredit organisations for the intense practice of dowry in impoverished sections of the country. They claimed microcredit is easily accessible and credit giving organisations are not properly monitoring how the money is being used. Many parents borrow money from these organisations to pay their daughters dowry, citing a different reason in order to borrow the loan amount.
The participants gave some recommendations for stopping the vicious cycle of dowry demands. To stop dowry, they suggested that the culture of giving ‘gifts’ to the groom at the time of marriage must be abolished through effective implementation of the law prohibiting dowry, Nari O Shisu Nirjatan Daman Ain 2000 (amended 2003) along with other related laws. They recommended coordinated widespread awareness activities among the society, where men should be engaged in campaign. They also said that the parents of female children should be educated to not provide dowry. They recommended that women must get their property as per lawful right; and emphasised that education and jobs for both men and women is important. They said that criminal justice systems should be strengthened and perpetrators must be brought to justice to deter others from demanding dowry and perpetrating violence against women. Another recommendation was that the government’s legal aid office should be activated and general people be made aware that government has this kind of service. Some also suggested that the mobile court could be established to help stop dowry transactions and microcredit providing organisations need to strengthen their monitoring mechanism to be alerted against dowry practice. Through coordinated and continuous process to fight against dowry, we hope to see a future Bangladesh without dowry and dowry-violence!
Taskin Fahmina is a gender expert affiliated with Odhikar.
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