Dowry deaths in Kerala
Clockwise from bottom left: Dr Shahna was found unconscious in her flat and pronounced dead on December 5; Ayurveda student Vismaya was found hanging after dowry-related abuse by husband and family (2021); Uthara was killed after a cobra bite, the murder was orchestrated by her husband (2021); Priyanka committed suicide after which actor husband Unni Dev and his mother were booked for dowry-related abuse (2022) Image Credit: Archives and social media

Growing up, I have heard one phrase too many times to ignore – ‘Penkochalle, anthassode kettichayakkende?’ The literal translation: “As a girl, shouldn’t she be married off with dignity?”

Dignity, here, doesn’t allude to education or health or even social status. It means money in all its forms; gold, big weddings, cars, appliances, property, business shares, anything and everything depending on the family. Maybe long ago, ‘dignity’ meant for the girl to be financially independent if she had to be, or a gift from her parents that they could afford to give.

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Today, in many families, from the time a daughter is born, parents start saving to match or outdo whatever is the asking price to get a girl married in ‘dignity’. To pay the price of this so-called dignity, there are no lengths parents wouldn’t go to in ensuring their daughter’s happiness, and safety, at her new home – taking loans, giving up their entire savings, pawning off assets, even homes. Less than a decade ago, Rs 1 million (Dh49,490) was a ‘good’ dowry, now even five times that is not that big of a deal.

But isn’t it a crime?

Legally, accepting or offering dowry is a crime punishable with a jail sentence of up to five years. But until now, the law only stops people from open discussions of dowry. The law has obviously done very little to eliminate the system over the past 60 years. Dowry is something taken for granted in the marriage story.

Some of my friends, millennials like me, try to defend their need to ask for dowry. A friend said, “My family has a loan from giving the dowry for my sister when she was married, we gave them what they asked”. Unabashed, he plans to pay off that loan with the dowry that he would get as the groom. I asked him, “What of the girl’s family, aren’t you pulling them into debt by demanding the money? What if they don’t have it?” His look and silence answers everything – it is what it is.

Another friend had to reject a marriage proposal, just weeks before the wedding, after the mother-in-law to be asked to open a locker in the local bank account with her as the nominee. When she asked why, the mom-in-law asked her, “Where else will we keep the gold after the wedding? I will keep it safe.”

So you see, young or old, for many, accepting dowry is taken for granted and giving it is taken as something that can’t be avoided. This is not for lack of education or knowledge, especially in a state like Kerala where more than 96 per cent of the population is literate.

This is not a generalised accusation at young men or their families. There are many families who say no to accepting dowry. There are families with daughters who refuse to entertain the smallest discussion of a dowry. But Vismaya’s death now, and the deaths of other young girls, the stories of abuse spanning decades, it is clear that having a few people resisting is not enough.

The law
The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, which has criminalised the practice of giving or receiving dowry, says any person who receives dowry shall be punished with at least five years in jail.

The Act, under Section 8B, introduced the “dowry prohibition officers”. “The State Government may appoint as many Dowry Prohibition Officers as it thinks fit and specify the areas in respect of which they shall exercise their jurisdiction and powers under this Act,” the law states.

In addition to the dowry act, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 for the first time recognised a women's right to a violence-free home. Under the Act, the right to reside in the matrimonial home/shared household was seen as a major breakthrough in women's rights in India. She cannot be evicted from the shared household and if evicted can seek immediate relief, seek a protection order, monetary compensation, residency order, custody order, free legal services, medical aid, and counseling with the help of the Protection Officer or Service Provider.

The choice, ability to leave

The beginning of change could start with ensuring that a woman always has a choice to walk away, and more importantly, that she knows that she can walk away. One of the aspects to this is to make sure that the girl is emotionally and financially independent before getting married. It is not enough to just educate your daughters. It is also important to teach them that being independent guarantees basic levels of security and safety should the need arise.

As parents, many give gifts to their daughters as they join a new family. Make sure these gifts are only hers to share if she wishes, and only hers to use if she needs a way out. No one is entitled to know, use or share in these gifts.

Dowry deaths

Another way of giving the woman a choice is to ensure that she is not forced to compromise on her mental or physical well-being to cater to misplaced social proprieties. She should always have a loving home to return to without judgement, without fear of shame.

In cases like Vismaya’s, suicide is the last resort, when there is seemingly no way out. Many families try for a compromise or try to persuade the girl to find a way to live at her in-laws. Divorce, or even being separated, has a huge stigma associated with it, and while this is changing slowly, a lot of families try and force the marriage to work.

Nowadays, making an obligatory payment for the maintenance of a wife, adherence to a social norm, and guaranteeing a woman's good treatment have displaced earlier arguments related to inheritance, status in the social hierarchy, or a woman's ability to provide for herself.

- The Historical Roots of Dowries in Contemporary Kerala [2014] / Lindberg, Anna

The other woman

Every household has a woman at the opposite side of the equation too, and most times these women can influence decisions in the family. When a bride joins the family, there is a huge responsibility on the woman, maybe a mother-in-law or a sibling, to ensure that the new joinee is happy, safe and healthy in the new home.

While many conversations about dowry blame the man and the patriarchy, there should be accountability on other women too. If one person has gone through the strife of dowry-related issues or problematic relationships with the in-laws, who else is better placed to avoid the same struggles for another woman?

Dowry cases in Kerala
Despite Kerala being one of the most literate states in India and social activists having an active presence, the number of dowry harassment cases are at alarming levels. According to the Police's Crime Records Bureau, the state witnessed more than 66 dowry death cases since 2015. More than 15,000 dowry harassment cases have also been registered.

To Kerala’s men

I was blessed in many ways. I come from a family which has not entertained the system of dowry for two generations. I married a man who said no even before the conversation came up. And anyone from a traditional Kerala family would know that the latter matters more than the former when it comes to eradicating the system.

Long gone are the days of matriarchs in Kerala, and a man’s word is considered the final decision in many households. If one man makes the decision to eliminate the system of dowry, from his marriage or that of his child’s, it is a step in the right direction. It may mean temporary ire from relatives or even one’s parents, it may mean ensuring that your wife, or your daughter or son, needs to be shielded from unpleasant conversations and confrontations.

But each time a man puts his foot down against this menace, is a victory for every girl born in the family. It is a lesson for every man in the family on the right thing to do, and the courage to stand by the decision.

And hopefully, when every man decides to say no, and when every woman has a choice, we will never again have another Vismaya, Archana or Uthara to remind us of this shameful practice.