Human Rights Monitor
Eradication of Dowry
Needed strict application of law
Md. Asadullah Khan
A woman on fire perhaps makes dowry deaths the most vicious of social crimes. It is an evil that is prevalent in the whole country and, despite efforts by some activists and women's rights organisations to eliminate this menace, the numbers have continued to climb. The grisly act of a brutal and greedy husband in the village Patabali of Kalkini thana in the district of Madaripur, as reported in the newspapers on April 3, is a story better not heard. Having failed to realise a dowry claim of one lakh taka, Azad killed his wife Tania, almost three years into their marriage, by setting her on fire.
Tania's father Habibur Rahman, now working at Badamtali fruit market in Dhaka, gave Azad one lakh taka at the time of marriage as dowry money. Azad took the money for going abroad, which he never did. He spent the money instead. With his greed increasing by the day, Azad pressed Tania to bring another one lakh taka from her father. He beat her when she refused, and at one stage he came to her father's residence at Dhaka to get the money.
Habibur Rahman expressed his inability to pay the total amount at a time, but gave him ten thousand taka with assurances of paying the rest as and when his (Habibur's) financial position improved. Azad, angry and unhappy, came back to Kalkini with his wife, leaving their only two-and-half-year old son at Tania's father's house, and the beastly act was carried out.
The most grisly side of the story is that Azad's mother, and his brother and sister, joined him in setting Tania on fire. Tania, with serious burn injuries, was rescued by a neighbour and brought to Barisal Medical College Hospital first and then shifted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, but she went beyond treatment after three days of suffering in the hospital.
Reports appearing in local dailies this month indicated that Gopal Das living at Badda in the outskirt of Dhaka city married Shampa Sarkar, an SSC examinee of the local Aflatunnesa School. But the eternal bond they promised to maintain broke within three months into their marriage. This, also, is the same story. All love and fancy died down within three months, and lust for dowry money became the prime objective and consideration.
Gopal Das demanded one lakh taka. But Shampa's poor father, Sukumar Roy who works in a furniture shop, could not pay it. And the consequence: Shampa was throttled to death, and the inmates of the house including the husband fled away, keeping her body hanging by a rope in the bathroom.
The third incident of dowry-related death this month took place at North Kazipara in Dhaka. Naima Khanum Lovely, daughter of Ziauddin Ahmed Khan, was married to Syed Masuduzzaman in the village Baniapara under Mirzapur thana. The husband started repression on Naima when he did not get dowry of two lakh taka. Traumatised by years of physical abuse, Naima informed her mother over telephone of the torture and humiliation she was suffering and, when her parents were trying to meet the demand, the end came, with their daughter being brutally killed by the monster husband.
The horror of domestic violence has always been with us. But now it is spreading like an epidemic to more and more homes. Assuringly, after the present caretaker government's coming to power, the law and order situation has improved vastly, with crimes like extortion, kidnapping and political killing recording a marked decline. However, criminologists, as well as the crime assessment wing of the government and some NGOs assert that dowry-related crimes have sky-rocketed of late.
The survey points out that crime rate among the youth, especially such deviant young husbands, has gone up by as much as 40 percent. The countrywide survey conducted by the Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association revealed that women repression incidents, mostly dowry related, have increased alarmingly in the last few years.
Although many cases of harassment for dowry were reported, a staggering number of such cases were not. It is a phenomenon that escapes easy answers the continued harassment and repression due to a complex mix of social trends. The sudden affluence that emerged, starting from rural areas to the cities, in the last one decade is the primary factor.
The money, as social scientists say, was not channeled productively. Instead of being used to enhance women's education, for instance, it was used to perpetuate ostentatious lifestyles. With "get-rich-quick" becoming the new goal in life, dowry became the perfect instrument for upward material mobility. Growing consumerism, flashy life styles and, in most cases, joblessness and drug addiction are fuelling these crimes.
If once, a bicycle, a wrist-watch, or a little money for starting a business sufficed for the lower income groups, nowadays a TV, home appliances and motor cycle, other than cash, are the common demands. For the upper middle class and better educated grooms the demand is soaring. They look for flat ownership, or a plot of land in Dhaka, or a chunk of the share in father-in-law's business. People are inclined to believe that the quantum of dowry exchange may be still higher among the upper classes, but 90 percent of the dowry deaths and nearly 80 percent of dowry harassments occur in the middle and lower strata.
For women, it is a difficult battle to win. They are handicapped by history, victims of a firmly embedded gender system. Still, some women with the assistance of women activist groups are fighting back. True, increased awakening has led to a growing resistance against dowry demands but, consequently, resulted in familial friction.(Mentionably, Nisha Sharma, the daughter of an affluent family in Hyderabad, India, became an overnight celebrity by refusing to marry the man whose family upped its dowry demand. It was the stand that Nisha, an educated girl, took when the price tag for her groom, a software engineer, went bigger and bigger. Nisha's decision is anything but heroic, but undoubtedly true. Her attempt at dissolving the marriage, calling the police and handing over the prospective in- laws to police has broken the ice).
In Bangladesh, in cities and rural places, women are yet to wake up and take a bold stand against dowry because most women are steeped in poverty, often with no education, employment or business to fend for themselves. Sadly but truly, it typifies the indifference toward the crime that goes on. The belief that most husbands, or their families, can get away with such crime is one of the main reasons why torture on wives is so common in the country.
Unhappily, there exists a nonchalant attitude in a majority of modern families who participate in dowry based marriages instead of opposing them. People talk glibly about dowry prohibition, or anti-dowry movement, but when it comes to the weddings of their own sons and daughters most people would do the same thing that others have done. Shockingly true, down the years the lack of collective political will to curb dowry has become obvious.
Women face double peril. Inside the barred doors is humiliation, outside awaits public ire. Harassed and tortured women are now going to the court, or to the police, for protection. But even if appeals for protection are met, only scorn greets them when they return home. Despite every stigma, dowry continues to be the signature of marriage. It is taken as a normal custom, and dowry harassment as a part of family life. The odd NGO groups, or women activists or women lawyers associations, may pursue one or two cases and rehabilitate some tortured women, but, appallingly, by and large, any major success or breakthrough is hardly possible because social intervention is low and ignorance high.
No doubt the laws remain stringent. But their application is seldom strict. And a dowry death is a relatively easier crime to prosecute than murder, and so the crime continues. Due to several factors, most go unreported. And in the court, a majority of the victims belong to the under-privileged classes and they have hardly any means to fight out the lengthy legal battles. Because court appearances, and seeking police protection from all these types of torture and violence by husbands are traumatic, women prefer to sweep their bitter experiences under the carpet. However, the strength must come from the society and the government. In a bid to weed out this menace, or so to say this curse, from the system this scenario must be changed. Strict application of stringent law is imperative.
The author is a former teacher of physics and controller of examinations, BUET.