By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — India's Kerala state has launched a crackdown on the payment of dowry after the deaths of four young married women highlighted domestic abuse linked to the custom, which remains common despite being banned 60 years ago.
Traditionally, gold jewelry that parents hand over when their daughters wed; now, dowries can include a range of costly "gifts" for the groom's family — straining the finances of families with daughters and often causing rows and abuse.
"In light of the recent horrifying incidents of domestic abuse, Kerala has decided to take more stringent measures to create a fair society," the state's chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, said as he announced the crackdown.
"Marriage must not be a pompous show of the family's social status and wealth. Parents have to realize the barbaric dowry system degrades our daughters as commodities," he tweeted.
A round-the-clock helpline had been set up for women facing abuse from their husbands or in-laws linked to dowry, and school textbooks are being revised to weed out language that disparages women, Vijayan added.
The recent deaths of the four women triggered widespread anger in Kerala, which has high rates of female literacy and is known as one of the country's most progressive states.
Before she was found dead at home last week, Ayurveda medicine student Vismaya Nair, who was in her early 20s, had sent messages and photographs to her cousin about her husband's beatings — apparently motivated by a car given as part of her dowry, local media reported.
Police, who said they had yet to establish whether Nair died by suicide or was murdered, are investigating a dowry harassment complaint filed by her family against her in-laws.
In the days following Nair's death, a young married woman's burnt body was found and two other new brides died by suicide at their homes in the southern state. Their families have also presented complaints about harassment linked to dowry payments.
'Cries for Help’
Despite the 1961 Prohibition of Dowry Act, the practice is still widely accepted and expected in Indian society, fueling high rates of violence against women, rights campaigners say.
"These deaths are mass cries for help," said J Devika, a feminist scholar at the Center for Development Studies in Kerala's capital.
"Women are given their 'inheritance' during their wedding, but in fact all the gold and goods are handed over to the husband and his family," she added.
More than 13,000 complaints were registered under the anti-dowry law across India in 2019, according to the latest government crime data.
Kerala recorded 66 dowry-related deaths, including suicides, between 2016 and 2020 and more than 15,000 cases of "cruelty by husband and relatives" during the same period.
In the last four months, Kerala's domestic conflict resolution centers have received more than 6,000 calls for help from women, said inspector general of police P Vijayan.
"There are about 7.5 million households in Kerala and despite various initiatives we know not all women are coming forward to complain against dowry," the police inspector said.
"These unfortunate deaths have spurred our initiative to create more awareness. Prevention and ensuring dowry harassment cases are reported is our focus now. Speak up and resist is what we are telling women."
Vijayan, the chief minister, also urged women to speak out to help state authorities "end this injustice."
To inculcate a culture of gender equality, Kerala's school text books will be revised and audited to sieve out words and phrases disparaging women. Steps will be taken to turn our schools and colleges into spaces that embrace the idea of gender equality and equal rights.— Pinarayi Vijayan (@vijayanpinarayi) June 24, 2021
Besides the helpline, steps will be taken to turn schools and colleges into spaces that embrace gender equality, he said.
Women's rights campaigners demanded additional measures such as government audits of ostentatious weddings and tough penalties for anyone found to have given or accepted a dowry.
"We've suggested some amendments to the existing laws to plug the loopholes and ensure more effective implementation of the law," said Usharani P, member secretary of the Kerala Women's Commission.
"All our efforts are aimed at ensuring an end to this crime."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)