With its highest sex ratio in the country and progressive socio-cultural profile, Kerala may seem like a haven of emancipated women. But if the number of cases coming under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code is anything to go by, a woman’s post-marital status in the State still depends on dowry and in some cases it sets her on a path of eternal distress or even self-destruction.
Despite the ardent outrage over dowry deaths, the practice still continues undeterred, cutting across caste and class divides. As per reports, Kerala records thousands of such cases every year but very few reach courts.
“Very often cases of marital discord and domestic violence spring from dowry-related issues. Though families try to avoid straightforward demands, there will be customary implications and negotiations. In some cases, there will not be any physical violence but women will be emotionally abused and treated as second-rate individuals. But even if there is evident physical violence, 90% of such cases will be settled without any official complaint or record,” says a police official.
Divya Kodoth, resource person, Gender Park, says Kerala is yet to address systemic issues such as dowry harassment making it a ‘paradox State’. “Kerala with its progressive tag still has the highest number of highly educated but unemployed women. Gender roles are still the same in our domestic ecosystem and a major section of our society is still controlled by patriarchy. Instead of individual cases we should focus on the faulty system,” she says.
State Women’s Commission (SWC) member Shahida Kamal observes lack of legal awareness as one reason that leads to dowry harassment and consequent issues. “Usually our efforts to spread awareness does not reach the upper strata of society and even well-educated women and professionals are unaware of laws and the existence of bodies such as the SWC. While Kudumbashree workers and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee workers know who to approach, I have seen college professors who are clueless,” she says.
Ms.Kamal says timely intervention is equally important and the commission , which deals with an increasing number of cases related to gender-based abuse and domestic violence, has successfully prevented many disasters. “In a majority of the cases, including dowry harassment, most of the women want a settlement. But if we find the case serious, we insist that they file a police complaint and our team keeps a close tab on it. So far no woman who has approached us had to take the extreme step,” she says.
While some believe that India’s anti-dowry laws need more stringent provisions considering the high acquittal rate, legal experts have another opinion. “We have provisions of law according to which if a woman commits suicide within seven years of her marriage the burden of proof is reversed. It’s on the husband to prove he is not guilty,” says advocate G. Mohanraj, public prosecutor in the Uthra murder case.
He adds that the current laws are efficient and competent provided there is proper awareness and implementation. “Sati came to an end not because it was banned by law but people such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy could project it as a crime in the collective conscience of a generation. We need a radical social change like that,” he says.