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Dowry Disgrace

India's "kitchen accident" epidemic.

11:00 PM, Nov 28, 2006 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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THE LARGEST PRISON in Delhi, Tihar Jail, has a "mother-in-law" cell block, currently home to roughly 120 women, some of whom are serving 20-year sentences for murdering their daughters-in-law. The majority of these crimes stem from disputes over dowry: A bride whose dowry payments are viewed as inadequate is burned to death by her in-laws or husband, the cause of death listed as "kitchen accident." According to India's National Crime Record Bureau, one dowry death is reported every 77 minutes. The bureau recorded 7,026 dowry deaths in 2005 alone.

Since India opened up to foreign investment in 1990, the country has seen a rise in dowry-related violence alongside its economic boom. Dowry deaths surged from 400 a year in the mid-1980s to 5,800 a year in the mid-1990s, according to a 2001 report in Time magazine. The fact that more people are coming forward to report the crimes accounts for part of this increase, but official figures are still thought to reflect a mere fraction of the total number of dowry killings.

One might expect such a backward practice to peter out amidst India's fast-paced modernization, so why has dowry killing ballooned into a full-scale epidemic? Analysts say that the country's growing economy exacerbates dowry crimes by encouraging a culture of materialism. For many in India's growing middle class, newfound prosperity has brought with it the lure of conspicuous consumption. Lavish dowry payments are seen as a way to increase a family's stockpile of luxury items and brand-name goods. Last month, Varsha Jah, a member of the Delhi Commission for Women, told the International Herald Tribune, "Everyone is becoming more and more Westernized; they want expensive clothes, they want the consumer objects which are constantly advertised on television. A dowry is seen as an easy way to get them."

A new law seeks to redress dowry violence and India's larger problem of domestic abuse. The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, which came into effect on October 26, defines domestic abuse broadly to include marital rape, emotional abuse, and economic harassment. A family member found in violation of the act can be hit with a fine of 20,000 rupees ($435), a year in prison, or both.

The new law is revolutionary not only in its definition of domestic abuse, but in the recourse it offers victims. Though domestic violence was criminalized in 1983, abused women rarely complained to the police. This is largely due to the fact that most Indian women are financially dependent on their husbands, and fear the repercussions of turning them in.* Geraldine Forbes, a professor of Indian history at the State University of New York in Oswego and author of Women in Modern India, says that "the reason this violence doesn't go away as India gets more prosperous is because there's not a clear alternative [for women]. It's a society without . . . a space for these women to go so they can say, 'I don't need to be married,' or 'I don't need to stay in this marriage.'" The new act targets this core problem, entitling a wife to a portion of the marital estate even if she has not contributed financially to it.

Forbes shares the optimism of Indian officials who believe the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act may deter husbands and their families from dowry harassment and other forms of abuse. But the law has come under fire from critics who view it as merely cosmetic, and fear that it will go the way of so many provisions in the Indian Penal Code that look progressive on paper but are shoddily enforced. A prime example is dowry itself: Though prohibited 45 years ago, dowry payments continue to be a mainstay of Indian weddings. Police simply look the other way.

The sustained popularity of dowry payments underscores a deeper problem in India: entrenched cultural beliefs about women that defy the very laws put in place to combat them. Daughters are seen as a financial burden, and thus expendable. A United Nations report released this year estimated that female infanticide and sex-selective abortions account for 10 million "missing" Indian girls over the past 20 years. This is in spite of a 1996 law banning prenatal sex determination--a law that served mostly to push the practice underground. In Bombay and surrounding rural areas, billboards subversively advertise prenatal sex-selection tests with the slogan: "Spend 500 rupees now [on amniocentesis], save 50,000 rupees later [on dowry payments]."