Dowry: The crime continues

  Not only in the cities and towns but even in the villages of Bangladesh, terror has come stalking. Now the weapon of fear is not only the gun but a can of petrol or kerosene and a matchbox. A woman on fire has made dowry deaths the most vicious of social crimes. It is an evil prevalent in the society and despite efforts by some activists and women's rights organisation to eliminate this menace, the numbers have continued to climb. In villages marriage was once considered a very sanctified bond united in the worst or best of times, in sickness or in health through the vicissitudes of life. But dowry related deaths have shattered that bond of peaceful and happy relationship.

A recent survey by the Bangladesh Human Rights Organisation, and Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association revealed that in 2001, there were 12,500 cases of women repression, in 2002 the figure rose to 18,455 and in the year ending in 2003 the figure climbed to 22,450.

The grisly act of a brute and greedy husband in Chapai Nawabganj as reported in the newspapers on December 27 last is a story better not be heard. Having failed to realise a dowry claim of Tk. 20,000/= Shamsher killed her wife Marina just on the 22nd day of their marriage. The most grisly side of the story is that Shamsher hired three other monsters for Tk 300/= and Marina was slaughtered by Shamsher after she was forced to be gangraped by four human monsters including himself.

Reports appearing in local dailies on September 6 last indicated that one housewife at Dupchachia Upazila in the district of Bogra and the other at Jhalakathi Fatema and Sajeda, respectively, aged around 19 years were killed by their in-laws in collusion with their husbands on their inability to meet increasing demands of dowry money. It's the brutality of these crimes that has awakened the country to the beast that runs loose in these greedy monster-turned husbands. Criminologists as well as Crime Assessment Wing of the government and some NGOs assert that crime rate among the youth, especially such deviant young husbands, has gone up by as much as 40 percent. And though crime wave flows across all races, classes and life styles, the survey makes particular mention of the fact that there is a noticeable increase in the dowry related crimes by young husbands from middle class or upper middle class families.

The country wide survey conducted by the Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association revealed that women repression incidents, mostly dowry related, has increased alarmingly over the last few years.

Although many cases of dowry harassment cases were reported of late, a staggering number of such cases were not. Despite all attempts to prevent it, an epidemic appears to be in the making. It is a phenomenon that escapes easy answers due to complex mix of social trends. The sudden affluence, of course of a section of people, that emerged starting from rural areas to the cities in the mid-to-late '80s is the primary factor. The money, as social scientists say, was not channelised productively. Instead of using it to enhance women's education, for instance, it was used to perpetuate ostentatious living. With get-rich-quick becoming the new goal of 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 small money for starting a business sufficed for the lower income groups, now a TV, home appliances and a motorbike or scooter other than cash money are the common demand. For the upper, middle class and better educated grooms the demand is soaring. They look for a flat ownership a plot of land at Dhaka or a chunk of share in business. People are inclined to believe that the quantum of dowry may still be higher among the upper classes but 90 percent of the dowry deaths and nearly 80 percent of dowry harassments occur at the middle and lower strata.

It is hard to believe but harder still to comprehend. Some of these tales are so horrifying. Beauty Akhtar of Dhamrai Upazila was married to Muntaj Ahmed of Arpara village in Manikganj about two and a half years ago. Beauty's father met his son-in-law's dowry demand by paying three lakh taka. But Muntaj's greed was insatiable. He started torturing her for more money and at one stage locked her in a room for three days without food. It so happened that on November 12 last, the entire family including husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law and other in-laws beat her with iron rod in a row. Somehow this incident of torture reached her father and he lodged an FIR Savar thana.

As reports go Beauty is recuperating at the Manikganj Hospital and her husband Muntaj Ahmed, father-in-law Ashrafuddin Ahmed and brother-in-law Ariful Hossain have since been arrested. Unhappily, there are more stories of dowry harassment that ultimately lead to death than are reported in the newspapers. For women it is a difficult battle to win. They are handicapped by history, victims of a firmly embedded gender system.

Some recent dowry related harassments and tortures leading to deaths that have created ripples at home and abroad have prompted Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to issue an appeal to all heads of public and private universities and Education Boards to wage a war against dowry in the country. All findings indicate that dowry demands in the country have multiplied tenfold over the last one decade. Precisely speaking, there is a sticky web of issues surrounding it. The much hyped luxury needs of the consumerist society is one. Most upper middle class families due to lack of proper education and culture have realised that this is an easy way to acquire wealth and live comfortably in the society. Unhappily, there exists a toothless 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 wedding of their own sons and daughters, most people would do the same thing. P.M.'s D.O. letter to heads of educational institutions will not create any tangible impact unless the political parties have made it mandatory for members to take an oath that they shall neither give nor receive dowry. Shockingly true, down the years the lack of collective political will to curb dowry has become obvious.

The sons of land owners in the Dhaka Metropolitan city, owners of apartment blocks besides the grooms with MBA degrees and computer related degrees and diplomas are considered top-notch catches in the groom bazaar. The rich revel in the exchange of black money but the pressure on other classes to ape them has serious social consequences. In most cases affluent parents think that big dowries will strengthen their daughter's position in the husband's family. But appallingly, should the marriage go wrong, there is no way that this fabulous gifts in the form of cash, jewellery and property can be retrieved.

More intriguing, in most cases girls do not have any knowledge or participation in the deal. Dowry is often a monetary deal between two men -- the bride's father and the groom. Despite promulgation of Acid Control Act, 2002 and Dowry Prohibition Act the numbers of dowry related atrocities and deaths are climbing up and it is true, as the P.M. has indicated, a big social movement is a must to stop giving and taking of money. The law may help take temporary punitive action, but later women need real social, financial, moral and ideological support to stand firmly against an age old system that has almost got an unwritten societal sanction. Women face double peril. Inside the barred doors is humiliation, outside awaits public ire. Harassed and tortured women are now going to court or 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. The odd NGO groups, or women activists or Women Lawyers' Association 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 a dowry death is a relatively easier crime than murder to prosecute 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. While court appearances and seeking police protection in all these types of torture and violence by husbands appear to be a traumatic experience, most women prefer to sweep their bitter experiences under the carpet. However, the strength must come from the society and the government. Almost all agencies tend to "exploit women's labour without supporting it," maintaining it and enhancing it. In a bid to weed out this menace from the system that scenario must be changed. (Md. Asadullah Khan, 2004).

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