by Taskin Fahmina
Every year many women in Bangladesh are killed and physically abused and many commit suicide because of the the vicious dowry practice and related violence. According to the rights organisation Odhikar, at least 2,800 women were killed, 1,833 were physically abused and 204 committed suicide because of dowry-related violence between 2001 and July 2014.
By analysing the overall dowry situation, reported statistics indicate that it is only the tip of the iceberg. Majority of the victims continue to tolerate abuse, if they are not killed, all through their married life and never report it. The main reasons behind tolerating or not reporting such abuse is that they are either financially incapable of going away and protecting themselves from their abusive husbands or they are not welcome by their poverty-stricken or stigmatised parental families.
Sometimes because of social stigma, they stay with their abusive husbands in fear of being branded as ‘bad women.’ Dowry encourages polygamy, frequent marriages, divorce, etc. The dowry system even makes families poorer. This cruel custom exists in all sections of society; extreme abuses such as killings or grievous hurt are, however, seen mostly in impoverished sections of society.
Shahinur Begum of Munshiganj was only 19 years old when she married Humayun Kabir Raju on May 20, 2011. Within nine months of her marriage, she regularly faced physical abuse and was finally killed by her husband and in-laws for their unlimited demand for dowry. During her marriage, Tk 1,50,000 was decided as dowry. As a result, her father, who worked as a farm labourer, gave gold ornaments worth Tk 50,000 to Shahinur and Tk 1 lakh for Humayun’s business as was settled. Just 15 days after the marriage, Humayun went to talk with Shahinur’s father and demanded Tk 1 lakh more as dowry. The hapless father mortgaged his homestead and gave the money. After few days, Humayun approached him again and demanded Tk 2 lakh. Shahinur’s father expressed his inability to give any more money.
From then on, Humayun started to physically abuse Shahinur who was then pregnant. On February 4, 2012, Shahinur’s father received a call from a neighbour saying that Shahinur was ill and was being treated in Gajaria Health Complex in Munshiganj. He quickly went to the hospital, where he found Shahinur bleeding profusely in the lower abdomen, chest, back and hands. Shahinur told him that Humahun, with the help of his parents, brother and sister, hacked Shahinur with sharp objects.
The physician told the father that her injuries were so deep that they were causing her to bleed excessively and referred her to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for better treatment. But on the way to the hospital, she died. Afterwards, Shahinur’s brother filed a case as a plaintiff with the Gajaria police under Section 11(ka) / 30 of Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act 2000 (Amendment 2003). Section 11(ka) talks about the punishment for killing someone over demands for dowry and Section 30 deals with the punishment for abetment. On March 20, 2014, Raju was sentenced with death by the women and children repression prevention tribunal of Munshiganj. Humayun is now in the Kashimpur jail in Gazipur.
Although dowry is illegal, it is still a socially accepted and abusive practice in Bangladesh. The groom’s family asks for dowry and the bride’s family is pressured to comply. In general, victim families do not go to the police to file a case against the offenders when they ask for dowry; or the police do not take any action against offenders when dowry-related transactions go on. It is also noted that dowry is not a one-time demand, it continues throughout the whole marital life for many women. Dowry is also a cause of poverty as it pushes households into debts. It is a life-threatening practice and it causes death and injuries to many women.
Dowry-greedy husbands and/or in-laws see the brides as a commodity or a money machine. The woman and her parental family face ‘extortion’ committed by the groom and/or his family. Dowry and related violence do not only ruin the life of a bride but also ruin the family. Killings and extreme physical abuse are massively visible within low-income families. Brides from middle-class families are also affected and they face psychological and physical violence. One of the major causes of domestic violence is the demand for dowry. There are numerous examples of the father of a daughter and a son acting differently on dowry issues. Such as, if his daughter is married, he needs to pay dowry, leaving his daughter to face abuse; during his son’s marriage, the same father acts as a typical dowry-greedy father-in-law and continues to abuse the bride and her family as his demand is not being met.
As part of a patriarchal system, many female members from the groom’s family such as the mother, sister or other female relatives take part in abusing the bride as they feel powerful being associated with the groom. So humiliation, profit-making, complexity, reciprocal abuse and violence are all associated with dowry and it goes on in cyclic order unabatedly. Women are no aliens from another planet; a woman can be someone’s mother, daughter, sister, wife and so on. So the dowry system affects whole society.
Affluent dowry-greedy families expect that parents of brides will willingly offer to new couples expensive goods — apartments or cars in gift — which they can show off as a symbol of wealth and status. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country and dowry is not recognised in Islam. According to Islam, Muslim husbands must provide dower money for the wives. But in majority of the cases, dowry-takers never provide dower for their wives; they abuse and kill wives, in many cases, for dowry instead.
Bangladesh passed the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1980, banning dowry. The law provisions for imprisonment or a fine or both for taking dowry. The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 (amended 2003) under Section 11 (a) (b) and (c) also provisions for punishment of dowry violence — the highest punishment for killing a bride being death penalty. Unfortunately, because of several weaknesses in the criminal justice system, offenders get opportunities to take dowry, commit violence and go unpunished. This encourages potential offenders to commit the same crime. The police see dowry and other domestic violence as personal issues and in most cases, the victim and/or her families do not get support from the police. If the victim is killed, only then the police do accept an FIR and start an investigation although there are allegations that the police, after receiving bribe from offenders, delay the investigation or even damage evidence.
I collected data of seventy low-income group (income in the Tk 0–Tk 8,000 ranges) dowry victim women from 14 districts for my yet-to-be-published recent research — ‘Does financial condition of women matter for dowry-related violence in Bangladesh? A Critical Examination’. Among the victims, 15 women were killed and 55 are still alive. In cases of dead victims, I talked with close relatives of the victims. In my research, I found that among those 15 women who were killed, 14 were housewives and one was a working woman earning only Tk 3,000 a month. The women who had their own income and earned Tk 4,000 or more, faced violence for dowry but they were not killed. It was also found that some women with comparatively higher income had the ability to save their lives by staying away from their abusive husbands. According to the findings, the unemployment and employment ratio among victims were 82.9 per cent and 17.1 per cent. It was also found that illiterate/less educated women faced severe violence compared with literate women. For the women who were less educated or illiterate, their parents provided more dowry than that of literate and employed brides.
Society, in fact, needs to be educated through a holistic approach to combat and eliminate dowry and related violence. We need proper school and college curriculum to educate children about violence against women. There should also be massive and regular media campaign against such heinous practice and crimes. Women’s education and their employment, equal property rights and empowerment are vital for women to fight against dowry and all kinds of violence against women. If women are educated, independent and are well aware of their rights, they can rise up against dowry practices. The most important thing in eliminating dowry is the proper implementation of law.
Who wants a humiliating and violent marital life? Who wants to see a violent society where marriage is a curse because of dowry? Are you such a person who see the dowry practice going on and remain a silent spectator? Rise up! I believe you are enlightened enough to fight against dowry and its violence.
Taskin Fahmina is a rights activist.