Practicing Dowry in India
The practice of a woman giving a "dowry" or gift to a man at *marriage is said to have had its origins in the system of streedhan (woman's share of parental wealth given to her at the time of her marriage). As a woman had no right to inherit a share of the ancestral property, streedhan was seen as a way by which the family ensured that she had access to some of its wealth. There is no clear proof as to when this practice was first started in India.
What began as gifts of land to a woman as her inheritance in an essentially agricultural economy today has degenerated into gifts of gold, clothes, consumer durables, and large sums of cash, which has sometimes entailed the impoverishment and heavy indebtedness of poor families. The dowry is often used by the receiving family for business purposes, family members' education, or the dowry to be given for the husband's sisters. The transaction of dowry often does not end with the actual wedding ceremony, as the family is expected to continue to give gifts.
It was only in the middle of the 1970s that the women's movement and other human rights groups exposed the perniciousness of the system in India, when it was realized that there were an increased number of "accidental kitchen deaths" of young married women. The first reports to the police were often registered as suicides or accidents. The available statistics of dowry death are chilling and disturbing.
Initially, women's groups protested individual cases of dowry deaths. A national campaign focused on humiliating and socially boycotting the families in these cases. The campaign also demanded that mysterious deaths be presumed to be murders until investigated and proved otherwise by the police. The demand for special cells of women police officers to head investigations of dowry murders led to an amendment of the outdated Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, which was later further amended so that all streedhan gifts (both movable and immovable) had to be registered in the wife's name at the time of the marriage. Unfortunately, in India basic attitudes to female life have remained unchanged, and the dowry is seen as a bribe to the son-in-law to keep the daughter, who after a certain age is totally unwanted in her parental home. Families often know that they are virtually signing a death warrant when they give their daughter in marriage, and yet, they do so.
Dowry Laws in India
The 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act
This act [1] prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of a dowry, "as consideration for the marriage" where "dowry" is defined as a gift demanded or given as a precondition for a marriage. Gifts given without a precondition are not considered dowry, and are legal. Asking or giving of dowry can be punished by an imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to Rs. 5000. It replaced several pieces of anti-dowry legislation that had been enacted by various Indian states.
IPC Section 304B
This Section of the Indian Penal Code was inserted by a 1986 amendment. The Dowry deaths law defines a 'dowry death' as the death of a woman caused by any burns or bodily injury or which does not occur under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage. For a woman's death to be a dowry death, it must also be shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry. If this is proved, the woman's husband or relative is required to be deemed to have caused her death. Whoever commits dowry death is required to be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.
  IPC Section 498A  
Section 498A was inserted into the penal code in 1983 it reads:
Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.
In practice, cruelty is taken to include the demanding of a dowry. This section is non-bailable, non-compoundable (i.e. it cannot be privately resolved between the parties concerned) and cognizable (i.e. the police can arrest the accused without investigation or warrants) on a report from a woman or close relative. Another example of a cognizable law in India was the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act.
Police often file charges against the husband, his parents and other relatives (whoever being named on the complaint by the wife or her close relatives) and put them in jail. There is no penalty (even a fine) for filing a false case. Many individuals have claimed this is being abused by the wife or her close relatives. The fact remains that society continues to be patriarchal. This law is some respite for those suffering within a patriarchal structure. The proportion of women suffering in this manner is far greater than those who may be registering false cases. Further, in most cases, the woman is forced to file such a case by her family and relatives who may harbour feelings of vengeance, without really looking at what the woman wants.
  Copyright@ 2009 India Women Welfare Foundation