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Participants in India’s Dignity March campaign for women’s rights and justice for survivors of sexual assault. Photo: AFP

Are Indian women in Kerala facing abuse and death over wedding dowries?

  • At least four young women have died recently in suspected cases of abuse by their husbands and in-laws over the size of their dowries
  • The spate of deaths are a blight to Kerala’s reputation as a state with progressive indicators, such as having India’s top literacy rate and highest sex ratio
A spate of suspected dowry deaths in India’s Kerala state has reignited debate on the cultural practice, with a top official condemning it as a “social evil” in a region that boasts the nation’s best literacy rate and sex ratio, but also records the largest dowry amounts on average.

At least four young women, all aged below 25, have lost their lives in the past weeks under suspicious circumstances, including a 21-year-old who died on Sunday in what police believe was a suicide after she was allegedly ill-treated by her husband and mother-in-law.

The victims’ families have pressed charges against the husbands and their relatives for dowry harassment, a growing phenomenon in which men and in-laws dissatisfied over dowry amounts carry out physical or mental abuse against the new brides.

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“It has been six decades since dowry has been banned in the country. Still dowry has been given and accepted in various forms and quantities. This is a social evil of utmost gravity,” said Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on June 23.

“The yardstick for a family’s dignity shouldn’t be what was given to a bride and how much,” he added. “Those who think in that way should remember that they are making their children to be products for sale.”

In the dowry custom, parents of Indian brides give a groom’s family cash, gold, cars, property or other assets, believing this would provide their daughter with financial stability. The size of a dowry typically depends on the groom’s education level, profession, and family status.

A World Bank report released last month found that of 40,000 marriages that took place in rural India between 1960 and 2008, a dowry was paid in 95 per cent of them, even after the practice was outlawed in 1961.

Although the groom’s family did send gifts to the bride’s relatives, the study found the amount averaged about 5,000 rupees (US$67) in real terms, while the bride’s family spent on average seven times more, or about 32,000 rupees.

While the “net dowry” – or the difference between what the bride’s family gave versus what was received from the groom’s side – had remained stable across most of India over time, dowry amounts in Kerala state showed a “stark and persistent” inflation since the 1970s, recording the nation’s highest dowry on average in recent years, the report said.

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Dowry is among a few practices which forms a blight to Kerala’s reputation as a state with progressive indicators, including the nation’s top literacy rate, longest life expectancy, highest sex ratio, and lowest positive population growth rate.

Kerala’s US$139-billion economy is the ninth largest in India and it received almost one-fifth of all remittances from overseas, according to 2018-19 World Bank figures. It also has a vibrant literary and film industry.

Yet the state of 35 million residents not only observes dowry gifting but also a number of traditional practices, such as orthodox temple ceremonies or ancient Ayurveda medical treatments, that other states do not follow.

Dowry is an accepted practice. People simply accept it. It only becomes a problem when there is a huge demand or dissatisfaction
Alayamma Vijayan, activist

About 1,100 dowry-related harassment cases have been reported to the Kerala State Women’s Commission since 2010. But the actual numbers are thought to be higher as such incidents are often registered as cruelty against women by husband or in-laws – often a proxy for dowry-related abuse.

“Dowry is an accepted practice. People simply accept it. It only becomes a problem when there is a huge demand or dissatisfaction,” said Alayamma Vijayan, who runs Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre, a Kerala-based non-profit organisation for gender justice issues.

She added that the practice was prevalent in all classes and communities, but the problems were more pronounced in the lower socioeconomic ranks.

“In the poorer fishing communities, there is a trend of giving visas as dowries. To some families, visas to the Middle East are huge,” she said.

Women pledge to fight gender discrimination as they gather to form a long ‘women’s wall’ in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photo: AP

In the wake of the suspected dowry deaths, Kerala authorities have in the past weeks said it would revise its school syllabus to include more gender-sensitive elements and remove material disparaging women. They are also seeking to set up exclusive courts to handle crimes against women and launch a 24/7 helpline for women to report dowry harassment.

Neetha N, a professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies research institute, said Kerala was at a cultural and ethical crossroads.

“At a personal level, Keralites describe systems like dowry as a tradition that they want to preserve,” said the academic who hails from Kerala. “One may be progressive in terms of political ideology but he may not reflect that in his personal life.”

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She was doubtful about the impact a hotline would have on a woman experiencing violence from her in-laws.

“Helplines can be theoretically helpful, but how many women would be able to exercise that power? In the social context of Kerala’s family system and close-knit neighbourhood, helplines mean nothing. It doesn’t make any difference,” Neetha said.

“What we need is a grass roots political movement for women empowerment from a social perspective and not an electoral perspective. Political parties use issues like marital tensions for their electoral gains.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans, or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Rise in suspected dowry deaths rings alarm bells