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As per the report titled Crimes in India 2016, published by the National Crime Record Bureau of India, death of 7621 women is registered as dowry death under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code. This implies that more than 21 women die every day because they could not fulfill dowry demands made by their husbands or in-laws. Also, 1,10,378 cases have been registered under Section 498A for cruelty against married women by her husband and in-laws. The conviction rate is as low as 39.1 percent in cases of dowry deaths and 9.5 percent in cases of domestic violence. The Indian society seems to have become deaf to screams of women who are being burned alive or murdered because of dowry and the legal system seems to have become immune.The fierce resistance initiated by the women’s movement in India during the decades of 80s against the stove deaths’ of newly married brides seems to have perished gradually, while currently, the narrative of abuse of dowry law dominates the judicial discourse. This has resulted in increase in the culture of violence against women with impunity that has also travelled across borders with people who are migrating to the developed world in order to fulfil their career or life aspirations. Amidst this disheartening situation, I found a ray of hope when I attended theSecond Dowry Summit in Sydney Australia last week jointly organized by the Australian Centre for Human Rights and Health and the University of New South Wales.

In this Summit, several of the survivors of transnational violence from India and elsewhere shared their lived experiences of the manner in which they have been abused because of dowry. The common pattern that emerged across those real lives stories is that the NRI men marry Indian women, demand huge dowry, sexually exploit them, then these men go abroad promising these young brides that they will arrange for the visas for women, but many keep on waiting.Men never respond while women are being abused by their in-laws here or are thrown out of their matrimonial houses. In other cases, even if women are being called on for temporary visas, they are forcefully being abused and repatriated. In a foreign land, without the knowledge of language, laws or rules, many women face isolation, alienation and humiliation. They are being tortured and exploited because of their vulnerable situation. Being in the foreign soil, these men enjoy the immunity from the Indian laws because the Indian government has no jurisdiction there.  Even otherwise, the manner in which Indian laws are being implemented, women hardly receive any justice. Also, foreign laws do not recognize marriages performed on Indian soil, so many men remarry there. Most of them committed the crime with impunity because of the lacunae in the laws and also because of lax attitude of the government. Back in India, women survivors run from pillars to post to seek justice and waitfor years, but nothing happens. Their children suffer in the process.

Distraught by such situation, eight women have filed a Public Interest Litigation last year before the Supreme Court of India. The Court has issued notice to the Centre asking it about the steps being taken by the government to tackle this issue. Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs in India, under pressure, has introduced a Bill on Registration of NRI Marriages on 9th February 2019 before the Rajya Sabha. This Bill provides for registration of marriage by the NRIs within 30 days of solemnization of such marriage, impounding of passport in case the marriage is not being registered within 30 days and amendments in the Criminal Procedure Code pertaining to provisions such as uploading summons on the website of Ministry etc. However, these halfhearted efforts have not focused on the issues relating to provisions of interim relief to the women and children affected by such marriages or penalizing the guilty husbands. Further, not much research is being done in this field as there is no such data that exist pertaining to number of women who are being duped into marriage by NRI men. Several women who have been abandoned by their NRI husbands or even otherwise are living in a vulnerable situation. No efforts have been made to address the situation of these deserted abandoned women.This Bill has been currently referred to a Committee.

Amidst this chaotic situation as prevalent here, I came across the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee Report or the Senate Report on the Practice of Dowry and incidences of dowry abuse in Australia. This exhaustive report discusses about fine nuances of the issue of dowry abuse, bride price and other forms of economic violence women face across several cultures, in great details in the light of provisions of family violence law in Australia. Based on submissions made by different experts and groups working on the issue of dowry violence and while considering the socio-legal situation as exists, the Senate report focuses on the issues of multi-culturalism in Australia, sees dowry abuse as a human rights issue and made several recommendations to provide relief to women who are being victimized. Also, in this one-day Summit, several of the politicians and leaders in Australia talk positively about accepting the recommendation of this report and addressing the issue of dowry abuse.

After interacting with women survivors, researchers, organizations working in the field and leaders, I sensed commitment and solidarity and felt optimistic that at least the issue of dowry has been raised somewhere in the positive spirit. Further exploration reveals that not only in Australia, but also in UK, USA and several other countries, their state governments have realized that the issue of dowry abuse or bride price as existed in other cultures, is affecting the large number of women who migrate or are residing in those countries and therefore, they are debating to enact laws to curb dowry abuse.

The discourse on dowry abuse,bride price or similar such arrangements relating to payments relating to marriages which affect women and children in many ways across different cultures, therefore, is regaining momentum across the globe and raises hope that in India too it will be addressed in the similar spirit paving way to allocations of funds for research, collation of data, changing the narrative from the myth of misuse and abuse of law to actually addressing the real issue and providing relief to women and children who suffer due to such dowry abuse.  Such steps do not in any manner imply accusing one culture or the other, rather these are the ways to address the issues of gender injustice that exists everywhere. In almost every culture, women are facing disadvantages in one or the other way. Economic violence against women exists in one form or the other exist all over.

What is required is the inter-country and intra-country coordination and above all a commitment by the state governments at the national as well as the international level to prevent violence, to protect women and children and to provide relief to those affected. In the globalized world, where cultural baggage including customs, traditions and practices, is easily being carried across political boundaries, it becomes necessary for the state governments across the countriesto understand the nuances and impact of such influx and strategise the efforts to prevent violation of women’s rights as human rights. Rather an international consortium may be established to specifically address such issues pertaining to women and children is essential. CEDAW provides a basic framework to examine all forms of violence against women, however, to specifically deal with the issue pertaining to violence or coercion for payments or transactions in relationships and its impact on women and children, a precise women’s rights instrument could be evolved globally. Dowry abuse has resulted in death of many women and is also making severe impact on the lives of numerous others. It has to be addressed in whatever ways possible. Screams of those women who have been abused need to be heard and be acted upon. Women cannot be forced to stay at the receiving end forever for whatever reasons.

Nevertheless, such efforts being made by the organizations and governments across the world provide a ray of hope that patriarchy could be smashed to pave way for gender equality and justice. More specifically, the step of providing platforms where the survivors or women with lived experiences share their stories of pain and courage through the prism of the language of rights and justice is essential and this Summit has successfully done the same. Similar such forums at global level where women from different cultures, different situations and different experiences could come together to voice their concerns and could garner support, nurture solidarity and cherish bond of togetherness, may help in long run. In a male-dominated masculine world, it is about being a human, being a woman and cherishing the commonality of womanhood.

The author is a lawyer and a researcher working on gender, governance and human rights issues for several years. She has written several articles, research papers and books and currently is practicing in Delhi. She may be contacted shalu_nigam@rediffmail.com 

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