A research paper on domestic violence in Bangladesh published by Shahjalal University of Science and Technology recounts many instances of cruelty against women by their husbands or in-laws. One of the women, who had eloped with a married man, started facing abuse and demands for dowry once they got married. Cut off from her parents and “forced into a divorce”, she was eventually made to separate from the man, although she had wanted to stay back despite the repeated abuse.
Which of the many alarming aspects of this story do we even begin to address?
The frighteningly regular reports of dowry-related violence, often resulting in the death of women, demonstrates how persistent and overpowering the culture of dowry is in this country. The amended Dowry Prohibition Act 2017 approved by the Cabinet on January 30, 2017 is a noteworthy step in reiterating the illegality of this practice. But in order to wipe it out effectively we must truly delve into the dynamics that still keep the dowry custom alive.
The original Dowry Prohibition Act, effective since 1980, made it illegal to exchange any form of property or valuable security in the name of dowry. Any person directly or indirectly demanding dowry from his/her spouse and spouse's family would be punishable with a fine, an imprisonment of up to five years, or both. And yet, in just the 12 months of 2016, 108 women were physically tortured and 126 were tortured to death over dowry, according to Ain O Salish Kendra. Ten of these victims were aged 13 to 18. In the worst of cases covered by news reports, wives were dragged across streets by their hair, beaten up to the point of broken limbs, and even burned to death. This only accounts for the cases that were reported, unlike the numerous others who suffer in silence in fear of facing judicial costs, social stigma, harassment in court, further violence at home or worse, inaction. As the Dowry Prohibition Act 2017 indicates, many are even pushed to the brink of committing suicide.
These incidents, in addition to the findings of several research papers on domestic abuse published in the 'Asian Social Work and Policy Review' journal, reflect the deep-seated patriarchy pervading our societies. Villagers and poor families in cities still believe that a husband and his family are superior to the bride, have the right to make unhealthy demands, and resort to violence when they aren't met.
The paper titled "Causes and Contexts of Domestic Violence: Tales of Help-Seeking Married Women in Sylhet, Bangladesh", published in the Asian Social Work and Policy Review, interviewed victims of domestic abuse. Many of them shared that a little bit of beating up by husbands was tolerable; only when their lives were threatened did they decide to seek help. They were also advised by relatives to prioritise their marriage over their own safety and well-being. The few women who did scour up the courage to speak out were threatened with financial and social abandonment by their husbands, who emphasised on how the society would shun a divorced woman and she would have no source of income for herself or her children.
Poverty and patriarchy also contribute to the epidemic of child marriage in Bangladesh, which in turn increases dowry related violence. 52 percent of girls younger than 18 and 18 percent of girls younger than 15 were married off in 2016, according to girlsnotbrides.org. The website also explains that, “Where poverty is acute, families and sometimes girls themselves believe that marriage will be a solution to secure their future.” Brides who are younger even have to pay smaller amounts in dowry, which further encourages child marriage. These young brides (read: children) passing into hostile marital environments often face domination and abuse in their formative years, both through personal experience and by witnessing the torture of women in their households, including mothers, sisters and female in-laws. They are essentially being instilled with the idea that husbands and in-laws have every right to treat them brutally and make constant demands for money. What chance do these girls ever have of learning to fight for themselves?
It is despicable that such norms have become an inherent part of rural and disadvantaged communities, so much so that they no longer shock us. What's alarming, though, is the occasional appearance of dowry demands even among the urban societies. It is baffling as to how this prevails among those who cannot hide behind the sham excuse of lack of wealth, education or awareness.
These are the fetid areas that the government needs to target in its fight against dowry and domestic abuse. The weapons at our disposal include education, social awareness, and the reach of the law, among others.
Parents must be shown how wrong and destructive it is to push their daughters into slavery in the name of marriage, and that marriage itself is not the prime objective of their daughters' existence. More importantly, they must be taught how to raise respectful sons. Women must be shown the way of solidarity – mothers, sisters, and mothers and sisters-in-law need to channel their strengths into supporting the females around them. The government, social service organisations, and the media must ensure that these notions are effectively communicated using the right and relevant means. For instance, local lectures, and television and radio broadcasts are more likely to reach those living in the villages, whereas print and digital media can be used for city dwellers.
Education regarding gender equality must be included as a core part of academic curricula. Students, especially in disadvantaged societies, must be provided with the intellectual and cultural exposure that will enable them to realise for themselves the absurdity of the dowry culture and cruelty, and stand up against their elders and neighbours in prevention of these practices. They must be engaged in discussions in and out of the classroom through social awareness platforms regarding these issues.
Most importantly, schools and colleges, NGOs, the government and the media must inform and educate the masses about the existence of laws that are in place to protect them.
Meanwhile, the law enforcement and local leaders in rural areas need to be sensitised so that they are genuinely invested in providing support and protection to victims of dowry and violence. Psychiatric and counselling facilities ought to be provided for the tortured and traumatised, particularly in the rural areas. These services will help the vulnerable and the victimised to gain confidence in the government and law enforcement agencies.
We hope that in addition to ensuring that the new laws in place are implemented with efficiency and rigour, the government will focus on these aspects in their efforts to crack down on domestic violence, much of which can be traced to dowry demands. It needs no explanation as to why tackling an epidemic from the root is a far more crucial and rational approach than attempting to harness it after it has already gained strength.
The writer is a student of English and Economics at North South University, and a member of the Editorial team, The Daily Star.