Are India’s anti-dowry laws a trap for urban males?
I sensed panic in his voice when he called me to clarify matters.”I am going through a messy divorce and my wife’s lawyer is tracking my Facebook profile. Any remotely intimate conversation with a member of the opposite sex could be interpreted as infidelity and I would be slapped with anti-dowry laws and made to pay heavily,” he said.
But he is more concerned the law will not protect his rights if his wife decides to file charges of harassment.
“Something she is brainwashed to do every day by her parents to make the most of the divorce,” he said.
As gender laws in India get tougher to protect women harassed for dowry, I am forced to wonder if we are missing a point here.
Websites, blogs and support groups have mushroomed in cyberspace offering free advice on misuse of the Dowry Prohibition Act and Article 498A of the Indian Penal Code, one that men’s groups say are tools for “legal extortion by radical feminists without a thought for the implications.”
Over 19,000 false cases were registered under Section 498A IPC and 615 under Dowry Prohibition Act, Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury told the lower house of parliament in November 2007, citing statistics furnished by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2004-06.
Offences under IPC 498A are “non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable” with a prison term of up to three years.
Delhi advocate R.P.Chugh, who heads the Man Cell, says domestic violence is a two-way road and need not always refer to wife-bashing as per popular perception. If you are a married man, you know the deadly effects of silent treatment, constant nagging or sulking for days.
Women’s groups argue that actual cases of male victimization are far less compared to the abuse and domestic violence women endure everyday across the country.
I could not agree more with a Delhi High Court judge who observed that laws were made to protect hundreds of women tortured and killed for dowry every year but have become a tool for urban middle or upper-middle class women looking to make a quick buck through divorce.
Anti-dowry laws are meant to give voice to silent victims of social abuse — a Herculean task in a country where family pride, fear of retribution and illiteracy pose stumbling blocks.
The National Commission for Women is campaigning for stricter punishment for offenders and demanding that the scope of the Act be increased.
Delhi alone accounts for 18.7 per cent of dowry death cases and 17.1 pct of cruelty by husbands and relatives, according to a 2006 report by the National Crime Records Bureau.
A reality check in largely illiterate rural India, where women fight poverty and domestic violence every day, throws up questions whether anti-dowry laws can be effectively implemented. They are ones, I’m afraid, who will never hear of outrageous out-of-court divorce settlements. In most case, they will be thankful to escape with their lives.
Has the time come then to introspect on the far-reaching impact anti-dowry laws have on the lives of men and women and the burden on judiciary with every false claim of harassment?
Often police fail to conduct proper investigations before hauling off an elderly family member to jail based on a complaint by a woman. At the same time, hundreds of complaints of abuse at the hands of in-laws go unnoticed in rural India.
I feel strong laws are necessary to protect women against abuse. Laws that will deter repeat offenders. But I want them where they are truly needed, implemented through an unbiased and transparent police system with wider reach and humane approach.