Women. Dowry. Violence and abuse – associated by default. Almost always. Irrespective of socio-economic 'status'. Urban or rural, north, south, east or west. Heart-rending stories evidence it. And horrific statistics confirm it.
“We hope you will support our fight for justice”, said some of the victims. And the mothers, fathers and sisters left behind to suffer the loss of some others. Tears flowed as they spoke. Sometimes mine too. Sighs and shock all around. And applause and appreciation also. At their courage and commitment. To stand up and speak for themselves and others.
All this and much more happened at the India Court of Women on Dowry and Related Forms of Violence against Women at the Christ University and Dharmaram Vidyashram from Jul-27 to Jul-29 organized by Bangalore based Vimochana, the Asian Women and Human Rights Council (AWHRC) and El Taller International in collaboration with over 40 other Indian and international community based organizations and women's rights groups. This Court was part of the larger global movement of the Courts of Women which were initiated by the AWHRC in 1991 in the Asia Pacific region and have hence moved through El Taller into Africa, West Asia, the Mediterranean, Central and South America. Since then, some of the participating organizations had been with Vimochana and El Taller International in creating and holding over 35 Courts of Women worldwide and particularly in the global south. Focusing on violence against women due to diverse issues like poverty, culture, racism, war, etc., the courts are public hearings of individual testimonies of survival and resistance that invite us to revisit the existing problems and collectively seek new paradigms of justice.
The India court began through a preparatory workshop organized by Vimochana and AWHRC India in Bangalore from January 9-11, 2008 where participants debated and framed key issues and formed the core group whose members took forward the processes of the Court in their locations. This unfolded over a period of 18 months through activities organized by primary partners (including news media) of the Court in their towns/states/regions, along with women's and human rights organizations, students, trade unions and other civil society organizations thus retaining the perspective and methodology of the Courts of Women of making the Court a process and not an independent event.
This Court centred on bringing the seemingly normal and routine phenomena of dowry and associated violence within the institution of marriage back to the centre of public consciousness and conscience. However, it also delved deeper into some related issues in the overall context of development, consumerism, commoditization and globalization including:
• Sex-selection, declining sex ratios and new reproductive technologies.
• Trafficking and forced prostitution
• Rapes and sexual violence caused by declining sex ratios
• Issues of property rights
• Child marriages and denial of education
• Desertion and bigamy
• Depression and other forms of mental harassment apart from physical violence causing death
• Increasing vulnerability of women in the context of emerging issues as that of farmer's suicides
• Legal responses
The first day of the finale saw over 200 participants engaging in 6 co-ordinated and well researched round table discussions on various topics like the impact of growing economic and cultural fundamentalism and globalization on dowry, marriage and abuse of women; media reconstruction of violence and autonomy; government policies, legislation and alternative forms of justice responding to dowry related violence against women; and the role of science and medical technology in femicide (female foeticide, infanticide, etc.). There was also an interesting exchange titled “Resistance: The Conference of the Birds with stories, poetry and sharing of experiences of resistance aptly held at the Birds Park.
Calling of the Court through the Song of the Cike by Chitra Iyer and team started the second day. A welcome address by representatives of the organizing groups and a performance titled Sva Kranti, Women Seekers of Truth by the renowned performer and activist Mallika Sarabhai from the Darpana Academy followed. The special guests were acknowledged, lamps of memory were lit, the jury was introduced and the legendary Justice (retd.) V.R. Krishna Iyer, a former judge of the Supreme Court opened and blessed the Women's court. Expert witnesses like social workers/activists, academicians, medical and legal practitioners introduced sessions meaningfully titled Daughters of Fire, Daughters of Despair, Daughters: Displaced and Dispossessed, Daughters of Lost Wisdoms on themes ranging from the changing forms of dowry violence and murders and dowry in the context of globalization and emerging traditions. The concluding ones were Daughters of Hope and Daughters of Dreamtime highlighting instances of resistance and hope. Each topic had 5-7 poignant testimonies heard by the jury and audience – some stories I heard and insights I gained follow.
“I am a woman, I once was a mother” began Poonam Kathuria of SWATI, Gujarat as she talked about how the original practice of girls from wealthy families receiving money and expensive articles as wedding gifts 'evolved' into dowry. She described the Satta Patta tradition prevalent in Gujarat and Rajasthan where a girl forms a part of her brother's wedding gifts given to his bride's family. Regardless of her age she is forced to marry a brother or male relative of her sister-in-law. If one marriage breaks down, the other is annulled irrespective of either couple's wishes. According to her, the naari adalat/panchayat functioning in some Indian states question only excess dowry and the women's problems emerging from it rather than the practice of dowry giving itself. Dowry prevention officers rarely register cases of violation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA, 2005) or those pertinent to violence or death due to dowry as they are often occupied with training and other official tasks. Further, abuse victims and their families rarely report fearing taboos and repercussion.
She also talked about how dowry and other patriarchal and regressive mindsets and traditions continue to objectify and devalue girls and women resulting in trafficking and child marriage. Advancement in science, particularly medicine has aided in increasing sex selective abortions (estimated at 2 million foetuses annually) and skewed gender ratios especially in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi (with a national average of only 933 girls for 1000 boys in 2001 as per the official Census of India website) despite the and Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Regulation and Prevention of Misuse (PC & PNDT) Act, 1994. Even if allowed to be born, girls are those who often suffer/die from malnutrition and gastrointestinal and other diseases as boys' health and well being is prioritized over theirs'.
“Love was wonderful but marriage was hell”, said a bleary eyed Nina, a student of social work with a flair for poetry, from Madhya Pradesh currently working with an NGO and living with her parents and son as she awaits legal separation. She painfully narrated how she faced physical and emotional harassment for dowry in her marital home in spite of all the pre-nuptial assurances and agreements with my husband and his family.
Lakshmi who was sold as a girl for dowry was barely able to relate her traumatic experiences while Kamala revealed how she was forced to be a child bride to minimize wedding expenses. The former is now supported by the Gramya Resource Centre for Women, Hyderabad which runs a home for abandoned girls and the latter is studying in a school. Zeenat Jahan from Kerala sighed in anguish as she was physically and mentally tortured without food by her husband and his family for insufficient dowry and bearing girls. Parvati Bai who was trafficked into prostitution in Mumbai from Andhra Pradesh when she was unconscious after her food was drugged by her husband repeatedly thanked her rescuers.
Through a video clip, Dr. Jaya, from the National Capital Region (NCR) shared the horrifying details of how she was forced to undergo foetal sex determination and the violence she and her baby were subjected to after she dared to have a daughter. Encouragingly, she sought legal assistance and agreed to speak out although she fears for her safety.
Nalini Nayak from the Self Employed Women's Association Union, Kerala started the hearing on the influence of globalization and rapid economic liberalization on the Indian 'marriage market' with the words “I am a woman whose wisdom was once priceless”. News and popular media's repeated coverage/portrayal of ostentatious wedding ceremonies all over India add to the economic burden of low and 'educated' middle income families of daughters. She has observed that the parents are often pressurized to organize lavish rituals and celebrations apart from dowry and gifts to the grooms' family and guests. Women from the increasingly impoverished fishing and farming communities are forced to migrate to earn for their families and more importantly to accumulate savings for their own dowry or their daughters'. They are exploited by the unregulated garment, electronics and other industries particularly in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the name of progressive development of women.
The Sumangali Thittam in Tamil Nadu binds young unmarried women to employers who promise financial assistance for wedding expenses at the end of their 2-3 year contract. Malar, Ramya and their families have been following up for many months but have barely received a part of the promised sum though they toiled in inhuman conditions.
Jameela, a single mother and migrant worker from Kerala recounted her struggle to support her family and give dowry for the marriage of her three daughters. Meenu and Asha Rani from New Delhi told their tales of the loss of livelihood and shelter arising from displacement and the subsequent indebtedness due to the burden of dowry and increased wedding expenditure.
Vimochana's study and campaign initiated in Bangalore in 1997 found that of the 1133 cases of unnatural deaths of women here, only 157 were treated as murder while 546 were classified as suicides and 430 as accidents. Further, among the 550 cases reported between January and September 1997, 71% were routinely closed as kitchen/cooking accidents and stove-bursts. Currently, at least 3 women are killed or driven to suicide daily - clinically terming them as “unnatural deaths of women in marriage”.
After the hearings ended, the jury aired its responses and views. On the final day, those present reflected on the entire process of the court, sharing their opinions, learning and a broad action plan. Among the anticipated outcomes of the court, I believe that the following are critical:
• A catalytic and creative process spreading awareness that dowry related violence against women is a crime against humanity and that dowry is the most extreme form of commoditizing women
• A growing community of strong empowered women who would refuse to barter their dignity for an ephemeral security through dowry; women and men who would reject dowry related demands and raise their voices against all forms of violence and discrimination
• Policy changes that enhance opportunities and ensure sustainable security for women affirming and acknowledging their inherent strengths and wisdom.
Some names, locations and occupations were changed to protect identity
(The author is a freelance writer, a Fellow of Citizen News Service (CNS) Writers' Bureau, and a community volunteer based in Bangalore, India)