Indian women lobby over dowry law

An intense lobbying battle is being fought as the Indian Government prepares to amend legislation introduced nearly three decades ago protecting women who were being attacked, harassed and even murdered for refusing to pay dowries.

Amid a campaign by "men's rights" organisations, who claim the law has been misused to extort money from husbands, the Government has asked legal advisers to investigate and suggest options for reform.

Women's groups say the legislation is vital to protect brides against violent demands for dowries and must not be watered down. They claim up to 25,000 Indian women are killed every year because of the inability or refusal of their families to make such payments to the families of grooms.

The payment of dowries was banned in India in 1961 but remains common and may be on the rise. In 1983, Section 498a of the Indian penal code ruled any husband or member of his family convicted of "cruelty" or violence associated with attempting to force payments should face up to three years in jail.

Women's groups say the campaign by men to change the law is nothing more than a backlash to female empowerment.

The campaign to scrap the law is led by groups including the Save the Family Foundation.

An official, Niladri Das, claimed men in India were increasingly resentful of "biased" laws.

He said more than 95 per cent of men charged under the code were later acquitted and that was proof the law was being misused.

"A woman can make any accusation she wants," he said. He said claims that 25,000 woman a year were killed was "a lie propagated by feminists in order to get money from international NGOs".

"We are not saying there are no cases, but these figures are highly inflated."

The law commission chairman, PV Reddy, a former supreme court judge, said they would soon publish a consultative paper.

"There is misuse, it's been referred to in court judgments," he said. "There is misuse in regard to any law, not just this one. But this is not an ordinary crime. It's about marital discord. It's a very sensitive issue."

Women's rights campaigners argue that women face widespread sexual and physical abuse and say if a law is being misused, the police and courts need to act more efficiently rather than change it. They also say the continued practice of dowry payments and preference for male children, has contributed to widespread abortion of female fetuses.

The problem is so prevalent that in some parts of India there is a marked gender imbalance.

Donna Fernandes, a veteran women's rights campaigner from Bangalore, said she knew of no empirical evidence that 95 per cent of men charged under Section 498a were acquitted. Furthermore, she insisted, an acquittal did not necessarily amount to a misuse of the law as women may withdraw an allegation because of pressure.

Fernandes said her organisation, Vimochana, collected statistics from Bangalore that showed up to 100 married women were being murdered in the city every month, though not all were necessarily related to dowry payments. She added: "If this law is being misused, then why are so many women dying?"

Among those urging the authorities to retain the law is Girender Singh, from Delhi. His 24-year-old daughter Anshu was found dead in January last year, 45 days after she was married.

Singh said Anshu's husband's family had repeatedly made demands for money and while he did not pay a formal dowry, he handed over around £6000 ($13,000).

His daughter's husband was charged with murder and the case is before the courts.

- INDEPENDENT

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