The death of 23-year-old Vismaya Nair has rekindled the debate on the reprehensible dowry system prevalent in Kerala society. The collective moral outrage on display currently in the state is a seasonal phenomenon at best. There was a similar outrage in May last year when 25-year-old Uthra died after her husband got her bitten by a snake. In the last 13 years, 212 women have lost their lives owing to dowry harassment in Kerala. The Kerala Assembly at present has four legislators who were accused of domestic violence and none faced prosecution as the cases were settled out of court. So, it’s unlikely Vismaya’s death will change anything unless the government takes sincere and proactive steps to deal with the dowry menace, and communities wake up to the barbarity of the social evil they have preserved and nurtured for generations.
Sixty years have passed since Parliament enacted the Dowry Prohibition Act. Following criticism that it has failed to provide adequate protection for women, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was enacted in 2005. Armed with these laws and corresponding sections in the Indian Penal Code, police and agencies like women’s commissions can tackle the issue of dowry and domestic violence. Unfortunately, police and commissions prefer to play mediators, as if saving the institution of marriage is more important than saving lives and punishing the culprits. Even in the case of Vismaya, a police complaint was withdrawn following negotiation initiated by senior officers.
The government must put in place an effective system to ensure that no life is lost due to the dowry menace. Let the first step be weeding out the dowry practice among government employees. As suggested by former chief minister Oommen Chandy, the government employees can be made to sign an affidavit saying they will neither accept nor give dowry, and any violation should attract nothing less than dismissal from service. Imposing a deterrent tax on luxury weddings is another idea. Opinion makers and political leaders should set a model by opting for dowry-free and simple marriages. Dowry is a system that has no place in a modern, progressive society. It’s time we did away with that once and for all.