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Asia

'Dowry has turned into a commercial transaction'

One woman dies every hour in India because of dowry-related disputes. Rights activist Ranjana Kumari explains these crimes are the result of growing poverty, greed and disrespect for women in Indian society.

According to the latest figures published by India's National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 8,233 women were killed across India in 2012 due to disputes over dowry payments given by the bride's family to the groom or his family. Moreover, the conviction rate for such crimes remained at 32 percent.

Although the dowry system is officially banned in the South Asian nation, it still persists and dowry practices are believed to extend to all classes of Indian society.

In a DW interview, human rights activist Ranjana Kumari said India's economic boom has turned the age-old custom into a commercial transaction underpinned by socio-economic standing and greed.

DW: What factors have contributed to the high number of dowry-related crimes?

Ranjana Kumari: Strong patriarchal values, the devaluation of women, and growing poverty are all factors that have led to the prevalence of dowry violence across the country. Traditional beliefs remain strong and there is a common perception that women become the property of their husbands after marriage and that they are an economic burden for their husband, so the practice of dowry remains endemic.

Women rights activist Ranjana Kumari (Copyright: privat)

Kumari: 'There is a common perception that women become the property of their husbands after marriage'

Without strong efforts from the government to reform cultural traditions like dowry and to improve attitudes towards women, the issue of dowry violence will continue.

Why is this custom still practiced by Indian society, despite it being illegal?

Attitudes to women and marriage remain unchanged in India, so the custom continues to be practiced throughout the country. The implementation of the legislation outlawing the age-old practice also remains limited.

Many women and families do not lodge complaints to the police, complaints are often not taken seriously and not investigated by the police, and even in cases where the husband or family members are charged, conviction rates are extremely low. As such, there is little deterrence for people continuing to make and accept dowry payment and dowry-related violence also continues almost unabated.

Why do so few perpetrators of dowry-related crimes get convicted?

There are two main reasons for the low conviction rate. The first is poor police investigations mean that there is little evidence to convict the perpetrators of dowry crimes. This can be due to limited police training and also a lack of required resources to conduct investigations. The second is corruption within the police force. Many police officers accept bribes from families of the accused and then refuse to take cases forward.

How are dowry-related crimes related to India's economic boom?

Dowry was originally meant to support new couples beginning their married life. However, it has turned into a commercial transaction that is underpinned by socio-economic standing and greed.

India's economic boom has resulted in families requesting higher and higher dowry prices, and in many cases the brides' families are unable to comply with these requests. Violence generally occurs if the husband or his family is unhappy with the dowry they have received, or if the family of the bride does not comply with further payment requests.

What is New Delhi doing to tackle the issue?

The Indian government developed the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961 to forbid the practice of dowry. Under current legislation the payment and acceptance of dowry is prohibited and dowry- related violence and deaths also receive special mention within the Indian Penal Code.

The development of this legislation was an important first step in developing a culture in which dowry is not tolerated or condoned. However, further steps are required throughout the country to address the prevalence of gender discrimination and the acceptance of violence against women, particularly within the home.

What can Indian society to prevent such crimes?

There is no short-term solution. It will take at least a generation to change the social attitude towards women and to reform our cultural traditions such as the practice of dowry. We need to educate girls and boys from an early age.

An Indian bride waits before a mass community marriage in Bahirkhand, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) north of Kolkata, India, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (Photo: AP)

'Attitudes to women and marriage remain unchanged in India'

In a country where you can kill a daughter-in-law in want of a scooter, a car or some money you won't see a change in a generation. Change will happen very slowly.

Some years ago parents advised their married daughters to stay with their husbands and in-laws even when they knew their daughters would be killed. Now we see a lot of parents supporting their daughters and rather asking them to return home than to get killed. That has changed. And this is a big step.

Dr. Ranjana Kumari is an Indian human rights activist, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research (CSR) and president of Women Power Connect (WPC), a non-profit organization focusing on gender justice.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez