Dowry death is considered one of the many categories of violence against women, alongside rape, bride burning, eve teasing, and acid throwing. It is widespread in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and some regions of Africa. Pakistan has the highest reported rates of dowry-related deaths of women in the world.
Most dowry deaths occur when the young woman, unable to bear the harassment and torture, commits suicide. Most of these suicides are by hanging, poisoning or by fire. Sometimes the woman is killed by setting herself on fire; this is known as "bride burning", and sometimes disguised as suicide or accident. Death by burning of Indian women have been more frequently attributed to dowry conflicts. In dowry deaths, the groom’s family is perpetrator of murder or suicide.
India has by far the highest number of dowry related deaths in the world according to Indian National Crime Record Bureau. In 2010, 8391 dowry death cases were reported across India This means a bride was burned every 90 minutes, or dowry issues cause 1.4 deaths per year per 100,000 women in India. For contextual reference, the United Nations reports a worldwide average female homicide rate of 3.6 per 100,000 women, and an average of 1.6 homicides per 100,000 women for Northern Europe in 2012. Although India's dowry death rate per 100,000 is lower than equivalent rate for Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is a significant social issue in India.
According to Indian police, every year it receives over 2,500 reports of bride-burning  The Indian National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that there were about 8172 dowry death cases registered in India in 2008. Incidents of dowry deaths during the year 2008 (8172) have increased by 14.4 per cent over 1998 level (7146), while India's population grew at 17.6% over the 10 year period. The accuracy of these figures have received a great deal of scrutiny from critics who believe dowry deaths are consistently under-reported
The Dowry Prohibition Act, passed in India in 1961, prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of a dowry, "as consideration for the marriage", where "dowry" is defined as a gift demanded or given as a precondition for a marriage. Gifts given without a precondition are not considered dowry, and are legal. Asking or giving of dowry can be punished by an imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to 5000 (US$84, £51 or A$91). It replaced several pieces of anti-dowry legislation that had been enacted by various Indian states. Murder and suicide under compulsion are addressed by India's criminal penal code.
Indian women's rights activists campaigned for more than 40 years to contain dowry deaths, such as the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 and the more stringent Section 498a of IPC (enacted in 1983). Using the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) implemented in 2006, a woman can put a stop to the dowry harassment by approaching a domestic violence protection officer.
The fight to end dowry deaths in India and other countries has not been confined to these nations' borders. Reports of these incidents have attracted a great deal of public interest and have sparked a global activist movement seeking to end the practice. Of this activist community, the United Nations (UN) has played a pivotal role in ending not only dowry deaths, but violence against women as a whole.
The UN has been an advocate for women's rights since its inception in 1945, explicitly stating so in its Charter’s Preamble, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in 1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (also adopted in 1966) (these three documents are known collectively as the International Bill of Rights) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (2012).
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), though predominately focused on improving the quality of education available to children globally, has also taken a proactive stance against dowry death. On March 9 (International Women's Day), 2009, at a press conference in Washington D.C., UNICEF's Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman, publicly condemned dowry deaths and the legislative systems which allow the culprits to go unpunished. In 2009 UNICEF launched its first Strategic Priority Action Plan for Gender Equality, which was followed by a second Action Plan in 2010. The aim of these plans has been to make gender equality a higher priority within all international UNICEF programs and functions.
Amnesty International, in an effort to educate the public, has cited dowry deaths as a major contributor to global violence against women. Also, in their annual human rights evaluations, Amnesty International criticizes India for the occurrences of dowry deaths as well as the impunity provided to its perpetrators.
Human Rights Watch has also criticized the Indian government for its inability to make any progress towards eliminating dowry deaths and its lackluster performance for bringing its perpetrators to justice in 2011. In 2004, the Global Fund for Women launched its "Now or Never" funding project. This campaign hopes to raise funds domestically and consequently finance the efforts of feminist organizations across the globe - including Indian women's rights activists. As of 2007 the Now or Never fund has raised and distributed about $7 million.
A relatively smaller organization, V-Day, has dedicated itself to ending violence against women. By arranging events such as plays, art shows, and workshops in communities and college campuses across the United States, V-Day raises funds and educates the public on topics of gender-based violence including dowry death.
Despite a considerable amount of activism both globally and domestically, and the passage of international and domestic laws, dowry deaths remain persistent and their perpetrators consistently go unpunished. Although India officially ratified the terms and conditions of CEDAW in 2000, several organizations including the United Nations and the aforementioned Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticize the nation for not adhering to its terms. India’s reluctance to obey CEDAW’s mandates began before the nation even ratified it. When originally presented with CEDAW, the Republic of India’s initial report contained two Declaratory Statements and one Reservation. The first Declaratory Statement was written as follows:
"With regard to Article 16 (a call to the end of the discrimination against women in all matters of family and marriage relations) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the government of the Republic of India declares that it shall abide by and ensure these provisions in conformity with its policy of non-interference in the personal affairs of any community without its initiative and consent."
The second Declaratory Statement was written as follows:
“With regard to the [second part of] Article 16 (a mandate requiring the registration of all marriages with the government) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the government of the Republic of India declares that it agrees to the principle of compulsory registration of marriages. However, failure to get the marriage registered, will not invalidate the marriage particularly in India with its variety of customs, religions and level of literacy.”
India's only Reservation was written as follows:
“With regard to Article 29 (the compulsory adjudication of any and all disputes over interpretation to an International court of law) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the government of the Republic of India declares that it does not consider itself bound by paragraph 1 of this Article.”
In the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’s response to India’s Initial Report, several problems were noted. In addition to concerns regarding the Republic of India’s Declarations and Reservation, the Committee found that in matters related to dowry: the initial support lacked sufficient statistical data; India needs to strengthen its laws to prevent acts of violence and harassment for dowry. In addition to these aforementioned nation-specific aspects which make adherence to international laws a complicated process, there also exists a great deal of fundamental obstacles to overcome when a nation adapts international laws for use within its borders. When organizations like the United Nations develop legislation to be applied in several countries the local contexts are ignored. Particularly visible within the realm of human rights legislation, the attempt to create a universal, “one-size-fits-all” notion of social justice leads to friction when the global vision for equality does not cohere perfectly with the already well-established structure of an individual nation. This dilemma is well illustrated by India’s reluctance to ratify CEDAW and its initial Declarations and Reservation.
In Pakistan, dowry is called Jahez. Dowry related violence and deaths have been widespread for many decades. At over 2000 dowry-related deaths per year, and annual rates exceeding 2.45 deaths per 100,000 women from dowry-related violence, Pakistan has the highest reported number of dowry death rates per 100,000 women in the world.
There is some controversy on the dowry death rates in Pakistan. Some publications suggest Pakistan officials do not record dowry deaths, the death rates are culturally under-reported and may be significantly higher. For example, Nasrullah reports total average annual stove burn rates of 33 per 100,000 women in Pakistan, of which 49% were intentional, or an average annual rate of about 16 per 100,000 women.
Pakistan passed Dowry and Marriage Gifts (Restriction) Bill in 2008, unanimously. The bill restricts dowry to PKR 30,000 (~US$ 300) while the total value of bridal gifts should not exceed PKR 50,000. The law made dowry demands by groom's family illegal, as well as public display of dowry before or during the wedding as illegal. However, this and similar anti-dowry laws of 1967, 1976 and 1998, as well as Family Court Act of 1964 have proven to be unenforceable in Pakistan. Activists such as SACHET, Pakistan claim the police refuse to register and prosecute allegations of dowry-related domestic violence and fatal injuries.
Various military and democratically elected civil governments in Pakistan have tried to outlaw traditional display of dowry and expensive parties (walima). One such attempt was the Act of 1997, Ordinance (XV) of 1998 and the Ordinance (III) of 1999. These were challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The petitioner cited a number of hadiths under religious Sharia laws to demonstrate that Islam encouraged walima and related customary practices. Pakistan government's effort to enact these laws are against the injunctions of Islam, claimed the petitioner. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, ruled these laws and ordinances as unconstitutional.
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In Bangladesh, dowry is called joutuk, and a significant cause of deaths as well. Between 0.6 to 2.8 brides per year per 100,000 women are reported to die because of dowry-related violence in recent years. The methods of death include suicides, fire and other forms of domestic violence.
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- Section 1-4, Dowry Act
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- Crime in Marriages, a Broad Spectrum, by Poornima Advani. Published by Gopushi Publishers, 1994.
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- Article by women's activist Madhu Kishwar
- Indian National Crime Bureau Data on Dowry Deaths
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- - National Commission for Women, (NCW) India
- Death of two women due to dowry demands
- Leaders of community call for an end to lavish wedding celebrations
- Dowry Disgrace and Suicides
- Most dowry victims in State of Punjab(India) are poisoned