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Dowry deaths are found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran. India reports the highest total number of dowry deaths with 8,391 such deaths reported in 2010, 1.4 deaths per 100,000 women. Adjusted for population, Pakistan, with 2,000 reported such deaths per year, has the highest rate of dowry death at 2.45 per 100,000 women.
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 the 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 2012, 18,233 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. 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 a 1996 report by 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 8331 dowry death cases registered in India in 2011. 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 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 ₹5,000 (US$74, £52 or A$100). 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 Indian Penal Code (enacted in 1983). Under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA), a woman can put a stop to the dowry harassment by approaching a domestic violence protection officer.
Although Indian laws against dowries have been in effect for decades, they have been largely criticised as being ineffective. The practice of dowry deaths and murders continues to take place unchecked in many parts of India and this has further added to the concerns of enforcement.
In Pakistan, the giving and expectation of a dowry (called Jahez) is part of the culture, with over 95% of marriages in every region of Pakistan involving transfer of a dowry from the bride's family to a groom's family.
Dowry deaths have been rising in Pakistan for decades. 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's Dowry and Marriage Gifts (Restriction) Bill, 2008, restricts dowry to PKR 30,000 (~US$300) while the total value of bridal gifts is limited to PKR 50,000. The law made demands for a dowry by the groom's family illegal, as well as public display of dowry before or during the wedding. 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. 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 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. The petitioner claimed that the Pakistan government's effort to enact these laws are against the injunctions of Islam. The Supreme Court ruled these laws and ordinances unconstitutional.
In Bangladesh, dowry is called joutuk, and a significant cause of deaths as well. Between 0.6 and 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. In 2013, Bangladesh reported 4,470 women were victims of dowry-related violence over a 10-month period, or dowry violence victimized about 7.2 brides per year per 100,000 women in Bangladesh.
Dowry is an ancient custom of Persia, and locally called jahīz (sometimes spelled jahaz or jaheez, جﮩیز). Dowry-related violence and deaths in Iran are reported in Iranian newspapers, some of which appear in English media. Kiani et al., in a 2014 study, report dowry deaths in Iran.
International efforts at eradication
Reports of incidents of dowry deaths have attracted public interest and sparked a global activist movement seeking to end the practice. Of this activist community, the United Nations (UN) has played a pivotal role in combating violence against women, including dowry deaths.
The United Nations 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. Full-length plays on dowry deaths include 'The Bride Who Would Not Burn'
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