When parents in Bangladesh fail to come up with a promised dowry for their newly married daughters things can get nasty.
“He started beating me,” 22-year-old Shopna Rani said of her new husband, just hours before dying of her injuries at a Dhaka hospital: Her parents had reneged on a promise to pay the dowry.
According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), such cases in Bangladesh are nothing new.
“This is a social cancer. It continues unabated and everybody suffers,” Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, an ALRC programme officer, told IRIN.
Dowry-related violence - including torture, acid attacks and even murder and suicide - also stigmatizes women, the group says.
In the first half of 2009, 119 cases of dowry-related violence, including 78 deaths, were reported, said Ain O Salish Kendro (ASK), a local NGO working for human rights.
In 2008, 172 women were killed and the figure for 2007 was 187, ASK said, adding that there were at least five reported cases of women committing suicide in the first half of this year when dowries went unpaid.
“There are terrible stories of suffering,” Ashrafuzzaman said, adding that the problem is more prevalent in poverty-afflicted rural parts of the country. Dowry payments - ranging from hundreds to thousands of US dollars - can impoverish a girl’s family overnight.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Burdensome dowry payments fuel poverty|
According to a study (see an abstract here) by Peter Davis, a former lecturer at the Centre for Development Studies at Bath University in the UK, dowry payments of more than 200 times the average daily wage and costly medical expenses are major causes of chronic poverty.
“Some families face a ‘double whammy’, having to pay wedding expenses and dowry for their daughters at the same time in life as elderly relatives are needing more expensive medical care,” said Davis, who spent several months in the country conducting interviews with families for the study.
But according to Ashrafuzzaman, it is not just the poor who are suffering.
Girls, regardless of their education or social standing, have little choice but to provide a dowry. Most marriages do not take place until details of the dowry are finalized and agreed, say activists.
|Some women have suffered acid attacks after their families failed to pay dowries|
In 1980, Bangladesh banned dowries, and sanctions were imposed: Those taking or demanding a dowry face imprisonment, a fine, or both. But the practice continues.
“In some cases, the law is effective and in some cases it is not. Mainly for lack of cooperation from the family members, women do not get the required support from the law,” Sara Hossain, a prominent lawyer and human right activist, told IRIN.
Others blame the government. “Of course there is a law, but this law has been ineffective given the dysfunctional nature of the country’s judicial system,” Ashrafuzzaman said, noting how perpetrators often pay off officials to avoid arrest.
“They manipulate the system and ultimately the problem continues,” he said.
Some NGOs like ASK and the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) offer victims legal support, but many victims do not want it.
“Some victims do not want to continue the legal battle against their husbands for fear of their husbands,” Elina Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Manabadhikar Bastobayan Sangstha (BSEHR), a local NGO working for human rights, told IRIN.
As most victims come from poorer families, losing the shelter of the husband’s home can be a particularly frightening prospect.
Asked how best to combat the problem, human rights activist Hossain cited the need to change the “get rich quick” mentality among poorer men who use their wife’s parents’ money to better secure their own futures.
“This mentality has to be changed to stop dowry violence. A mass social awareness campaign can change this mentality,” she said.