Monday, January 12, 2009

India Anti-Dowry Law - Fallacy and Shallow Thinking

Anti-dowry law must have sting - according to Ms. Brinda Karat, a leading legislator in India. She isn't alone in asking, and she has many women and men politician friends who will go on writing such laws in the name of protecting married or marriageable women. Unfortunately, these haven't worked the way they imagined, and they don't think through the damage they do to society, nor the havoc wreaked on individual families. Here is why these laws are fallacies, and represent shallow thinking of the underlying problem.

The law creates new and more victims:
The law recognizes gifts are possible, so it only states "demand" for dowry is illegal. But, when someone complains, how can a court really distinguish if there was demand or if it was willingly given? How can police sensibly investigate from "He said this" and "She said that" remarks from hostile parties? They cannot, and they don't kill themselves doing so - instead just make arrests and charge them. Such ambiguity provides ample opportunity for corruption, and it is effectively used to make money by police, lawyers and even judges. Check out the 498a website for "victims" of this law, and read the Canada and US department of state travel advisory. Educated women in urban areas readily use this law to negotiate a good deal on divorce as well. Indian Supreme court has admitted the law is misused and there are victims of such laws, but yet held it constitutional as it also believes this will solve real problems as well.

The law does little or nothing to real dowry victims: Most people don't use police and courts, or use them as the last resort, especially when it comes to family and marital issues. There is fear, shame and stigma to this approach. This is similar to employees' law suits that become a public record, which can seriously limit career prospects. It is only a law that helps in taking revenge, which goes against the goal of resolving conflicts and creating a healthy family relationship. Uneducated women are the most likely victims, and the law is rigid keeping exactly them in mind, but it doesn't realize most of them are unlikely to come to police and courts to solve their issues. What courts are mostly doing is an academic exercise, and the painstakingly long process is unlikely to make the intended changes to society. It is also expensive in terms of time and money spent on courts, police, disrupting families productivity, on something that isn't going to work or have any effect, and the resources could otherwise be well spent on addressing other critical issues.

The law will manifest dowry in other ways: Marriage in any society will involve such financial exchanges, gifts, and considerations. Even Mumbai was offered as dowry in history. Just today - an undocumented California man wanted to marry off his minor daughter in exchange for $16000 dowry. By nature, women look for financially successful men (either with good income or good assets), and likewise there seems to be a natural untold reverse need for the woman to bring something to the table. If not dowry , this may manifest in the form of "working woman". Many educated communities actually pride themselves of not seeking dowry, but the cash flows are addressed by imposing a condition that the bride needs to be working, and salary expectations are checked out in advance. Many men will happily marry a doctor woman without expectations. The point is the draconian laws will not solve the problem, but will only steer the society in another direction - which is ok, but that can be accomplished in other sensible ways.

The law will create new problems if implemented effectively: The risk premium will only go up for uneducated or unsuccessful women, and other innovations will manifest so they can be married off. Or, those like Indians abroad will look for brides in other countries, since it isn't worth the risk of marrying an Indian woman. Or, families will become more cautious, live under different roofs to avoid legal problems, conduct in a more contractual manner, which goes against the intent of preserving relationship based society (see my other blog on Mr. Gurumurthy's views on India being a strong relationship based society).

This "problem" of financial expectations before and during marriage cannot be solved, but can only be managed so it doesn't get out of hand. In fact, Ms. Brinda Karat admits the laws are stringent, but says there is a "conspiracy of silence that prevents action to stop it", and this is why she is opining that it isn't working in changing a patriarchical society and notions around women. The remedy is not more draconian laws or enforcing such laws, but to enact sensible laws and policies that can drive change. It might help to think along the following lines:
  • Educate women aggressively since the "working woman" alternative is a better option, as individual freedoms are established.
  • Register all marriages, and enforce registration of gifts exchanged at time of marriage, allowing pre-nuptial agreements, thus closing loose ends that allow ambiguity.
  • For those already married and finding a way out from the perpetual demands, provide laws that allow quick and easy divorce options, while enforcing spousal support and property distribution.
  • Don't criminalize the issue and drive people to a corner. Allow room for negotiation by making it a civil case involving financial transactions.
Providing flexible and fair options for conflict resolution is the right solution. It may be too much to ask for from current generation of legislators, but as the generations change and Indians embrace western style of living, the laws will eventually change. Changes like liberalizing the economy, current security revamp were reactive rather than proactive, and similarly some day the laws will change dramatically. Until then, some families will continue to find out the hard way that in marrying an Indian woman, the risk versus reward was not worth it.

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