TNM spoke to a 22-year-old Sandhya from Tamil Nadu who is now filing for divorce from her husband, after enduring harassment from him and his family for years.

Silhouette of a woman with long hair looking out of the windowImage Credit: Picxy.com/DREAMWORKS
Delve Dowry harassment Monday, August 09, 2021 - 19:59

In this series on dowry harassment, we explore the structural challenges that women face, what stops them from leaving abusive marriages, and the takeaways from their experiences which could help others.  

The wind blowing against the auto rickshaw hit Sandhya’s* face as butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Sathish*, 27, the man driving the auto to drop her at college was the reason for the adrenaline rush. The short early morning rides were exciting. To Sandhya, 18, it felt like the beginning of something new, a lifelong journey for the couple perhaps. But little did she know that she was hurtling headfirst into marital hell. 

Sandhya wed Sathish in late 2017 against her parents wishes. She was then a second year B Com Honours student in Theni’s Periyakulam. He was a 27-year-old autodriver. The couple stayed at Sathish’s parents house in Kailasapatti, 3 kms away from Sandhya’s house. It was here, Sandhya recalls, that she endured unspeakable abuse and harassment for dowry from her husband and his family over the course of her marriage.

Four years and two pregnancies later, Sandhya, now 22, has finally left Sathish and filed for divorce and custody of her child. But when asked why she didn’t leave earlier, she says the sense of finality that comes with marriage, mainly due to social pressure, stopped her from leaving him. “I just believed that this was my fate. I married him despite opposition from my parents and although my parents began to support us later, I felt that I could not opt for divorce because I had chosen this out of love,” she explains.

Dowry still enjoys social acceptance

It all started six months into her first pregnancy, Sandhya recalls. Sathish stopped all work and developed a drinking habit. A few months into her pregnancy, Sandhya too quit her job. With no income, they had to shift to a small rented house as her in-laws found them to be financially burdensome. It was here that Sathish and his family began to relentlessly demand dowry while Sandhya was in her third trimester of pregnancy. “It was my parents who finally repaired their relationship with me and paid our monthly rent, deposit and took care of my hospital expenses. Sathish did not contribute anything,” she says. 

Despite the mental pressure, insults from her in-laws, lack of financial support and her husband’s drinking habit, Sandhya remained in the marriage as she was going to start a family soon and believed that things would change with a baby. However, tragedy struck once again as she lost her child in 2018, soon after she delivered. 

The loss of her child significantly worsened Sandhya’s already strained relationship with her in-laws, who squarely blamed the child's death on her. Not only did she endure character assassination and body-shaming at Sathish’s house, the demands for dowry became even more aggressive from her in-laws, she says. 

“Sathish and his family had many demands. He wanted a bike, cash and gold. My parents were not in a position to give any of this,” she says, adding that although she now realises that demanding dowry is a punishable offence, back then she was unaware of dowry harassment as it is deeply ingrained in marriages in the country. The continuing societal pressures ensured that her parents too caved in. Over several months, Sandhya’s father gave Sathish Rs 50,000 and even bought him a bike, in addition to taking care of his expenses. “But they always wanted more and more,” she says. 

An all too common tale 

Sandhya’s story is not a one-off case. “I have seen women, old and young, with children and without children, rich and not rich come to me with dowry harassment complaints. It is not limited to a particular caste or economic class,” explains Akila RS, a practicing advocate at the Madras High Court and a family law expert who has taken up several dowry-related violence and divorce cases in her career. According to Akila, enforcement of law in dowry cases gets tricky due to its social acceptance. “You see a car parked in front of a wedding hall, or the bride’s parents giving ‘gifts’ to the groom. Dowry is practiced covertly and openly in multiple ways. But fact remains no matter how well camouflaged, it is still a social evil,” she explains. 

According to the 2019 National Crime Records Bureau Crime in India data, Tamil Nadu reported 28 dowry deaths for the year - a number which has reduced significantly since the previous years. In 2019, Tamil Nadu reported 237 incidents of dowry harassment and 239 victims, according to this data. However, things worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. During the lockdown months of 2020 (March to November), the State Women’s Commission received more than 252 dowry harassment complaints in Tamil Nadu. A Times of India report from November 2020 says that the most number of complaints were received from Chennai, Kancheepuram and Thiruvallur districts and that these were 20% percent higher than the complaints received in the same months in 2019. 

However, this statistic is only the tip of the iceberg, notes Akila, as several women and their families hesitate to report dowry-related harassment and violence due to multiple factors. 

Marriages, even abusive ones, enjoy social sanction 

Perhaps the most important factor which prevents women from leaving abusive marriages is the stigma against divorce and the social sanction marriages enjoy, Akila says. The false sense of permanence attached to the institution of marriage ensures that Sandhya and scores of women like her feel they cannot escape the nightmare of marital abuse and dowry harassment. In Sandhya’s case, she says that Sathish would come home drunk and physically assault her. Despite this, she continued to live with him fearing social backlash and exclusion, she says. 

“He used to come home drunk and beat me black and blue and demand money from me when I was fully pregnant with my second baby,” she recalls. In one particularly painful memory, Sandhya says that Sathish assaulted her in front of his parents near a petrol pump.

Particularly for women who marry for love and lose their family’s support, leaving an abusive marriage can be tricky for fear of being blamed despite being victims. “It could be lack of moral and financial support, social stigma and fear of exclusion, the sense of permanence of marriage, lack of financial independence etc that deter women from taking the step,” Akila explains. 

In many cases, the woman decides to not leave the marriage for the sake of her children. “Fear of losing custody of the children or having to fend for the children by herself, among other concerns, can prompt her to take the step,” she adds. 

Stringent divorce laws disadvantage women 

Moreover, fear of approaching institutions such as courts and police stations and the rigmarole which follows the legal path, besides the stigma attached to these institutions, further deter women from accessing help. The only way to break the toxic cycle is to create awareness about the various options women have when they experience dowry harassment and to convince them to not fall for stigma and social pressures. 

But experts also believe there is a pressing need to liberalise the option available to women, making divorce less cumbersome for them.

Unlike in other jurisdictions, the Indian marriage laws make it tough for couples to get a divorce. “Under Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act, unless a divorce is filed on mutual consent (where both parties want to get the divorce), the  partner seeking a divorce will need to prove allegations of cruelty, infidelity etc. in court,” she says. This prompts many couples to instead opt for separation without a formal divorce. This needs to change,” Akila says. 

Economics of marriage do not favour women 

An important factor to consider while liberalising grounds for divorce is the economics of marriage itself, says Akila. “Presently, Indian laws fall short of provisions for equitable distribution of matrimonial property during a divorce. This tilts the divorce in the man’s favour, as in most cases he is the breadwinner of the family,” she explains. 

Akila adds that many Indian women sacrifice their careers to run the house post marriage. Their years of labour go unrewarded and if it ends in divorce, they are left with no automatic claim to spousal or matrimonial property (assets acquired during the period of marriages). “This leaves them with little financial autonomy which stops them from getting divorced,” Akila explains. 

Across the world, several jurisdictions have laws focusing on distribution of marital property between partners. In India, there are legal resources such as maintenance money and alimony which almost “feels like charity” as it involves the man paying the woman for livelihood. 

Access to resources 

Several NGO and government verticals are dedicated towards addressing domestic abuse and dowry harassment against women. Perhaps the most important tool at hand in Tamil Nadu is the 181 women’s helpline under the state Social Welfare Department. 

“The calls come to 181 and are directed depending on the case. For dowry cases, we initially direct them to the One Stop Crisis Centre or SAKHI, and then the protection officer and later the District Social Welfare Officer,” says Sherin Bosco, founder of the NGO Nakshatra and the psychosocial expert at 181. 

The One Stop Crisis Centre functions to provide “integrated support and assistance to women affected by violence.To facilitate immediate, emergency and non-emergency access to a range of services including medical, legal, psychological and counselling to fight against any forms of violence against women.” Apart from the state, dedicated NGOs such as the PCVC (International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care) extend support to women and queer individuals who affected by domestic and interpersonal violence. 

Change comes with awareness

“Educating parents of girl children on progressive ideas about marriage - the fact that it need not be an unbreakable bond in the face of abuse, violence and harassment, to identify dowry demands and report them formally - is important. There is also a need to increase accessibility to resources at hand to reach out to for reporting of dowry cases, as well outreach out to those facing dowry violence,” Akila adds. 

“I was riddled with guilt and a fatalistic attitude toward marriage, partly because of the circumstances of my love marriage and because I had grown up with a certain understanding of what it means to be a wife. But nobody deserves unhappiness... and if I had strongly believed this earlier, despite what society told me, I would have left my marriage long ago,” Sandhya says.

*Names changed to protect survivor's identity 

Read: After attempts on life, this dowry harassment survivor is getting back on her feet

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