Thushara weighed only 20 kilos when she was brought dead to a hospital in Kollam. The 27-year-old Kerala woman had allegedly been starved to death by her in-laws in March this year. A victim of dowry harassment, Thushara’s autopsy revealed that she had also been beaten and tortured before she died.
Just a month after Thushara’s death, another 27-year-old woman, Kalaiselvi, from Salem in Tamil Nadu, was allegedly set on fire by her husband and in-laws after they demanded dowry. Kalaiselvi had reportedly gone to the police multiple times, but each time, was simply asked to undergo counseling and go back to her husband. In Kalaiselvi’s case, the abuse allegedly began from day one. She filed two complaints with the police, but was not attended to. Every time she was sent back, the physical and mental abuse continued. With no help from parents or the law enforcement, she was allegedly killed.
More recently, the shocking video of domestic violence that took place in the home of a retired Telangana High Court judge brought to light the alleged dowry harassment the woman, Sindhu, was facing at the hands of her husband and in-laws.
Such cases are reported very often in the media and in a number of them, the stories we hear are eerily similar. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, dowry harassment claimed the life of 7838 women in the country in 2017. TNM has reported in the past on how, in many cases, the women’s parents continue to send them back to abusive marital homes for various reasons. And sometimes, the women end up paying with their lives.
There are many reasons parents and families force women to go back to their abusive marital homes, most of them pertaining to keeping up patriarchal social structures, and social stigma. This compounds the distrust women feel towards law enforcement, the hurdles they face in accessing justice and socio-legal remedies. Ultimately, these factors can push women into facing violence and abuse in silence, lawyers and police officials say.
What happens when the victim is sent back?
Akhila RS, a lawyer based in Chennai, points out that dowry, though criminalised under section 498A of the Indian Penal Code and the Dowry Prohibition Act, still enjoys social sanction. She explains that many of the financial transactions - like expensive gifts, cars, jewelry - that take place in weddings could also be seen as dowry. And so, the expectation of something more even after the wedding does not always come as a surprise, despite its illegality.
However, when a woman’s family gives in to these demands, and sends her back with money and other provisions, Akhila argues that they “are not protecting the woman, but making her more vulnerable to further harassment, including physical violence.”
“It’s like putting a bandaid. They are so averse to the idea of a broken marriage that even if it settles the situation for a year, they are willing to take give in to demands. But in doing so, families are not being cognizant of the underlying problem,” she says.
Jayna Kothari, a senior Supreme Court advocate, adds, “Sending her back gives the husband’s family the impression that domestic violence is tolerated, putting the woman’s life and wellbeing at further risk. Violence is violence, needs to be taken seriously, and should not be normalised.”
How this prevents her from seeking legal remedies
Depriving a victim of support often prevents her from seeking legal and social welfare remedies. “We have seen very minimal cases where a woman takes legal recourse when the family is completely against her interests. Usually, she won’t even file a complaint without support from the family,” Jayna says.
Mithun Shilpi, Inspector at RT Nagar Police Station in Bengaluru, shares that in most cases, women are reluctant to file a complaint because of pressure from their parents to go back to their husbands. “This happens a lot to women who do not have financial independence. Most times, her husband’s family does not allow her to work or become financially independent. Her parents don’t want to bear expenses of looking after her and end up telling the woman to adjust,” Mithun explains.
While financial independence helps – especially when her family is not supporting her, Akhila says it is still extremely difficult - emotionally, physically and mentally - to carry a case to prosecution if the woman does not have a support system.
Staying in that violent environment has a terrible effect on the woman, observes a senior police official from Bengaluru. “It generally breaks their will to come forward and file a complaint. In some cases where we followed up, women said that they were emotionally drained and could not bear to through the due process,” says the official.
Even when cases do go to court, family pressure to make the marriage work often compels victims to turn hostile. “Such cases don’t stand a chance in court because the only witness is the victim, and they will have to keep coming to court for the trials alone,” the senior police official adds.
Lack of family support also prevents women from seeking counseling, medical help and other remedies that can help a victim of domestic violence, Akhila says.
A flawed criminal justice system
In 2017, the Supreme Court passed an order saying there should be no immediate arrests of the husband and his family under section 498A, and Family Welfare Committees should be set up to look into all the cases filed under the section to prevent its ‘misuse’. The next year, after protests over dilution of the law, Supreme Court modified its order, restoring the immediate arrest provision, with a rider that those arrested could approach court for bail.
However, even though the perception of widespread misuse of the law is not based on any comprehensive evidence, police officials generally register the FIR immediately only if there are visible injuries from the violence. A police official in Karnataka tells TNM that unless there is direct evidence of torture, the couple is first sent for counseling to Parihar, a family counseling centre.
In some cases, this has helped. At a police station, surrounded by her family, the woman who hasn’t been able to speak openly has confided about her ordeal to a counselor, police officials say. In other cases however, the lack of prompt and legal action against the husband and his family have just allowed the abuse to continue.
Akhila points out that though there are remedies and laws available, the Indian criminal justice system is flawed, biased and sometimes corrupt. Lawyers say that many times, police turn women away, telling them to solve their ‘domestic’ matters at home. And while in some cases just going to the police might make the husband and his family cautious, in other cases, the woman who is sent back becomes vulnerable to further violence for showing defiance.
Abha Singh, a former bureaucrat and lawyer practicing in the Bombay High Court, recounts a case where a woman facing dowry harassment was sent back by the police. She later died by suicide. “But her husband’s family bribed the police officials to say that her suicide was a result of her depression. They were not even booked for abetment to suicide,” Abha alleges. “If she had the support of her own family, if they stood by her at the police station, they would have been compelled to take her complaint.”
The fear of being dismissed by the police also makes women wary of approaching them, especially if they do not have a support system. A retired police official acknowledges, “There have been cases where the police have accepted bribes from the man’s side and refrained from filing a complaint. It is the years of slighting dowry cases that makes women apprehensive of the police. Not all police officers are corrupt, but few bad eggs make the whole force look bad.”
Respecting women’s autonomy
Not all women who are in abusive marriages want to separate from their husbands or have them arrested – some just want the violence to stop. “Initially, when women approach us, it is only to scare the husbands,” says a senior police officer. Others may not want a criminal case, but civil remedies, like maintenance, and shelter, for which they pursue the case under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.
Even so, the prerogative about what she wants to do – whether she just wants her husband to change, or she wants to pursue criminal or civil proceedings – should be only with the woman. And her family, as well as the police, should take that into account.
“There is no requirement for counseling before taking the complaint,” points out Jayna. “The onus should be on what the woman wants with the police – whether it’s just a talking to for the husband, or whether she wants to file a complaint.”
Akhila states, “Don’t take away her autonomy; don’t make decisions on her behalf. Take her through the process, get her adequate help. Let her make the decision, but help them make the decision. We cannot decide what is right and wrong for her.”