India’s top court has accused the country’s women of misusing a law created to protect them from harassment by their husbands and in-laws.
The anti-dowry law introduced in 1983 was originally designed to safeguard women from abuse and sometimes death in the hands of relatives but the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the act was now being “ used as weapons” by “disgruntled wives.”
“The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested,” the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad, in a 21-page order said.
In some cases, “bed-ridden grand-fathers and grand-mothers of the husbands, their sisters living abroad for decades are arrested,” the order noted.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau statistics, nearly 200,000 people, including 47,951 women, were arrested in regard to dowry offences in 2012, but only 15% of the accused were convicted.
The judges reminded authorities they must follow a so-called nine-point checklist that has been part of the anti-dowry law before noting down a dowry-related complaint.
In case the police make an arrest, a magistrate must approve further detention of the accused, the court ruled.
Paying and accepting gifts associated with a marriage otherwise known as a dowry is an ancient tradition among most Indian families where parents of the bride give cash, clothes and jewelry to the family of the groom. As the demands grew over time, women were subject to harassment, beatings and were even burned to death for failing to bring adequate wealth into the husband’s family.
The practice was outlawed in 1961 but this act of giving at weddings has remained a common practice in India.
Under laws introduced in 1983, a complaint allowed for immediate arrest of the accused, often the husband and his family.
In spite of laws that are supposed to serve as a deterrent, India continues to see a rise in the number of reported dowry-related deaths. More than 8,600 cases where women died from dowry-related harassment were registered in India in 2011, up from 8,391 the year before and just over 6,000 in 2002, according to the latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau.
Women activists and legal experts slammed the court’s ruling.
Naina Kapur, a New Delhi-based lawyer who works on human rights said the court “while trying to strike a balance in society has stereotyped women.”
Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research said that “If the law is being misused, according to the Supreme Court, then it is the law enforcement agencies that need to be blamed and not women in society.”