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Demand for dowries poison marriages

Young Bihari girls cover their faces with clothes apparently trying to hide their age.

Young Bihari girls cover their faces with clothes apparently trying to hide their age.

Published Jan 25, 2012


Farzana Yasmin sought a divorce just hours after her wedding when her new husband's family demanded dowry payments.

Despite the stigma of divorce in Bangladesh, she is not worried about her future.

She wants other women to be brave enough to maintain their dignity in the face of dowry demands that have destroyed the happiness of millions of women in the Muslim-majority South Asian country, and led to numerous deaths.

“I am not worried about myself, but I want the movement I began to continue,” said Yasmin, a university graduate in her late 20s who works as an insurance agent in the capital Dhaka.

“If I don't protest, who else will do it? We have to start somewhere,” she said.

Yasmin was widely lauded for her on-the-spot decision to divorce in the southern district of Barguna after her groom's aunt demanded various goods on the first visit to her in-laws' home.

“I will stick to my decision,” she said.

The groom, Shawkat Ali Khan, a schoolteacher, contradicted her account, saying there was a misunderstanding and that things would be all right again.

Not many young women in Bangladesh are as courageous as Yasmin and few would protest at demands from their husband's family for a dowry.

And it is a matter of bravery. Violence related to dowries has resulted in the deaths of more than 2 000 women in Bangladesh in the last decade.

The government outlawed the practice over 30 years ago, but it persists and is still taking a heavy toll.

In the first nine months of 2011, dowry-related violence caused the deaths of 268 women compared to 137 the previous year, according to Bangladesh Mahila Parishad women's rights organisation, based on monitoring of media reports.

Jannatul Akhter Rima, a divorcee, said her husband used to beat her nearly every other day even though her father gave 50 000 taka (595 US dollars) as a dowry. Bangladesh' gross domestic product per capita was 692 dollars in 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“He wants more and more, but my poor father is unable to meet his demand,” said Riman. She complained to Lalbagh police in Dhaka after her husband sent divorce papers when she failed to hand over 20 000 taka more.

Cases of torture are numerous, said Ayesha Khanam of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad.

“Many things have been changed over the years except the mindset about the dowry. I think it is a manifestation of an extreme patriarchal mindset. We need to work more to change the mindset to ensure women's dignity,” Khanam told dpa.

The dowry issue has come to the fore since the divorce granted to Yasmin, who said both parties had agreed not to include any dowry in the marriage.

But she said the groom's aunt then requested earrings, a bed, a fridge and a motorcycle from her family, demands which the groom backed.

The groom said there was no reason to demand a dowry, because his family is well-off.

Women's rights activists praised Yasmin, saying society needs women like her to mobilise public opinion. They also said women need to be economically stronger.

Paying a dowry in cash or goods to the husband during marriage is a custom in Bangladesh, even though it goes against Islamic rules.

“It is difficult to say when Muslims in the Indian subcontinent adopted the culture of dowry for a man,” said Syed Anwar Husain, a professor of history at Dhaka University.

Whatever the origins of the dowry custom, husbands often beat their wives if her family is unable or unwilling to pay.

Those cultural arrangements, based on need as well as greed, violate the dignity of women and the quality of their personal relationships, said Sigma Huda, chairwoman of the Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights.

“We have no alternative but to launch social movements to get rid of this sickness,” said Huda, also a lawyer, adding that dowries put women in a difficult position and hamper social development.

State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury said there are laws to prevent these abuses, but they are not enough.

She suggested a massive awareness campaign.

“The government has undertaken number of projects targeting enhancement of women and all of society needs to respond to these problems in a fitting manner to get rid of them.” - Sapa-dpa

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