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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Laws for women mere paper tigers - Madhu Kishwar - The Times of India

Laws for women mere paper tigers - by Madhu Kishwar- View From Venus - Sunday TOI - Home - The Times of India

One of the great challenges for those concerned with strengthening women's rights in India is the alarming gap between legal prescriptions on women's issues and actual practices prevalent in society. Many people expect that as women become aware of their rights, they will inevitably move in the direction of following "modern laws" enacted for their benefit. However, there is growing evidence that even among the avante-garde elite groups of our country, social behaviour runs contrary to social legislation.

For example, ever since dowry was outlawed in 1961 through the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, the practice has flourished in an unprecedented manner. Wedding expenditures have become more and more lavish. Several new amendments were made to the Act and the Indian Penal Code during the 1980's making dowry giving and taking a cognizable offence. And yet, the practice has spread to regions, castes and communities which did not have any such tradition. The biggest dowry transactions take place among the families of educated elites, especially those in high power positions in the government. High status families consider it an insult to send their daughters off to their husband's home "empty handed."

It is the same story with the law banning the use of sex determination tests (SDTs). In Delhi, SDTs invites jail terms for up to 5 years and a fine up to Rs. 100,000. And yet, the use of sex selective abortions has grown even as the law has been made increasingly stringent. This is obvious from the continuing sharp decline in sex ratio and drop in the birth rate of female babies, especially among the well-off. Doctors in the know tell you that the most persistent and desperate demand for these tests comes from senior government officers.

It is legitimate to ask: Why are these laws not followed by the parliamentarians who make them or by the police officers and judges who are supposed to implement them? I am certain that not one among the militant feminists who have campaigned to get such laws enacted can claim with honesty that in their own family circles they have successfully "abolished" the practice of dowry and in their own community families are not taking recourse to sex selective abortions.

A common response is to attribute the growing gap between social legislation and social practices to hypocrisy and double standards. When a law fails, the tendency is to blame its failure on the laxity of implementation machinery.

That is how all the failed laws are bolstered with more and more draconian provisions, while the original problem remains unsolved. Today, we are witnessing a severe backlash against feminist legislation because most of the draconian laws we have enacted lend themselves to easy misuse while genuine victims rarely manage to get justice through them. This is not to say, I support the present system of dowry, sex selective abortions or other injustices faced by women but simply to underscore the need for a more self critical and socially sensitive approach to legal reform and the need to create appropriate instruments of the state machinery that can implement social legislation with dignity and honesty.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

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