The dowry curse

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Recently, with a view to saving divorced women the ordeal of litigation over dowry items, the Lahore High Court (LHC) advised the Punjab government to ensure that marriage certificates contain details and lists of dowry items. This is, of course, done with the best of intentions. However, the realities of Pakistani state and society may well nullify such good intentions.
Consider: already a law exists, dating back to 1976 to deal with this very issue and ease the burden on brides and families, who under the pressure of culture and society are forced to pay monetary compensation to the groom’s family for marrying their daughter. That older law titled ‘The Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976’ encompassed the value of dowry items, penalty for any violation as well as recording the dowry items in the marriage certificate. Unfortunately, though, like other such legislation, this has never been satisfactorily implemented.
Now, with the decentralisation resulting from the 18th constitutional amendment, in March 2017 the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa introduced another law titled, ‘The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Dowry, Bridal Gift and Marriage Functions Restriction Act, 2017’ which slapped a ban on the payment of dowry to groom’s parents.
Despite the existence of these laws, cases of dowry-related abuse recur again and again. The dowry system has given birth to a number of other social evils. Many parents take huge debts in order to give dowries to their daughters. Brides are taunted for not bringing costly dowry items and in case of a break-up in the marriage, they have to face great hardship in recovering those items.
It is indeed difficult to enforce such legislation in a deeply patriarchal and conservative society. But federal and provincial administrations must both realise — as must the judicial authorities — that new legislation is no solution to the problems caused by a failure to implement existing legislation. For this to work, we certainly require large-scale awareness amongst both women and men about the rights and protections afforded to women by the law. But above all, it requires political will — as a social battle to be won most urgently.