Existing laws against dowry are entirely unhelpful
The phenomena of dowry practices in Bangladesh needs no further introduction. In a society full of social, economic, and crime-related difficulties, dowry checks all the boxes. It is a problem that has been plaguing our region since the pre-colonial era.
No matter what measures various governments from the sub-continent have taken over the span of centuries, they have failed to eliminate it entirely. From 1980 to 2018, the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 was the primary instrument providing punishments for dowry and the crimes related to it along with the Women and Children Repression Act 2000.
In 2018, the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 was repealed and the new Dowry Prevention Act 2018 was enacted. In the preamble of the act, it is stated that the new act has been enacted to meet the time’s demand. But discrepancies can be observed between this statement and the provisions of the act. One can easily be confused regarding the necessity of replacing the previous law with the current one.
The first noticeable problem is with the definition of dowry provided in Section 2(b) of the act, which expressly excludes gifts given by relatives, friends, and well-wishers of the parties on the event of their wedding but did not define what can be considered as a gift. This definition creates a great loophole by creating a scope of representing dowry as gifts and vice versa. This may serve as a defense mechanism against any complaint made by the victimized party.
The absence of such exclusions can be noticed in the previous 1980 statute. What could be the purpose of including such a provision in an act which intends to reduce dowry-related crimes? This may only provide a safeguard for the accused.
Another counter-productive provision is provided in section 6 of the act, which provides punishment for filing false reports or complaints regarding dowry in order to cause harm to the accused. It is to be noted that the punishment for filing a false case is a maximum of five years and a minimum of 1-year imprisonment, or Tk50,000 fine, or both, which is equivalent to that of receiving and giving dowry.
This will greatly discourage reporting and filing cases against givers and recipients of dowry as not many will be willing to risk their liberty in order to pursue justice in a system that is frequently accused of being broken.
It is also to be kept in mind that dowry is thought to be a part of the “culture” in many parts of our country, so what reasonable person would go against the “culture” of the land while knowing that in case of failure s/he might be punished with the same punishment.
Have false cases become more of a concern to the legislature than prohibiting and reducing dowry? A similar provision has been witnessed in section 6 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017.
Another discrepancy can be seen in section 7 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 2018, which states that the offense is compoundable in nature, meaning the case can be dissolved by out-of-court settlements. Out-of-court settlements are usually allowed only in case of petty crimes. By making it a compoundable offense, the legislature has created a leeway for the accused’s family to pressurize the complainant to reach an out-of-court settlement.
Section 5 of the act criminalizes both the facilitating and receiving of dowry. Criminalizing dowry being provided may stop victims from reporting further demands of dowry.
It is a generally known fact that the demand for dowry rarely stops after the marriage ceremony. So, if the family of the bride provides dowry during the ceremony and further demand is made by the groom or his family after marriage, the bride’s family will be discouraged to report it to the authorities.
This is because it would also criminalize the bride’s family since they gave dowry in the first place.
The legislature should have been clearer about who it is trying to protect through this statute. Can we afford to discourage those victims of dowry, who are brave enough to report it by going against the pressure of the society? Has our society grown to a state where reporting false dowry cases has become equivalent to or more of a concern than dowry itself?
Nafiz Ahmed is an apprentice lawyer.