Published on Frontline, by PARVATHI MENON, Aug 14 – 27, 1999.
Excerpt: … On an average, therefore, almost one hundred women have been dying violent deaths every month in the privacy of their homes. And these are the official figures. When 44 persons died of plague by September 1994 in Surat, the epicentre of the plague outbreak of that year, the epidemic assumed the proportions of a national crisis. Yet, public acknowledgement of the unnatural deaths of young women in Bangalore city is restricted to perfunctory two-line news items in the daily newspapers, where they are reported as “accidents” or “suicides” over “dowry harassment”. Thereafter, they drop from public consciousness into the anonymity of a police or court ‘case’.
A dowry murder comes under a distinct class of violence. Motivated mainly by greed, the crime is committed within the four walls of a home on an unsuspecting wife by her own husband or his family; there are rarely any eyewitnesses who are prepared to give evidence against the murderers. The large number of these deaths is an indication that the law is not a sufficient deterrent for those who commit these crimes. Nor have these grotesquely violent murders sparked the kind of social outrage that could pressure the government and its law-enforcing machinery into acting swiftly and firmly in enforcing the law. The scale of this problem, its causes and consequences, have not been adequately acknowledged by the state and its agencies, the media, or the public at large.
“Such figures certainly impress upon us the need to relook at what we understand by the police classification of ‘unnatural deaths’,” says Donna Fernandes of Vimochana, a women’s organisation which first uncovered the horrifying dimensions of the problem in Bangalore. “Our investigations have proved that for large numbers of married women, the right to live in safety and in a climate free from intimidation and violence is under great threat. Why is there this social unconcern when women are dying in such large numbers?”
DOWRY-RELATED violence against married women by the families they marry into is a phenomenon that is on the increase all over the country, particularly in urban areas where such violence gets reported on. Women’s groups have been engaging with this issue at various levels in different parts of the country. In the absence of comparable data from other cities, it may be premature to conclude that the high incidence of unnatural deaths of young women in Bangalore is, in some way, a problem specific to this city. What has put Bangalore on the map of cities with a high incidence of dowry-related atrocities against women is an exceptional research-cum-social-intervention project by Vimochana. This study has, for the first time, quantified this problem and put it firmly in the public realm. Vimochana’s sustained two-and-half-year campaign on the issue of unnatural deaths of women resulted in the setting up, on April 7, 1999, of a Joint House Committee on Atrocities against Women to investigate these deaths and make recommendations for their prevention. The Joint Committee, which was chaired by BJP MLA Premila Nesargi, presented its report on July 1.
There are therefore two detailed public documents on the phenomenon of the high rate of unnatural deaths of women in Bangalore – the Vimochana documentation and campaign material and the House Committee Report. There is also detailed, month-wise statistics compiled and maintained by the State Crime Records Bureau, which Vimochana has collated and analysed in its study. Together these provide a reliable database on the numbers of women dying; the classification of their deaths by the police (whether murder, suicide, accident); the ways by which they die (burning, hanging, poisoning, and so on); the reasons for the death; the nature of the police investigation into each of these cases; the reasons for the slow pace of judicial redress; and the reasons why so many dowry death cases end in acquittal of the accused. Vimochana’s database, which it began compiling from early 1997, also includes a detailed register of the women who are admitted into the burns ward of the Victoria Hospital, their ages, marital status, reasons for death, and case details.
Unnatural deaths and stove-bursts: … (full text).