Prof. Mangai Natarajan

BANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)–In her three years working at the Basavangudi all-women police station in Bangalore, Constable Mylaaiah Rangajura has taken hundreds of statements of women with dowry-related complaints. Some are freshly bruised, others have been starved for days and some fear that their husbands or in-laws will burn or strangle them to death, a tragically common end to a dowry dispute.

When a wife’s husband and her in-laws are called in for lengthy interviews, Rangajura listens as family members explain and often deny the accusations of abuse and harassment.

While dowry was once a gift from a bride’s family to a daughter often consisting of cash, jewelry and fine clothing, it has increasingly come to be seen as a payment to her husband and his family that reinforces or improves their financial and social standing. Abuse frequently begins when additional dowry demands are unmet. It is a form of emotional and physical blackmail that continues until the wife’s family finally relents.

"The in-laws will say that she is lying and that the woman will not adjust to the in-laws," says Rangajura, who wears the same uniform as most male police officers: a khaki shirt and pants with a thick black belt.

Rangajura takes notes as her supervisor tries to negotiate reconciliation, the most common approach to solving dowry disputes. "Sometimes there is no compromise," she says, referring to the more egregious cases that involve severe physical and mental abuse, "but you have to think about what both parties want."

Part of Overall Antiviolence Effort

Rangajura is part of India’s effort to address the problem of domestic violence, particularly dowry-related violence.

Though outlawed in 1961, dowry practices have continued to flourish, regardless of religion, caste, educational background or whether marriages are arranged or "love" matches.

Dowry-related violence increased more than three-fold between 1990 and 2000. Dowry deaths rose by 38 percent during that same time period and since then about 6,000 to 7,000 women have been murdered each year.

In 2005, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded a dowry death every 77 minutes. Still, many argue that extremely low reporting and conviction rates mask the true number of dowry deaths, which could reach as high as 25,000 per year.

In 1992, the government of Tamil Nadu opened the first all-female police station in Chennai, largely in response to complaints that the social stigma of confessing one’s family problems to a stranger and the possibility of being raped kept women away from male-dominated stations.

Mangai Natarajan, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has authored the most extensive studies on female police stations in Tamil Nadu. She says the stations give women a safer, more comfortable place to report domestic violence. "They don’t want to talk about their personal relationships with a man," Natarajan says. "They think they won’t get any justice."

In 2005, India adopted a federal domestic violence bill that offers victims state-sponsored advocacy and aims to speed up the legal process by creating more courts and hiring additional judges.

India, in addition to Brazil, has pioneered the use of the all-women police station. In 2005 India had 295 units. Brazil, which began opening the stations in the 1980s, now has more than 300.

Authority Figures and Counselors

Part authority figure and part counselor, the women who staff these stations are supposed to be trained to field complaints ranging from violence to neglect to infidelity to dowry harassment.

As leverage, they often use the pressure of social embarrassment to remind an errant husband and his family that their behavior is unacceptable and, in many cases, illegal.

"Families do have a great respect for police officers," Natarajan says. "Women will threaten their husbands with going to the police and it’s effective."

In 1990 the federal government created the National Commission for Women to ensure progress on issues such as female feticide, poverty and sexual harassment. In the years that followed, 26 state commissions were mandated to address these problems at a local level.

Women who turn to branches of the women’s commission often see it as a middle ground between reporting a dowry crime at the local police station–which can put women at odds with their families–and seeking the help of an advocacy group that doesn’t have the government’s backing.

The emphasis on counseling and "patching things up" in the all-women police stations has left some victims feeling betrayed, says Ranjini Srikumar, temporary chair of the Kerala State Commission for Women.

"The women officers say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, my husband beats me too. Don’t make such a big deal, it happens to all of us,’" Srikumar says, adding that some women have told her they had better experiences at regular, male-dominated stations.

Though female officers do receive gender sensitivity and counseling training, it often occurs infrequently and differs from station to station.

Shobana Khatavkhar investigated dowry cases at the Basavangudi women’s police station in Bangalore from 2003 to 2005 and acknowledges that some officers can be callous and that training could be improved.

Of the 75 or so dowry cases Khatavkhar examined, she says only five resulted in a conviction. The main benefit of filing reports, she says, is that it creates a permanent police record.

"When asked about dowry harassment, they always deny it," she says, referring to the accused husbands and in-laws. "But (the station) keeps the record and then they won’t continue to harass because it’s on file."

Detecting the Warning Signs

A.K. Siddamma, an investigator for the Karnataka State Commission for Women, worked as a police officer for 33 years and investigated 180 dowry deaths for 10 of those years. She ticks off the signs of neglect and abuse that might escalate to murder: "The husband won’t buy his wife proper clothes, won’t give her food, will beat her and threaten her."

When a husband is asked to appear in her office as part of the investigation, Siddamma says she tries to restore the bond. "When you took your husband or wife," she says, "you took him or her to look after. I tell them that marriage is more important than dowry."

However, she says some cases must be referred to the police.

Gouramma Venkata Ramana is a staff member at Vimochana, a Bangalore women’s nonprofit organization that has scrutinized unnatural deaths for most of the last decade.

Through a translator, she said that the police often fail women who come forward with complaints of abuse. "The police are given training to see that while dealing with family matters, they ought to make sure the family does not break up and instead comes to an understanding," she says.

Of the 714 unnatural death cases Ramana investigated last year, she determined that at least 150 of them were dowry-related.

Rampant domestic violence, she emphasizes, is the underlying problem and a likely contributing factor to the other deaths. She believes reducing the level of domestic violence requires encouraging women to step forward and helping them once they do.

"Education is important," Ramana says. "But we are also here to support the women when no one else will listen or help."

Rebecca Ruiz is a freelance writer.

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