Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 10:32 UK

MP demands law against dowries

By Poonam Taneja
BBC Asian Network

Virendra Sharma
Mr Sharma will lobby MPs for support to introduce an anti-dowry law

The dowry system in the UK should be banned, urges a Labour MP who says it leaves women vulnerable to domestic violence and is open to abuse.

Paying and accepting dowry - a centuries-old South Asian tradition where the bride's parents present gifts of cash, clothes and jewellery to the groom's family at a wedding - has been illegal in India since 1961.

Now Virendra Sharma, the MP for Ealing Southall in London, wants a similar law introduced in the UK.

Mr Sharma told the BBC's Asian Network the practice is open to abuse and may leave women vulnerable to domestic violence.

"There is an anti-dowry law in India. I want a similar law in this country where girls are protected before and after marriage. So that if there's any pressure placed on them to bring extra money or goods, they have legal protection," he said.

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According to Hanana Siddiqui from the women's rights group Southall Black Sisters, dowry abuse is a widespread problem amongst Sikh and Hindu communities in Britain.

"A lot of the women who come to us have experienced some kind of harassment when it comes to demands from their husbands and their in-laws to bring in more dowry," she said.

'Horrific' domestic incidents

It's a view shared by human rights barrister, Usha Sood, who says she is currently representing about 50 women who are attempting to retrieve their dowries through the civil courts.

"Dowry abuse is a very serious problem. It is often in the guise of domestic abuse and violence. It could be through false imprisonment of a wife, it could be through her being physically assaulted.

"There have also been cases where women have been scalded or had bleach thrown in their faces," she said.

Dwinderjit Kaur
Dwinderjit Kaur says her in-laws kept pressurising her for a bigger dowry

"It's not just about the bride burning you hear about in the Indian sub-continent. There are many, many horrific domestic incidents in this country which are accompanied by dowry abuse," she added.

As a result, Mrs Sood believes many women who leave these marriages are left with acute post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I remember a young woman who worked as a surgeon. She couldn't operate for several years afterwards, due to the trauma she had suffered," she said.

One woman who has experienced this type of abuse first hand is mother of two Dwinderjit Kaur, from Nottingham.

When she got married her parents gave her a dowry worth several thousands pounds. But says her parents-in-law wanted more.

"The dowry wasn't enough. The things I was gifted weren't enough. The jewellery was one side of it, but I was gifted various household items. It wasn't good enough for them," she said.

Constant pressure

She says the demands from her in-laws were clear.

"I was told, if your parents don't turn up on the doorstep with the right amount of jewellery, the right amount of money and the right amount of clothes, we're not going to let them step foot in the house.

"This was the sort of pressure I lived under every single day," she said.

The groom's family will provide lists demanding a house and a car as well as all the jewellery. How are people expected to afford these things?
Dwinderjit Kaur

She left the marriage out of fears for her personal safety. In 1997 she successfully sued her former in-laws for the return of her dowry.

Mrs Sood believes there is a strong case for legislation. And she thinks any new law should also help women recover their dowries once a marriage has broken down.

"What we find is that when a marriage breaks up, whether it's out of greed or pride, the groom's family retains all the valuable items," she said.

Dwinderjit Kaur supports a ban on dowries, but believes community attitudes need to change first.

"At the moment you have a situation where the groom's family will provide lists demanding a house and a car as well as all the jewellery. How are people expected to afford these things?"

Meanwhile, Mr Sharma will lobby other parliamentarians for support to introduce an anti-dowry law.

However, critics point out that in India the dowry system continues to thrive despite the ban.

So even if dowries are made illegal in the UK, there is the risk that it would it simply push the practice underground.

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