NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - “Honour” killings, “dowry deaths” and the lynching of women branded as witches persist in India, partly due to such practices being socially sanctioned and with police often not even treating such murders as crimes, says the United Nations.
So-called “honour” killings - when a person is murdered by their family out of belief the victim has brought shame, the killing of brides by husbands or in-laws over demands for money and the public murders of women named as witches are common in some parts of patriarchal India.
At the end of a 12-day visit to India, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary or arbitary executions said his mission was to investigate the right to life in the context of force by Indian police and security forces as well as due to cultural practices against women.
“This is a difficult area for any state to address,” Christof Heyns told a news conference on Friday, adding that ensuring “certainty of conviction and some form of consequence” was more important than increasing punishment.
“This is often difficult for a host of reasons, including the fact that there is a general social sanction for the crime, and the police often do not address these killings as crimes,” he said.
Heyns, a South African academic specialising in human rights, will submit a report of his findings - which involved trips to five regions of the country including the volatile Himalayan state of Kashmir - to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.
Indian women face a barrage of threats, say activists, despite impressive economic growth over the last two decades that has promoted gender equality and brought in better laws to protect women and girls.
According to the U.N. Population Fund, around 5,000 women are victims of “honour” killings worldwide every year, while India’s National Crimes Record Bureau says 8,391 brides - one every hour - were murdered over dowry-related issues in 2010.
Dowries - such as jewellery, clothes, cars and money - are traditionally given by the bride’s family to the groom and his parents to ensure she is taken care of in her new home.
The custom is banned, but still widely practiced, with the groom’s family sometimes demanding even more money after marriage, which can lead to mental and physical harassment that can drive the woman to suicide. Often she is burnt alive in so-called “stove burnings” where kerosene is poured over her and she is set alight.
Heyns also raised concern that some elderly and single women are lynched publicly after being branded as witches, because of people wanting an excuse to take control of their property rights.
“Impunity for extrajudicial executions is the central problem. This gives perpetrators a free reign, and leaves victims in a situation where they are either left helpless or have to retaliate,” said Heyns.
“The values at stake are often viewed as more important than life itself. A change in values is therefore required.”
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)
TrustLaw is a global hub for free legal assistance and news and information on good governance and women's rights, For more TrustLaw stories, visit www.trust.org/trustlaw <www.trust.org/trustlaw>