What Is The Dowry System In India?

indian dowry

Dowry is a payment made in cash or kind to a bride’s in-laws at the time of her marriage. The amount depends on a large number of factors, including region, religion, caste and subcaste, groom’s education, the bride’s skin tone, and the negotiation skills of both the families involved.

Even though the dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, it is still prevalent. Actual numbers are not known, but anecdotally about half of the weddings in my family and friend’s circles involve dowry.

Still, it’s rarely reported as a crime. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, in a country with nearly 10 million weddings a year, less than 10,000 cases of dowry were reported in 2015. 

Dowry gets reported only when the groom’s demands go beyond what the bride’s family can afford or when the bride is physically abused or, worse, killed, as cases that gained media attention show.

More often, dowry related-abuses are filed under a law that prevents domestic abuse. In 2015, more than 113,000 women reported abuse by their husbands or in-laws, and 7,646 deaths were classified as related to dowry disputes. 

That is nearly 21 women killed every day by their husbands or in-laws because their families could not meet the dowry demands.

Marriage in India is steeped in traditions and deep-rooted cultural beliefs. Practices are passed down by word of mouth and in some cases, re-interpreted to align with the changing times. 

There is, however, one custom that stubbornly resists change: the dowry system.

In India, it has its roots in medieval times when a gift in cash or kind was given to a bride by her family to maintain her independence after marriage. 

During the colonial period, it became the only legal way to get married, with the British making the practice of dowry mandatory.

The trend in present India, with its booming economy, is now encouraging ever-higher bride prices among all socioeconomic strata. 

But the rising bride price has brought with it an increase in violence against women.

Dowry violence is usually perpetrated by the husband or the in-laws in a bid to extract a higher dowry from the bride’s family. 

The dowry price paid at the time of marriage may be significant, but the greed of husbands and in-laws can grow after marriage. 

This frequently translates into physical, mental or sexual violence against the bride. The violence ranges from slashing genitalia or breasts with razors to burning her alive by pouring kerosene on her. In some cases, women are driven to suicide.

Although seeking a dowry has been outlawed in India since 1961, the ban has been a challenge to enforce. 

An amendment to the law in 1986 mandated that any death or violence within the first seven years of marriage would be tried as related to dowry. The reality is that most cases of dowry violence go unreported.

Goddess Lakshmi or Cash Cow? 

goddess lakshmi

Like the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the new bride is considered to be the guarantor of the home’s prosperity- but one symbolised by material assets. 

Though asking for dowry has been officially declared a crime in India, the greedy have found an indirect way of asking for it. 

“Nowadays, dowry has taken a different form altogether, the financially well-settled families accept it in a sophisticated manner, for example- asking bride’s family to pay house rent or children’s school fees.”, says Satya, from Vimochana, a women rights forum based in Bengaluru.

On Oct 4, 2017, Pooja Vikas Shirgire, a class 12 student from a village in the state of Maharashtra (West) wrote the last note to her family. Her father had no clue that her daughter would be lying dead on the floor when he came back from work. In the note, Pooja blamed the societal pressure on her father as the reason behind her hopeless situation. The unwanted burden of dowry on his debt-ridden father forced her to take such a drastic step.

Pooja’s father was a farmer, and in the rural areas where 60 pc of the Indian population lives, the situation is worse. In many cases, women are threatened by their husband and in-laws, who say that they will file divorce if the dowry is not honoured. In a country where religion is sacred, and divorce is considered as a “shame”, the young bride won’t be “pure” for the other man and will have to live alone and could even be banished by her own family.

This incident is one of the many that have been taking place in the country due to the existing practices of the dowry system. Apart from abetment to deaths, several women have experienced domestic violence and mental harassment. According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data, a total of 24,771 dowry deaths have been reported in India from 2012-2014. The year 2014 alone saw 8,455 deaths; which means that 30 women died every day because of it.

Women Are Abused

Women who can’t pay an expected dowry price or who are unable to make additional payments in the future are often subject to harassment and abuse. Other times, husbands or in-laws throw acid on a woman or set her on fire.

“The violence ranges from brutal beatings, emotional torture, withholding money, throwing them out of the house, keeping them away from their children, keeping mistresses openly,” or in extreme cases, “burning the wife alive,” Savra Subratikaan, a women’s rights worker in New Delhi, told the Pulitzer Center.

One suicide every four hours

There are two main reasons as to why so few perpetrators are convicted, according to Kumari. “The first is the poor quality of police investigations which can be due to limited law enforcement training as well as a lack of resources.”

The second, she says, is corruption within the police force: “Many police officers accept bribes from families of the accused and then refuse to take cases forward,” Kumari told DW, adding that even in cases where the husband or family members are charged, conviction rates are extremely low.

Savita Pande, a professor for South Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said that victims and their families have become reluctant to lodge complaints: “Trials cost time and money and may not always be affordable, especially for victims from middle and lower classes.”

Moreover, she added, the stigma attached to the often lengthy legal proceedings reduces chances of reconciliation, leading to many of the disputes being settled outside the courtroom. But the expert also pointed out that the quarrels had reached such levels that, according to NCRB figures, “on average, one Indian woman commits suicide every four hours over a dowry dispute notwithstanding the existence of laws for their empowerment.”

Dowries Make Child Marriage More Likely

To avoid larger dowries, families often marry their daughters off as children.

Globally, more than 700 million women alive today were married off when they were under 18. By 2050, this number is expected to rise to 1.2 billion, according to the anti-child marriage nonprofit Girls Not Brides.

India has the most child brides in the world, and the dowry system partly drives this phenomenon. The younger a girl is, the lower her dowry price will usually be, so to save money, families marry off their daughters at young ages.   

Dowries Keep Girls From Going to School

To keep dowry prices low, families also keep girls from going to school, because dowry prices increase with each additional year of formal education.

Families also view school fees for a girl as a waste of money because that investment will not be recouped by the family later in life. Further, girls are often kept at home to do labour for training to be better housewives.  

Are the laws enough for dowry?

In 1961, barely 11 years after the adoption of the Indian Constitution, the Indian Parliament passed its first legislation against dowry in the form of the Dowry Prohibition Act, which criminalised demanding and giving dowry. This act was given significantly more teeth in amendments in 1984 and 1986. These amendments, notably of 1986, added dowry deaths to the section 304 (b) of the Indian Penal Code which made dowry deaths culpable homicides. In 1983, another section 498 (A) was added to the penal code which further strengthened the anti-dowry provisions and obliged the police to arrest a woman’s in-laws in the case of harassment and/or cruelty. It was a landmark achievement for women’s rights in the country.

Sayanti Sengupta says, “In India, we have several laws against dowry, but lack of awareness among people creates hurdles in implementing them.”

At the same time, there has been a continuous outcry on how the laws against dowry are dishonestly misused by many. Therefore, on 27 July 2017, the Supreme Court announced that under section 498A, an accused could not be arrested immediately, as was the case before. Now, Family Welfare Committees will discuss such cases before a First Information Report (FIR) is filed by the police. These committees are to be set up throughout the country.

Satya, who also works in the burn ward of Victoria hospital, Bengaluru, says, “The latest change brought under the section 498A, is not justified. They say women are misusing the law, then why there are cases where women are forced to commit suicide, is there any way out of this problem?”.

The recent change in the law has indeed worsened the situation of many women who are still affected by the perverse effects of dowry. Besides campaigns of sensibilisation, nothing much is done to help women trapped in these situations. Many of them are also not assisted by the police, as it’s legally difficult to show proof of dowry harassment. They also suffer from a great lack of psychological support. And it’s unfortunate, only when the crime is committed, that it becomes news.

Dowries Maintain Gender Inequality

indian dowry (2)

The dowry system dehumanises women by treating them as property — goods that can be exchanged. To make matters worse, the system also casts them as a burden, rather than an asset, to be passed along — a bride’s family pays the groom’s family for the cost of taking care of the bride.  

So each dowry that’s paid reinforces a system where women are viewed as second-class citizens.

Dowries Trap Poor People in Debt

Dowries often force poor families to take out loans with steep interest rates, sell off their land to raise money, promise to pay dowries in instalments, and other scenarios that can lead to crippling debt.

“Families from his income group often go begging in order to give marriageable daughters a dowry,” Haji Mumtaz Ali, who heads an anti-dowry campaign told The Guardian. “Other parents sell their farmland to come up with a dowry. And some parents take out high-interest loans from money lenders and get trapped with huge debts.

Dowries also deepen class hierarchies. Wealthy families who expect higher dowries essentially exclude poor families from asking for marriage.   

Dowries Discriminate Against the Disabled

The dowry system disadvantages women who are disabled or who have health conditions because a prospective husband’s family will often demand higher payments for marriage.

A school textbook in the state of Maharashtra was pulled after people became outraged over a section that said “ugly and handicapped” girls will face higher dowry prices.

Dowries are widespread and oppressive — but that doesn’t mean the practice is so entrenched that it can’t be dismantled.

There are women’s rights and economic justice movements growing in India that seek to abolish dowries.

One anti-dowry campaign that operates in three Muslim-majority villages has brought dowries down from 95% of marriages to just 5% of marriages, according to a representative.  

But more needs to be done. The law explicitly forbids dowries, but it suffers from a lack of enforcement.

Global Citizen’s Level the Law Campaign is working to end oppressive laws and ensure enforcement around the world.

The practice of dowry in India has been theoretically linked to a number of factors including the nature of residence and inheritance system, women’s role in the production, kinship organisations, relative availability of potential spouses, and social stratification in society. This article empirically examines dowries in India and provides an institutional and economic rationale for the existence and continued prevalence of the system. Using data on marriage transactions and on the personal and family traits of marital partners the article demonstrates that payments of dowry serve to equalise the measurable differences in individual characteristics of the bride’s and groom’s and their respective households. Thus, dowry qualifies as the “price” paid for a “good match” in the marriage market. Results also reveal that the form of the inheritance system, the residence of the bride after marriage, and the gender ratio of marriageable women to men have no effect on the incidence and size of dowry.

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