The Dowry System

The giving of gifts or money (otherwise known as a dowry) to a groom on behalf of the bride’s family is common practice in India, a marital tradition which dates back centuries. The dowry buys into people’s pride and desire to “save face” and the system (and exactly what is given) has substantial consequences for families and women in general.

Author Anna Rees, 07.05.09

The giving of gifts or money (otherwise known as a dowry) to a groom on behalf of the bride’s family is common practice in India, a marital tradition which dates back centuries. The dowry buys into people’s pride and desire to “save face” and the system (and exactly what is given) has substantial consequences for families and women in general. The financial restraints a dowry can place on a girl’s family coupled with the increasing abuse of the tradition on the part of the groom or his family has seen public perception of dowry giving change, with the government now stepping in to regulate its practice.

The tradition of the dowry

The origins of the dowry system in India have been greatly debated. One theory is that historically parents of the bride nominally provided gifts such as jewelry and everyday household items to the bride which evolved over time to providing a sum of money to the groom’s family. Another, more patriarchal view, alleges that daughters were “given” away and that grooms were offered gifts (and eventually money) as somewhat of a bribe to ensure the fair treatment of the woman. The exact sum of money was dictated by the groom’s education and social standing, however its initial intention was to act as a safeguard should something happen to the groom in his lifetime rendering him no longer able to provide for his wife and eventual children.
The practice became commonplace during the Middle Ages, with fathers who were looking to ensure a strong family bloodline paying top price for grooms of good ancestry.

The dowry today

While the dowry system still exists in India today, its function has changed somewhat, becoming an unspoken mandate and being viewed these days as something of a bargaining chip when arranging marriages. The more educated a groom is, the more money his family can demand as a dowry. Parents start saving for their daughters’ dowries from birth, placing a financial burden on families of low socio-economic backgrounds.

The dark side of the dowry

The underbelly of the dowry system revolves around the treatment of brides. Referred to as “bride-burning”, the act of maiming or even killing brides whose family cannot or will not meet a groom’s dowry demands is a worrying practice in India. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that in 2010 alone, there were 8,391 dowry-related deaths in the country, representing a 0.1% increase from 2009 and almost double the number of dowry-related deaths recorded two decades ago. Only a third of all reported cases result in conviction of the offenders.

Another flow on effect of the dowry system has been the practice of female infanticide and feticide. The birth of a daughter can be a cause of great concern for families, particularly those from poorer demographics, as they must then start to figure out how they will pay a dowry when it comes time for the daughter to marry. It is alleged that this concern leads partially to female infanticide and feticide in India, though exact figures relating to this are difficult to determine. According to 2011 census data, in the age group 0-6 years, there are 914 girls to every 100 boys in India. Figures calculated by the Toronto Globalist indicate that comparing this figure to the natural male/female birth ratio show that about three million girls are “missing” from actual population numbers, while recent studies show that girls in this age group have a much higher mortality rate due to violence, negligence or murder than boys do.

Government intervention

The blowout of the dowry system forced the government to take action in the middle of last century, introducing the Anti-Dowry Act in 1961 which outlawed the giving and receiving of dowries. After its introduction, the act received little support and was not strongly enforced, leading to a rampant and thriving illegal market for dowries.

It wasn’t until later in the twentieth century, when women’s rights groups were campaigning strongly against dowries and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi organized the marriage of her son without accepting a dowry from the bride’s parents, that the public really took notice, leading to an amendment of the Anti-Dowry Act in 1989 and public enforcement of the law. Among other initiatives, the government established an all-female police taskforce in 1992, set up with the sole purpose of investigating dowry dispute-related abuse or deaths. There are now more than 300 of these police taskforces across the country.

From the bottom up

Image: Flickr, blacksapphire, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But it doesn’t just come from above. There is a call on young people not to tolerate dowry giving and receiving practices when getting married. There are conflicting arguments as to what the solution here is. Education is imperative yes, though some state that it is within the more educated and literate areas of India that female infanticide and feticide numbers are the highest.

Public awareness campaigns are vital to breaking down centuries’-old thinking on this topic as well as de-stigmatizing the act of reporting abusive husbands or their families. Positive media coverage of women who’ve gone to the police after being threatened or abused by their husbands in relation to a dowry has been key to encouraging other women do the same.

Social media is also starting to play a role in this regard, with many blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages solely dedicated to providing information about and possible solutions to infanticide, feticide and dowry-related deaths and abuse, though rates of illiteracy and inaccessibility to the internet in many parts of the country mean that online activity should always be accompanied by offline activity.

On a state level, it is also argued that strong and consistent punishment of offenders as well as fair investigation of each case would send a clear message to people that they will be penalized heavily if they participate in dowry giving or receiving or related abuse.

Sources and links:

Author: Anna Rees/ RESET editorial

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