Dowry in India
A matter of life & death

Shalini was 16 when she received a proposal for marriage, which it came from her parent’s relatives.Altought her father was reluctant because of Shalini was too young,  and the groom was 10 years older, however for her mother’s eyes was a “very suitable boy”. The prospect groom was very well-educated, was finishing his Master’s degree and, to top it all, was working in the US. The engagement period was a peacefully and happy time for Shalini. At the wedding time, high demands started to came from the groom’s side. Shalini not was told nothing about of this matter because she was too young.After all, the financial demands were never direct and Shalinis father didn’t see that as “dowry”, but something he was doing for her daughter and new husband.Shalini shifted to US to her marital home. When she arrived, she shocked by finding a home completely empty.  She settled up everything they need from her father’s money. Later demands were increased, like a new AC car, even a new house. The problems began when Shalini finally realized on the matter and started to questioning him about money. At that point she was very sure that her in-laws intended to make financial gains out of her through dowry.“It was planned. Money was demanded right after our marriage and just before I left for the US. It was very convenient for them that my husband should have money lying there in a joint account. It was specifically meant for my education, but was used for everything else but that. If I would have said, “I don’t want the money, I can do without maintenance” I’m sure I would have got the divorce a long time ago”.Along the financial demands, started mental cruelty and physical abuse against Shalini.Her mother in-law began instigated her husband against her. “He beat me up real bad. And they (in-laws) were just standing there and did not even make an effort. It was just one and a half months after my delivery, so I didn’t have much energy to resist. I had a lot of bruises on me after that”.Her mother in-law had apparently implored her son to “just get rid of her once and for all”. Shalini found it very hard to conceive of the idea of leaving her husband but it did come to her mind when things became too hard to handle. She knew her parents would never support her in this. Even today, years after she has been separated from him, her parents still hope that she will return to her husband.(Extracted from the book "Broken Mirrors")

In 2017, India's National Crime Bureau recorded nearly 7,000 dowry-related deaths. And there may be many more that are not reported.

Dowry system

"The dowry is the patrimony that the future wife or her  family give to the groom, being in many cases proportional to the social status of the future husband's family. Its meaning would be to contribute to the maintenance of the bride herself or to contribute to the matrimonial charges. " (Wikipedia)

Originally among ancient Hindus, presenting gifts during a wedding was a mandatory cultural practice. The father was expected to provide his daughter with the best clothes and most expensive jewelry that he could afford; the father of a son was expected to give the bride's family a cow and a bull.

This system was evolving, in medieval times the bride was given a gift in jewelry or cash, to maintain her independence after marriage or to give her a means of support in case of divorce or widowhood.

During the British colonial period, this practice became mandatory, being the only legal way to marry. Whereas in Victorian England, the dowry was considered an advance payment of the daughter's inheritance, in India women did not inherit the family wealth, so the dowry was justified as a way for the family to give their share to the women.

Even though in 1956 the Succession Law granted daughters the same rights over family property and even today, when more women are in the labor market, the dowry system continues in force.

One cause of this problem is the prevailing patriarchal society in India, which values men over women.

By tradition, an Indian bride moves in with her husband's family, male children are expected to stay behind and provide for their parents while their wives take care of domestic responsibilities. Housework is not assigned any monetary value. Therefore, the new wife is considered a kind of profiteer, unless she pays for her room and board expenses with the dowry.

While boys in India have a "fee", the unofficial price the boy is worth for the amount of dowry that occurred at marriage, for families with girls this social requirement makes it an extremely costly affair. Parents have to gather enough wealth and material assets to ensure that their daughter can marry when she is of age.

Some of the dowries in demand are quite oppressive, equal to several years' cash salary and become a significant burden on the bride's family. The treatment of a bride in her marital home is often affected by the value of her dowry, as Shalini's case illustrates.

Contrary to what one might think, families that by their position are able to provide a high education for their children are no less prone to the practice of this system. In fact, education becomes one more factor in determining the market rate of the child. The more educated the young man the parents will request more as compensation for their future income, to which the bride will presumably have access.

In 1961, just 14 years after its independence, India passed the Dowry Prevention Act to address this huge social problem, as a way to ban the practice of dowry and empower women to report dowry extortion. This law criminalized the giving and receiving of a dowry, recommending a minimum penalty of five years in prison and a fine equivalent to the amount of the dowry.

Subsequent amendments reinforced the prohibition and criminalization of the practice. In 1983, article 498 (A) was added to the Penal Code, through which not only the husband but also the in-laws can be arrested and found guilty in the event of harassment and / or cruelty against the son's wife. The 1986 amendment classifies as homicides the dowry deaths and enables all suspicious deaths of new wives within the first seven years of marriage to be investigated as dowry deaths. This represented a historic achievement for women's rights in the country.

 Violence against women for dowry reasons

Despite this, most cases of dowry violence go unreported.

Violence in relation to dowry is generally perpetrated by the husband and / or in-laws in an attempt to achieve more than was initially agreed with the bride's family, which results in physical, mental or sexual violence against the bride, which can end in murder, such as “bride-burning”, set on fire by her husband and / or in-laws, who disguise these murders as a “kitchen accident.” Other times brides are driven to suicide, so that the groom can return to marry and collect another sumptuous dowry, but there are also young women who choose this path to avoid impoverishing their parents for life.

Social norms, the "sanctity" of marriage, and lack of personal income prevent women from telling the truth.

Most often, dowry-related abuse comes 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.

The trend in today's India, with its booming economy, is now encouraging ever higher dowry prices among all socio-economic strata, bringing with it an increase in violence against women.

The demands that are made on the families of the brides have gone from jewelry and cash to expensive appliances, cars or apartments, the payment of rent or school fees for children in exclusive schools.

The growth of this phenomenon has been related to the growth of consumption in Indian society and the deeply ingrained status hierarchy.

Some studies suggest that the employment status of women is causing a very gradually negative correlation between working women and dowry.  It would be assumed that the greater the economic independence of a woman, the lower the price of the dowry, but the reality is that for traditional families having a daughter with a high income of their own is a negative aspect. According to the conventions in arranged marriages, it is almost unthinkable that the wife earns more than the husband, therefore it would be necessary to find a husband with a higher income, which also implies an exorbitant dowry.

The media have paid a lot of attention to the dowry's related deaths, there are also numerous academic studies on this issue, all of which slowly generates a greater social awareness about the dimension and seriousness of this problem. Many young people are trying to speak out against this system, but it still remains a challenge that goes against deep-rooted family traditions, which are the heart of India.


Broken Mirrors. The “Dowry problem” in India. Robin Wyatt &Nazia Massod, Sage Publications India, 2010

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