Dowry system in India
In India, dowry (Hindi: दहेज, Dahēja) is the payment in cash or some kind of gifts given to a bridegroom's family along with the bride. Generally, they include cash, jewellery, electrical appliances, furniture, bedding, crockery, utensils and other household items that help the newlywed set up her home.
The dowry system is thought to put great financial burden on the bride's family. It has been cited as one of the reasons for families and women in India resorting to sex selection in favor of sons. This has distorted the sex ratio of India (940 females per thousand males) and may have given rise to female foeticide. The payment of a dowry has been prohibited under The 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act in Indian civil law and subsequently by Sections 304B and 498a of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The trends regarding dowry in India vary across the nation. Over the last few decades, there has been an observed transition from the brideprice system, where wealth flows from the groom to the bride’s family, to the dowry system where wealth flows in the opposite direction. According to studies, areas in south India have traditionally practiced the brideprice system, even among upper castes. In the north, societal differences in marriage led upper castes to practice a dowry system, while in lower classes brideprice was more common.
In the last 100 years, the dowry system has taken over the brideprice system, and the existing dowry system is becoming more entrenched in cultures that have practiced it traditionally. According to research, brideprice has been declining since the beginning of the 20th century, and today very little is still in practice. Rather, dowry has been growing both in families participating and in cost across India. Studies show there are also variations on dowry prevalence based on geography and class. States in the north are more likely to participate in the dowry system among all classes, and dowry is more likely to be in the form of material and movable goods. In the south, the brideprice system is still more likely, and is more often in the form of land, or other inheritance goods. This system is tied to the social structure of marriage, which keeps marriage inside or close to family relations. Dowry also varies by class, or caste, in India. Upper-class families are more likely to engage in the dowry system than the lower class. This could be in part due to women’s economic exclusion from the labor market in upper classes.
Dowry became prohibited by law in 1961 with the purpose of prohibiting the demanding, giving and taking of dowry. Although providing dowry is illegal, it is still common in many parts of India for a husband to seek a dowry from the wife's family, in some cases leading to extortion or violence against the wife. To stop offences of cruelty by the husband or his relatives against the wife, section 498A was added to the Indian Penal Code and section 198A to the Criminal Procedure Code in 1983. Section 498A has been criticised by many in India as being prone to misuse. The law was challenged in court, but upheld by the Supreme Court of India in 2005.
Social changes across time have contributed to the modern dowry system in India. Some of the social factors influencing dowry include tradition, increased women’s rights, and the “marriage squeeze”, which is the shortage of eligible men for marriage.
Tradition is certainly one explanation given by scholars to address the prevailing dowry system. One aspect of this is the structure and kinship of marriage in parts of India. In the north, marriage usually follows a patrilocal (lives with husband’s family) system, where the groom is a non-related member of the family. This system encourages dowry perhaps due to the exclusion of the bride's family after marriage as a form of premortem inheritance for the bride. In the south, marriage is more often conducted within the bride's family, for example with close relatives or cross-cousins, and in a closer physical distance to her family. In addition, brides may have the ability to inherit land, which makes her more valuable in the marriage, decreasing the chance of dowry over the bride price system.
In addition to marriage customs that may influence dowry, social customs or rituals, and parents expectations of dowry are important factors to consider. Several studies show that while attitudes of people are changing about dowry, the institution has changed very little, and even continues to prevail. In a study conducted by Rao (1980), 75% of students responded that dowry was not important to marriage, but 40% of their parents’ likely expected dowry. The social and traditional influence on dowry is not to be neglected.
While India has been making progress for women’s rights, women continue to be subject of their family and husband. Women’s education, income, and health are some significant factors that play into the dowry system, and for how much control a woman has over her marriage. According to data, India still limits women’s social interactions, and restricts economic and social rights. In addition, the stress and financial burden of the dowry system may lead to son preference, which can lead to a skewed sex ratio (see also the economic factors and domestic violence sections).
Lastly, there is a strong argument given for the “marriage squeeze” trend for dowry. This theory explains that increased fertility coupled with decreased mortality has caused a shortage of eligible men has declined, raising the dependence on and cost of dowry. This increases women’s competition in the marriage market, and decreases their value compared to other brides, unless dowry is competitive. According to Rao (1993), these conditions will be less critical as marriage age increases for women, and pressure to find a mate declines.
Because female-based inheritance was not legal in India until law reforms in the 1950s, dowry may have begun as a form of legal inheritance for daughters. The system would give women economic and financial security in their marriage in the form of movable goods. This helped prevent family wealth break-up and provided security to the bride at the same time. This system can also be used as a premortem inheritance, as once a woman is presented with movable gifts, she may be cut off from the family estate.
However, as the system evolved, dowry has become a greater financial burden on the family, and can leave families destitute based on the demands from the groom. According to research done by Heyer (1992) and Srinivasan (2005), the amount of gold demanded as dowry has increased from around five pavun (1 Pavun= 8 grams) in 1930 to 100 or more pavun in 2000. The increase in dowry prices has immense implications on families and on women in Indian society including physical and emotional abuse, murder, and sex selective abortion and infanticide (see #Domestic violence section).
Another factor affecting dowry is the bride’s economic status. When a bride’s family is from a upper class (or caste), the family is expected to pay more for her dowry, and provide a grand display of wealth. This can be detrimental to a bride’s wedding prospects if the family cannot afford the dowry, and can lead to some women either being forced into an unfavorable marriage or not marrying at all. Women in higher castes are also sometimes not expected to contribute financially to the family she enters, besides household work, which may cause the prevalence of dowry over brideprice.
Dowry is considered a major contributor towards observed violence against women in India. Some of these offences include physical violence, emotional abuses, and even murder of brides and girls. National Crime Records in India reported approximately 6,000–7,000 dowry-related deaths every year and about 43,000–50,000 cases of mental and physical torture over the years from 1999-2003, indicating that violence and dowry are a serious national concern.
Physical violence against women has been a growing concern in India over the last few decades. Recently married women can be a target for dowry related violence, because she is tied economically and socially to her new husband. As discussed in previous sections on social and economic factors, dowry can undermine the importance of women in society, which might lead to further domestic violence, because dowry may contribute to women’s inferior status in her family and in her culture. In addition, there are studies indicating dowry as a threat, or hostage type situation, in order to attain greater funds from the bride’s family. This can be seen in young (and often pregnant) brides, who are most vulnerable in the situation. This type of stuation can occur with the threat or occurrence of violence, so that the bride’s family is left with no choice but to give more dowry to protect their daughter. In these cases, the husband and his family hold immense power, while the bride is left powerless; this can lead to murder and suicide. The areas of the greatest observed dowry related violence is in the Indian states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.
The impact of dowry can leave a woman helpless and desperate, which can cumulate in emotional trauma and abuse. Brides are often considered owned by their husbands, and often have very little power in the marriage, which can lead to depression and suicide. Dowry reinforces these beliefs and is considered to escalate effects of emotional trauma in a marriage.
The system of dowry has also been linked to murder of young brides. Physical abuses described above can also result in murder. These murders can arise due to the financial demands from a husband, or dissatisfaction of the bride from the groom’s family. In addition, the concept of “Bride Burning” refers to the sacrificial murder of a bride who is unsatisfactory to her husband in the form of dowry. In these cases, the woman is considered a sacrifice to her husband due to her inadequacy, and is glorified as an honorable woman. These cases reinforce the structured violence against women, while glorified as being “purer or more sacred than a dowry death”. In addition to bride murder, the institution of dowry may also reinforce sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. Due to the social and economic burdens of dowry, families may choose boys over girls, so that they avoid consequences of the system. This then may strengthen gendered violence and preferential male treatment in society.
There are laws like Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 that help to reduce domestic violence and to protect women's rights.
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- Fight Against misuse of Dowry law (IPC-498a)
- Dowry murder: the imperial origins of a cultural crime By Veena Talwar Oldenburg