[Article] Dowry in India – Causes, Effects and Way Forward

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The recent series of alleged dowry deaths in Kerala has raised eyebrows and shed light on the dowry system in India which is still prevalent despite several attempts to ban it. Dowry deaths accounted for 40% to 50% of homicides in the country for almost a decade from 1999 to 2018. Dowry has been a part of the socio-economic fabric of Indian society and a burning issue since time immemorial. Dowry related deaths and domestic violence are rampant. Despite India’s improvement in socio-economic indicators, dowry as a social malady has not been eradicated. Therefore, the various aspects of this issue must be looked into and rather than finding ad hoc solutions to the problem, long-term effective measures should be taken to address the issue.

Dowry – Meaning

`Dowry’ means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage. In the Indian context, the dowry system incorporates payments in the form of capital, durable goods, real estate among others, made to the bridegroom from the family of the bride as a condition for marriage. 

History of dowry in India

  • The origin of the dowry system in India is a matter of debate.
  • The traces of the dowry system in India can be found in the Vedic Ages.
  • The Code of Manu sanctioned dowry and bridewealth in ancient India, but dowry was the more prestigious form and associated with the Brahmanic (priestly) caste.
  • Dowries originally started as “love gifts” for the marriages of upper caste individuals, but during the medieval period, the demands for dowries became a precursor for marriage.
  • The demand for dowries spread to the lower caste, and became a prestige issue, with the system becoming rigid and expensive.
  • It is believed that in medieval times, it was a gift in cash or kind 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.
  • Dowry got more pronounced after the country achieved independence in 1947.
  • Although seeking a dowry has been outlawed in India since 1961, the ban has been a challenge to enforce.
  • In recent decades, dowry has become an essential part of marriage especially in some parts of northern India. This exploitative system has turned the custom of giving gifts and well wishes into a compulsory demand for money, respect and subjugation hindering the growth of Indian society where women are being viewed as a burden on the family.
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Causes of dowry

  • Customs and traditions – A majority of dowry-related cases in India take place to adhere to the customs and traditions of the Indian society. People tend to follow what has been followed through the years and stick to such customs even if it causes discomfort to them.
  • Social structure – The Indian society is mainly patriarchal and the dowry system is largely the manifestation of the patriarchal nature of the Indian society where women are being considered as a burden on the family and giving dowry is one kind of compensation for transferring its burden whereas male offsprings are considered to be superior and breadwinners thus making families demand dowry for them.
  • Fear of ill-treatment – Many families in India give dowry to get rid of their insecurity of ill-treatment of their daughters by their in-laws. There is a perception that giving dowry will ensure their daughter’s security after marriage and non-discrimination.
  • Societal pressure – Many a time, it becomes a matter of status to give dowry. In Indian society, it has become a common phenomenon to measure one’s status by the amount of money one spends on their daughter’s marriage. Similarly, the more educated and well-to-do family, the groom belongs to, the amount of dowry is that high. The pressure thus increases on both fronts, on the bride’s side to pay more, on the groom’s side to demand more.
  • Social constraints – Compulsion to marry within one’s caste or clan further intensifies the problem. These limitations deplete the pool of desirable grooms leading to a lack of desirable options thus helping the desirable side to demand more.
  • Illiteracy – Lack of education and awareness among people persuades them to give and demand dowry. If families were aware that women have equal status as men and they are not to be treated as a burden, then this system might have not perpetuated.
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Effects

  • Gender discrimination– As the trend goes, dowry is one of the heavier financial burdens to be borne by the bride’s family, this invites discrimination against girls right from their birth. They are not educated and treated at par with their male counterparts and are often killed before or after their birth (female foeticide and infanticide).
    • As per the State of World Population 2020 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), India accounts for 45.8 million of the world’s 142.6 million “missing females” over the past 50 years (Missing females are women missing from the population at given dates due to the cumulative effect of postnatal and prenatal sex selection in the past).
    • As per the report, between 2013 and 2017, about 460,000 girls in India were missing’ at birth each year. Gender-biased sex selection accounts for about two-thirds of the total missing girls, and post-birth female mortality accounts for about one-third, the report said.
  • Violence against women – It has been the case that despite the payment of dowry by the bride’s parents, the groom’s families keep on demanding more eventually leading to violence against women. Women are tortured physically and mentally and many are killed and burned. Many women who cannot bear the torture commit suicide.
    • As per the NCRB data, dowry deaths rose from about 19 per day in 2001 to 21 per day in 2016.
    • In 2019, reported dowry death cases in India amounted to more than 7.1 thousand.
    • According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019 data for IPC cases, a woman becomes a victim of dowry death roughly every one hour.
  • Gender imbalance – As the cases of violence against women and dowry-related deaths increase, the malice of sex selection before birth and female foeticide and infanticide rise leading to the fall in the sex ratio leading to gender imbalance which has grim consequences for the future.
    • India’s sex ratio at birth and its child sex ratio has languished at much lower than ideal levels, in large part due to a preference for male children in many parts of the country.
    • Haryana had a gender ratio of 833 females for every 1,000 males in 2015 and 2016. States like Uttarakhand also fair worse on the parameters of sex ratio. 
  • Declined social status and self-esteem of women – Since women face such discrimination from early childhood, they have low self-esteem compared to men of their age. They are made to believe that they are a burden on their families and thus undesirable. Their status is often being considered inferior.

Kerala dowry deaths

  • Recently within two days, three dowry deaths have been reported in Kerala.
  • All three women were below the age of 25. The incidents highlight the spectre of domestic violence and dowry-related persecution in Kerala, sparking conversations about the position of women in a family.
  • It is a matter of wonder that such news comes from the State of Kerala which has the best records of educational development and progressive gender-reform movements through the ages.
  • But the State has also a record of extravagant weddings and vulgar displays of gold. In Kerala, dowry payments, through cash, gold, property and vehicles, continue to be made directly and discreetly despite the Dowry Prohibition Act, enacted in 1961.
  • As per the state police’ crime records bureau, 66 cases of dowry-related deaths and over 15,000 cases of harassment at the hands of husband/relatives have been recorded in the last five years.
  • According to another set of data shared by the state women’s commission, nearly 1,100 cases specifically of dowry-related harassment have come to its attention since 2010 with the capital district of Thiruvananthapuram accounting for nearly half of the cases.
  • Kerala has the highest female unemployment rate in the country according to various rounds of NSSO surveys on employment and unemployment.
  • A report by the economics and statistics department of the Kerala government in 2019 said wide gender disparities exist in the labour market.
  • In such a situation, a man’s income is given more importance leading to dowry demands.
  • Such dowry demands lead to dowry-related violence against women and in some cases even death.

Laws in India

  • The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.
    • Under this Act, dowry is illegal in India. The Act also makes any act to take or give dowry punishable in India. 
    • Even negotiations for the dowry for a lesser deal from the groom’s side when the bride’s side is unable to fulfil the actual demand/real deal’ and the act of making the bride’s family fulfil demands as compensation for marrying their daughter after the wedding are all punishable under the law.
    • The punishment for violating the anti-dowry law is imprisonment for up to 5 years and a fine of Rs. 15,000 or the value of dowry given, whichever is more.
  • The Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections.
    • Section 304B deals with dowry death in India. It states that if a woman dies within seven years of marriage by any burns or bodily injury or it was revealed that before her marriage she was exposed to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any other relative of the husband in connection to demand dowry then the death of the woman will be considered as dowry death.
    • Section 498A deals with cruelty. It states that if a husband or any relative of him causes mental or physical harm to a woman then they will be held punishable under this section.
  • Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
    • 113B deals with the presumption as to dowry death. It states that if a woman dies concerning any demand for dowry and it was shown that soon before her death she was subjected to harassment or cruelty by any person. Then the court will assume such a person responsible for her death.

Suggestions

  • Proper implementation of anti-dowry laws may help. In addition, misuse of such laws must be checked.
  • Women should be encouraged to become self-dependent and efforts should be made to make education accessible to every girl child.
  • Efforts to spread awareness should be made against dowry and dowry-related violence and women should be made aware of their rights. Awareness campaigns should be organised at school and local levels.
  • People should be encouraged not to practice such traditions which harm women rather treat women at par with their male counterparts and help them live a dignified life.
  • Social practices like marriage within one’s caste or clan should be abolished so that there is the availability of a wide range of choices and women are not forced to enter into marriage with a person with dowry demands.

Conclusion

As we see, the problem of dowry is multi-faceted with several dimensions to be dealt with. The causes of dowry and its effects have grim implications for society. With women playing a major role in society, the onus lies with them as well to fight this social evil and help other women stand against it. Women education and their empowerment with change in the social mindset is the way forward.

Practise Question

Q. Comment on the prevalence of the dowry system in India and its effects on women.

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