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Dowry in India: Practice or ill- practice?

Dowry in India: Practice or ill- practice?

By Veenu Singh

The last several hundred years of women’s history in India has been painted black with dowry related incidences of murder, female foeticide/infanticide and domestic violence. An examination of dowry’s history reveals that it is neither an exceptional nor a recent social phenomenon in India. Many societies in the earlier days of civilization had such practices. While such practices in most western societies vanished with modernization, they became more widespread and inflationary in India. Modernizing forces, namely colonialism and commercialization, have been at work in India for years, and they would prima facie be expected to suppress such primitive practices. However, even after more than forty years of its prohibition, the practice has spread and has increasingly ingrained itself in the institution of marriage.

A dowry is the transfer of parental property to a daughter as her inheritance at her marriage (i.e. inter vivos) rather than at the owner’s death (mortis causa). A dowry establishes a type of conjugal fund, the nature of which may vary widely. Dowry contrasts with the related concepts of bride price and dower. While bride price (or bride service) is a payment by the groom or his family to the bride’s parents, dowry is the wealth transferred from the bride’s family to the groom or his family, ostensibly for the bride. Similarly, dower is the property settled on the bride herself by the groom at the time of marriage and which remains under her ownership and control.

The tensions between India’s patriarchal traditions and modernism can be seen in the struggle against dowry violence. 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.

Dowry (dahej) is one of the most ancient practices of India. The Vedas prescribe that a dowry be given by the bride’s family to the groom. The Rig Veda states that cows and gifts given by the Aryan father of the bride to the daughter accompanied the bride’s procession. ‘Kakshivat’ in the Vedas says he became rich by the father-in-law giving him 10 chariots and maids and 1060 cows during the marriage ceremony . Dowry is referred to as `Streedhana’ and is an ancient practice. This custom implied that women were, in addition to being viewed as mere sex objects, severe economic liabilities for the parents. Indeed, the Brahmins raised the level of dowry to such ridiculous levels that the non-Brahmins were forced to murder their female children or face economic ruin. In this manner, the non-Brahmins exterminated their own females, perpetuating Brahmin dominance. We see this philosophy in action today. As per the book “Genocide of Women in Hinduism” authored by Sita Agarwal, over the last 65 years, more than 50 million female children have been  murdered as a result of Vedic dowry and infanticide laws.In the book aforesaid the author says that the ancient Vedic custom of kanyadan, where the father presented his daughter with jewellery and clothes at the time of her marriage, and vardakshina where the father presented the groom with cash and kind are, in essence the dowry system. This curse is fully sanctioned in the Vedas. These examples show that dowry was practiced in ancient times. Thus, in order to marry Sita to `godly’ Rama, her father had to supply her with 100 crores of gold mohurs, 10000 carriages, 10 lakh horses, 60000 elephants, 100000 male slaves, 50000 female slaves, 2 crores of cows and 100000 pearls, and many other items . Thus, dowry, which is the very root of the Hindu evils of sati and bride-burning, is given `divine’ sanction by the `noble’ Hindu gods.

The ancient marriage rites in the Vedic period are associated with Kanyadan. It is laid down in Dharamshastara that the meritorious act of Kanyadan is not complete till the bridegroom was given a dakshina. So when a bride is given over to the bridegroom, he has to be given something in cash or kind which constitute varadakshina. The varadakshina was offered out of affection and did not constitute any kind of compulsion or consideration for the marriage. It was a voluntary practice without any coercive overtones. In the course of time, the voluntary element in dowry has disappeared and the coercive element has crept in. It has taken deep roots not only in the marriage ceremony but also post-marital relationship. What was originally intended to be a taken dakshina for the bridegroom has now gone out of proportions and has assumed the nomenclature ‘dowry’.

In medieval India, a gift in cash or kind was given to a bride by her family to maintain her independence after marriage.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. Denigration of women has ruined our society.

In modern Indian political discourse, the custom of dowry is often represented as the cause of serious social problems, including the neglect of daughters, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and harassment, abuse  etc. This fact that it is condemned by every modern citizen of this country and yet it still flourishes at a very large scale in our society is a testimony of how deeply rooted this system is in the Indian society.The dowry system is responsible to a great extent for child marriage and discrimination against girls. If a girl is married at a tender age, a small amount of dowry will work, but if the girl is educated and qualified, she needs an equal amount of dowry to get a bridegroom of the same status.

For centuries, Indian tradition required a bride’s family to provide her with gold, jewellery or other items of value. This “dowry” was designed as a means to entitle the future wife to be a full member of the husband’s family, enabling her to enter the marriage with her own financial resources and economic security in the case of an emergency. But the old custom was transformed during the British rule. In her book, “Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime,” Veena Talwar Oldenburg, writes that in the pre-colonial period, dowry was an institution managed by women, for women, to enable them to establish their status in society.However, “as a consequence of the massive economic and societal upheaval brought on by the British Raj, women’s entitlements to the precious resources obtained from the land were erased and their control of the system diminished, ultimately resulting in a devaluing of their very lives.” It all started with the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793 by the British under Lord Cornwallis. This enabled private ownership of land which was unknown in India till then.The move which affected the status of the women in the Indian society was the rule imposed by the British which prohibited the women from owning any property at all.And this was what created the menace of dowry system in India.But once the British prohibited women from having any property rights, it meant that all the wealth that a woman got from her parents would be owned by her husband instead. And the moment, this system of husband owning the wealth of his wife was created, the traditional dowry system got converted into a menace creating an institution of greed that oppressed, victimized and suppressed women. The greed that kicked in created a system where husband and his family started looking at the incoming bride as a source of property and wealth, the male dominated society became greedy, husband and in-laws started demanding more dowry from the bride and her parents. The social harmony and the bonding created by the institution of marriage was gone. Marriage became just another business deal, where making wealth was more easy. Male child became an additional source of income, and female child became a financial burden on the family. This led to the creation of the social problems like female foeticide and an imbalance in male-female ratio in the society, which further led to more crimes on women.The social reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including Raja Ram Mohan Roy,Gandhi ji and Swami Vivekanand heavily criticized the institution of dowry and had to strive hard for the abolition of the evil of dowry system.

Unfortunately, the dowry system is still prevalent in India despite the provision in the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961. It says  that: “If any person, after the commencement of this Act, gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years, and with fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more.” Section 498A of Indian Penal Code (IPC) states that husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty.—Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be pun­ished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.For the purpose of this section, “cruelty” means—

(a) Any willful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or

(b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.

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.

The 1983 Criminal Law Act made cruelty to the wife by the husband or his relatives an offense, but it focused on punishing the perpetrator, while failing to recognize and fulfill women’s needs for immediate and emergency relief.The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) in 2005 was formulated following a decade of sustained advocacy and activism by the women’s movement in India. Drafted by the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative through a consultative process and with support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, the law built on the real experiences of women. By centering on the need to protect women and to enable them to negotiate a life free of violence, the law broke the myth that for victims, justice is limited to tougher penalties.The Tamil Nadu state government introduced in 1992 so-called All Women Police Units to respond to such cases and other crimes against women. There are now some 200 such police stations in the southern state alone.

India’s economic boom has only served to intensify the widespread menace as more prosperous in-laws have more opulent expectations. For many Indians, whose average salary is about $700 a year after taxes, such marital remunerations can become a severe financial burden, and if unmet, often result in fatal consequences for the prospective brides. Alarming rates of infanticide and feticide amount to even more victims of the dowry system, as girls are seen as monetary burdens even before their birth. As a result, the female-to-male ratio has fallen to 914-to-1,000—the lowest since India’s independence in 1947, according to census 2011 data.

Contrary to what one might think, the dowry practice is particularly common within India’s emerging urban middle class, a demographic typically assumed to be more progressive than impoverished, rural societies around the world. According to 2007 statistics from an India-based publication, “Dowry, the North Indian Perspective,” 90 percent of murdered brides were educated, 30 percent were college graduates, and 20 percent worked outside of the home and contributed to the family.It’s a highly personal issue and is often kept between families, which may explain why the government has had such difficultly eradicating it. For many socially conscious citizens, taking the matter into their own hands is seen as their only hope.Another issue is that the inability to pay a dowry is seen as source of serious dishonor in India’s socially stratified society, so families are often willing to pay in order to ensure the integrity of both the daughter’s marriage and the family name. The groom’s family naturally accepts such payments as a source of income that often keeps on giving even after the couple has been wed.Yes, indeed, the giving, taking and killing for dowry is still alive and kicking in “Incredible India”.

Dowry-related violence is widespread in India. In 2011 alone, the National Crime Records Bureau reported 8,618 dowry harassment deaths. Unofficial figures show that these numbers are at least three times as high.Official statistics show a steady rise in dowry crimes. More than 9,5000 women are killed every year in India over dowry.According to data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 8,391 reported cases of dowry deaths in 2010. That is just under double the number of cases registered in 1995 — 4,648 cases. Statistics tell a story, but not the whole story. For every dowry death reported, there must be dozens that go unreported. Of the 8,391 reported cases in 2010, although 93.2 per cent were charge-sheeted, the conviction rate was a miserable 33.6 per cent.There are two main reasons as to why so few perpetrators are convictedThe first is the poor quality of police investigations which can be due to limited law enforcement training as well as a lack of resources.Many police officers accept bribes from families of the accused and then refuse to take cases forward.Trials costs time and money and may not always be affordable, especially for victims from middle and lower classes.The stigma attached to the often lengthy legal proceedings reduces chances of reconciliation, leading to many of the disputes being settled outside the courtroom. According to NCRB figures, “on average, one Indian woman commits suicide every four hours over a dowry dispute notwithstanding existence of laws for their empowerment.”

Despite a 1989 amendment to Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), shifting the burden of proof to the husband and his family, the process of getting a conviction remains fraught because of loopholes in the law and the inability of the victim’s family to establish the link between dowry demands and the death. Often, it is impossible to take the dying declaration, as the victim is barely alive. Even when it is taken, the police handling is shoddy and careless, allowing a clever defence to tear it apart during trial.The official figures of dowry deaths are obviously just the tip of the iceberg. A truer picture would emerge if we added the cases of young married women registered as having committed suicide as well as cases filed under Section 498A of the IPC dealing with harassment from husband and relatives. In the NCRB crime data, there were 94,041 cases filed under 498A in 2010, up from 28,579 in 1995.

The fact remains that despite changes in the law, growing awareness of it, more education, more economic progress, women are bought and sold for a price under the institution of marriage. In the 1980s, at the height of the campaign against dowry, one read of brave young women who rejected proposals when asked for a dowry. Women’s group demonstrated outside marriage halls where dowry was given. There was much writing in the media against the custom.

Dowry has not disappeared. It has morphed.And women continue to pay the price.Seema Sirohi, in her interesting book Sita’s Curse, Stories of Dowry Victims, gives this humorous yet apt description of dowry as it has come to be today: Dowry has become a bribe paid to a husband to keep the bride’s body and soul together. A woman is a mere conduit to a ‘good’ dowry — the definition of good being flexible and expandable. The boys are on sale and there are few discounts in the marriage market. There is no ‘buy one, get one free’ here. It is a transaction weighted against the woman. In fact, it is a sale where even after the price is paid, satisfaction is not guaranteed. And ironically, the sale is never complete with marriage — the buyer is expected to keep paying in cash and in kind during festivals, to celebrate childbirth and to mark ritualistic occasions. Any excuse is good enough to keep the one-way street laden and moving with gifts.Touchy as we Indians are about a whole host of things, the fact that women are still being burned for dowry in modern-day India should enrage us. Why are we accepting of this outrage, this insult to the sensibilities of all women? We should be burning dowry, not women.

Inspite of modernization and women’s increasing role in the market economy, the practice of the dowry in India is becoming more widespread, and the value of dowries is increasing. There are many well-documented adverse consequences of the dowry system, particularly for women. This is a study of attitudes toward the dowry system among married women in the northern province of Bihar  in which the dowry has strong roots in tradition. Hypotheses regarding antecedents involving attachment to tradition, exposure to modernizing influences, and self-interest were developed. Each set of factors has some effects, and nearly two thirds of the women in the survey disapprove of the dowry. The practice may be quite resistant to change, however, because its social and economic consequences carry tangible benefits in an increasingly materialistic culture.Weddings are increasingly becoming business transactions. The rise in living standards has led to a growing culture of greed. Now the demands have gone up to expensive gadgets, cars or flats, when earlier they were related to clothes, jewelry and other less expensive commodities

At the same time, however, women benefit from dowries in several ways, and these benefits may be increasingly important in a culture that is becoming more materialistic and consumer-oriented. Historically, the dowry may have served as a form of premortem inheritance for women, because only men were entitled to inherit family property . It may also have been a way of compensating the groom and his family for the economic support they would provide to the new wife, because women had little or no role in the market economy and would be dependent upon their husbands and in-laws.This interpretation is consistent with the fact that the dowry was historically practiced largely in the upper castes, among whom women’s economic roles were particularly restricted. In the lower castes, where women were more likely to be economic contributors to their families, the custom of the bride-price was more common.

If the economic dependence of women is causally related to the custom of the dowry, women’s increasing role in the market economy of India should bring about a decrease in the occurrence and magnitude of dowries. Although there are state-level variations, the ratio of female workers per 100 male workers in India has been increasing steadily in the last several decades. These ratios are considerably underestimated in official statistics because female workers are often missed during data collection, or families do not acknowledge women’s contributions to household income because of cultural disapproval of women working outside the home . But despite the significant participation of women in the labor force, dowries are becoming even more common.

Dowry deaths in India are a consequence of the intensive competitive expansion of capitalism within the intricate web of hierarchical relations-the widening gap between the rich and the poor,the intensification of gender stratification,as well as India’s subordinate position in the world market.In this extremely competitive environment,dowry demands are one method of attempting upward mobility.Dowry demands are just one of the attempts for men to raise their status,at the expense of women.

Citizens need to practice dowry prohibition and educate the members of family with the provisions of law – that demanding and accepting or giving dowry is an offence.Every woman has to realize that she is an important member of family and is entitled to all the rights and privileges a man enjoys.If in any family there is a growing dispute between the in-laws and the lady,we need to try to intervene to sort out the differences and educate them about the evils of dowry system. Women organizations such as NCW and other NGOs need to be more active in informing the jurisdictional police and counseling centres regarding dowry cases and should provide shelter to the women in distress. Like-minded people who are fighting against this evil should gather public sympathy and support to ex-communicate the families where the evil persists.Ladies in distress, generally avoid showing their resentment to ill-treatment till it reaches a dangerous point leading to their being burnt to death.therefore,any suspicion of ill treatment of a lady in any house should be immediately informed to the local Police.

Dowry in all its multi-dimensionality needs to be tackled at various levels. There is a need for both long-term measures for socio economic reforms as well as short-term life saving tactics. To provide immediate life saving mechanism there is need for a professional support system, which can provides sanctuary for dowry victims, and also prepare them for an independent life. The long term plans need to aim at changing societal attitudes towards women and empowering them. A good starting point could be educational programmes targeted at increasing gender awareness amongst the coming generation to be run at school and college level, with the aim of mobilizing the younger cohort to question the patriarchal structure ingrained in the idea of marriage. Moreover there is a need for stricter property right regime to improve the economic status of daughters as well as fortified enforcement of dowry laws as an effective deterrent to the practice of dowry and bride burning. Such practical steps along with the mass communication and educational programmes to publicize anti-dowry ideology may trigger a much-needed initiative in addressing the eminent problem of dowry in India and lead us to a more equitable society. Dowry practices were not an outgrowth of tradition, that modernization simply failed to remedy, rather dowry has been institutionalized by processes like globalization and colonization themselves and has resulted in a gender stratified marriage system with negative consequences for women in India.


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