India’s Dowry Culture

In virtually every corner of the globe women are denied basic human rights, beaten, raped, and killed by men. This happened yesterday, it is happening right now, and it will happen tomorrow. In many regions of the world, longstanding customs put considerable pressure on women to accept abuse. Patriarchal oppression is seen all over the world, where a woman’s sole purpose in life is to serve her father, brothers, and husband for the entirety of her existence. These women are viewed as second-class citizens and controlled, dominated, and undervalued by modern-day society. This lifelong cycle of violence is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men.

Violence against women has a long history in the world, but especially in India. The country’s extreme caste system, cultural customs, and gender inequality have aided in the creation a male dominated society. This extreme gender inequality and the continuation of a “culture of silence” are the foremost reasons that violence in India has persisted.

One of India’s more extreme evidence of abuse is seen through dowry practices, commonly found throughout India amongst Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Dowry transactions go way back in Indian culture. Traditionally, dowry customs were an act of love as parents would gift their daughter with a dowry when she entered marriage. These gifts range from money to real estate and entitled a woman to be a full member of the husband’s family, allowing her to enter the marital home with her own wealth. It was seen as a substitute for an inheritance, offering some security to the wife, and was a gift from her family.

As times changed, the pressures of cash economy, introduced under British colonial rule, the dowry like many of the structures of pre-capitalist India, was transformed into a vital source of income for families desperate to meet pressing social needs. Under many burdens such as heavy land taxes, peasant families are compelled to find cash where they can or they lose their land. As a result, the dowry has increasingly become a common source of income for the husband’s family. It is seen as a dreaded payment on demand that follows the marriage, equating to a family paying a man to wed their daughter, in which the groom works with his family to demand the maximum price for marriage.

These dowry demands do not end at the marriage agreement, they can go on for many years. The birth of children often becomes an occasion for the husband’s family to command more money. The inability of the bride’s family to comply often leads to the daughter-in-law being abused, killed, or led to commit suicide to make way for a new financial transaction when the husband remarries.

The effect of the dowry culture can be traced back to the womb and is considered one of the primary causes for female foeticide, as parents try to avoid the life-long liability and the burden of saving up for a daughter’s marriage. This creates a disproportionate sex ratio in the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, it is estimated in India there are 1.08 boys to every girl- meaning to every 10,000 girls there are 10,800 boys. Male babies are typically favored and viewed as an investment because they receive a dowry from the bride’s family.

Dowry transactions have become a social evil and the families of Indian grooms make endless demands of the bride’s family. In extreme cases, the newlywed bride can be murdered by her in-laws or even driven to commit suicide. Many victims are burnt to death by being doused with kerosene and set on fire. The husband and his family claim it was a kitchen accident with the kerosene stove. Often, the purpose of the dowry burning is to afford the husband the opportunity to remarry and receive additional dowry payments from his next wife’s family.

Women in Agra, India. (Paula Rey/Flickr)

There are numerous reasons given by husbands and their families to ‘justify’ a dowry burning such as; the woman was not fulfilling her role as a good wife, she did not bring enough dowry to the marriage, she did not produce a male heir…the list goes on. When foul play is suspected, the family claims it was a suicide and the wife could not adjust to family life and subsequently killed herself. According to The Times of India, on May 31, 2013, a woman in Mohali allegedly committed suicide after she had complained of dowry harassments by her husband and his family.

India’s National Crime Bureau reported that there were approximately 8,233 dowry murders in 2012. Keep in mind this shocking statistic only accounts for the number of reported cases. Families are often reluctant to report abuse to the police for fear of retaliation. It also takes decades for the simplest case in India’s overloaded courts to be decided, after which the litigants file appeal petitions leading to further delay and denial of timely justice for victims and their families. The National Crime Bureau reported that in 2012 there were more than 93 million cases awaiting trial and only a little more than 12 million were tried.

In 1961, India’s government created the Dowry Prohibition Act, which was amended in 1984 and 1986, making the dowry practice a criminal offense. But despite being illegal for decades, dowry transactions are becoming more uncontrolled and practiced. The anti-dowry laws in India punish both families, so burdens are placed on the women for fear of her family receiving punishment for seeking protection. These laws have done little to prevent dowries and the violence associated with them. Police and courts are notorious for turning a blind eye to cases of violence against women. It was not even until 1983 that India’s government recognized domestic violence punishable by law with the introduction of Section 498-A into the Indian Penal Code.

But why is this? How can an economically progressive country continue this rising oppression? Why are dowries still practiced? In the 1990’s when India transformed from a state-controlled economy to a free market system, the evil dowry custom became more severe with greedy grooms backed by their families seeking to get rich through their ill-fated brides. In today’s society, many view the wife and her family as cash cows. The pressure of this expense on the bride’s family is enormous and many families take out loans to meet outrageous demands.

This is troubling, not only because it is still occurring at a rapid rate, but because there has been significant progress with India’s economy. India has seen substantial economic progress and has one of the fastest-growing middle classes in the world. India is a member of BRICS and is labeled one of the largest and most influential economies of the 21st century. In fact, Pratibha Patil was elected as India’s first female president from 2007 to 2012. There is no denying that the country has seen enormous strides for women in fields from corporate office to politics, however, multiple reports rank India as the worst place to be female. A Thomas Reuters Foundation poll recently ranked India as the world’s fourth most dangerous country for a woman, behind only Afghanistan, Congo, and Pakistan.

The traditional and customary practices of such extreme violence are often times exacerbated by social pressures. Women feel shame and have difficulty coming forward. They have a lack of education, legal information, aid, protection, and inadequate efforts from public authorities to enforce laws and protect them. India needs a cultural revolution. It must be recognized that the reason this violence occurs is because men dominate, control, and oppress women. It is imperative that their society works toward changing the socialization of men to be aware of the gender discrimination that exists. Because discrimination against women begins in the womb, a sweeping change in attitudes of both sexes is vital. The value of a female child must be equal to that of a male.

To combat the violence, the country needs to work towards changing men’s beliefs and attitudes. Young children must be taught in their home and greater community that men and women are equal. The people with the power – the judges, lawyers and teachers much change their ideas and enforce the existing laws. As a society, India must come together and reject the dowry process. If they don’t, then how can the Indian government possibly expect its’ country to progress while it actively hinders justice for half of its citizens?

Simply put, if India’s society fails to protect half of its population, it cannot be categorized progressive.