By: Yi Ren
In many countries, including China – where I grew up – bride price is very common. This tradition has been criticized in the modern era because many believe it frames women as commodities that can be traded. However, it leaves me with a mindset that marrying a daughter is analogous to bestowing. To my surprise, the situation is opposite in India where I recently completed a research project on the issue. It is common that the bridegroom’s family demand so much dowry from the bride’s family that the bride would suffer both physical and mental torture if her family is not able to meet the demands. Both dowry and bride price were practiced in India; however, dowry gradually became more prevalent.
Originally, the dowry was recognized as a token, a present to a daughter given by her family, or a guarantee of security and dignity for daughters in marriage often in the form of cash, jewelry, and gifts. Nevertheless, the dowry today is no longer a gift but a demand – a kind of capital which generates a parasitic economy of males living off ransom or surplus generated from the girl.
The demand for dowry brings in its wake torture, brutalization, and eventual murder in the form of burnings, electric shocks, or torture. In 1995, the National Crime Bureau of the Government of India reported about 6,000 dowry deaths per year, which was widely believed to be an underestimate. Unofficial estimates put the number of deaths at 25,000 women per year, with many more left maimed and scarred as a result of attempts on their lives.
Faced with the prospect of providing a dowry, women are often forced into prostitution or fall victim to sex trafficking. New forms of bonded labor are being institutionalized where women work for at least three years as capital labor to earn their dowry. There are even girls who are hypothecated to earn money as a sex worker for the marriage of siblings.
Dowry payment and harassment have long been prohibited under specific Indian laws, including the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 followed by Sections 304B and 498A of the Indian Penal Code and section 113B of the Evidence Act. In reality, however, the laws are ineffective due to women’s reluctance to use the criminal law and the inefficiency of the police and the courts. Lacking witness and evidence present additional challenges.
In many places in India, daughters have no inheritance rights or have less rights than sons. Therefore, it is believed that the practice of dowry serves as compensation for inheritance inequality. While their still exists inheritance equality issues, India has made recent progress in lieu of February 2nd Supreme Court ruling which addresses the imbalance.
According to Dr. Sarasu Esther Thomas of the National Law School of India University, the dowry system arose from the historic normative that Indian women were often unemployed and considered family burdens. Sadly, today, even a woman with a stable income still requires a significant dowry.
Apart from cultural practice, the economic factor is the primary driver of the dowry tradition. To change the current situation, empowering women economically is key in addition to strengthening their legal protection and raising the awareness of the harmful impacts of the dowry system. When women can contribute significantly to families economically, the subordinate status in marriage will change gradually and the justification for the dowry system will be weakened.
There are many people and organizations in India working to help women face dowry harassment. The Courts of Women is providing victims a platform to speak out on their personal experiences and stories with an aim to educate the public, raise awareness, record human rights violations, and give voice to marginalized women. Sharana, a local NGO, is offering small scale loan assistance and vocational training to provide women with the necessary skills to start their own business, generate income, and become autonomous. Similarly, NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning is an incubator for Indian women entrepreneurs, providing business training and financial support.
Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The goal ranges from addressing macro issues like equal access to political representation to micro issues such as the just treatment of women within a family. The dowry system in India, which hurts women physically and mentally, must and will be changed.
Yi Ren was a former Program Assistant at UNA-NCA and is a current M.A. candidate at The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The content of this blog was inspired by her recent trip to India where she conducted a research project.