Dowry refers to “the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband or his family in marriage.” Dowry is most common in cultures that are strongly patrilineal and the norm is for the women to reside with or near their husband’s family. It has a long history in Europe, South Asia, Africa, as well as other parts of the world. In this article, we take a look into the history and the sociological and psychological aspects of the dowry problem.
History of dowry
One of the main reasons a dowry was given is to serve the basic functions of protection for the wife against the possibility of ill-treatment by her husband or his family. A dowry was used in this way as a conditional gift that was supposed to be returned to the wife or her family if the husband divorces, abuses or treats her in a poor manner. Land and precious metals have often been used as a common form of dowry. A dowry is also meant to help a new husband fulfil the duties and responsibilities that go with marriage, especially in the case of young couples who need financial help in setting up. These exchanges are also not purely economic but serve the purpose of ratifying the marriage and strengthening the friendship and bond between the two families.
In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the dowry was also often used to enhance the desirability of a woman for marriage and add to the power and wealth of great families. Dowries even had the power to determine the frontiers and policies of states. The use of dowries declined and pretty much disappeared in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In South Asia, however, dowries grew in popularity at the end of the 20th century, even though they were declared illegal by governments. Dowry was made illegal in India in 1961 by The Dowry Prohibition Act which states: “In this act, ‘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; or by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of said parties.” This is also protected by The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
Sociological aspects of dowry
Despite these rigid laws, there are loopholes that have not been resolved and the practice continues to thrive and makes women vulnerable to domestic violence and death. Although dowry or “stree-dhan” was primarily meant to remain a woman’s inheritance and a gift from her family at the time of marriage over which the groom’s family had no rights, demand for higher dowry has become increasingly common. Along with this demand for dowry, harassment and torture of newly-wed brides and even bride burning in some cases are seen as tactics to pressure the brides family into paying more dowry. There is a correlation between domestic violence and dowry, higher rates of mistreatment and abuse are seen in cases where the groom and his family are displeased with the dowry payment they received.
In fact, a research study on around 40,000 marriages in rural India in the last few decades showed that a dowry was paid in 95% of marriages. They also found that the amount of dowry being paid has remained fairly stable over time. There were, however, some states like Kerala, Punjab and Gujarat saw inflation in dowry while some other states like Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Maharashtra recorded a decrease in average dowry. In the year 2007, the average dowry in rural India was 14% of the annual household income. Another interesting finding from the study was that dowry was prevalent among all major religious groups in India. Christians and Sikhs, in fact, showed a striking increase in dowry which led to higher average dowries than Hindus and Muslims.
Even as recently as 2015, there were many websites that offered “dowry calculators” that gave an estimate of the groom’s expected dowry based on his educational qualifications and employment status. In April of 2015, shaadi.com, a matrimonial website, launched a dowry calculator and redirected people to a page that reported the number of dowry deaths in India during the last decade to raise awareness around issues linked to dowry. This calculator was, however, used by around two lakh people within a month of its launch. As per the data released by The National Crime Records Bureau, approximately 21 women die every day in India due to dowry-related crimes as of 2019.
A study conducted by Chander et. al. (2017) in villages in Haryana found that many socio-cultural factors influenced the level of problems faced by the respondents in relation to dowry demands. It was found that joint families were more likely to face dowry-related problems than nuclear ones. It was also observed that illiterate families and families from the scheduled caste had faced high levels of problems with dowry. Another interesting finding was that people who were frequently exposed to mass media had lower levels of problems with dowry than those who were not. Many different reasons were also cited for dowry-related problems like “greed” of the groom’s family, social customs and traditions, illiteracy etc (Chander et. al, 2017).
Despite the laws put in place to prevent the payment and demand of dowry, dowry-related continue to exist even now. There was a case of dowry-related suicide in Kerala as recently as June 2021. The problem of dowry will continue to plague our society and the only solution is to raise awareness and educate people about the harms of such practices.
In addition to the religious and sociocultural factors that contribute to dowry and dowry-related violence, there are psychological factors as well. A paper by Rastogi and Therly discusses the role of the mother-in-law. They talk about how women in Indian households are financially dependant on men and construct a lot of their identities around serving their husbands and sons. After her son’s marriage, however, the woman loses some importance in her son’s life and this can be distressing. This results in them trying to gain power over the bride and control their lives. Dissatisfaction with the dowry amount can add to this problem. Additionally, young women are taught to respect and serve their in-laws unconditionally which leads to a cycle of abusing power. The mother-in-law who was once also treated the same way sees the new bride as an opportunity to take back control and this can lead to abuse and violence.
Additionally, the low self-esteem, guilt, isolation and volatility of the abusive situation can lead young women to be trapped in a dysfunctional relationship where they are traumatically attached to their abusers. The societal structure which leads women to believe they are inferior can make them feel worthless and dependant on their husbands.
Therapeutic interventions can help trauma and abuse victims get better and learn to have healthy relationships. Feminist therapy that looks at family issues, helps build self-esteem and tries to solve conflicts in a non-violent manner should be accessible to all women. However, structural societal changes for empowering women and ensuring that brides are not dependent on the groom to provide for them can also be a helpful measure. We have come a long way, but we still have quite a long way to go before dowry is completely eradicated.
Also Read: Domestic Violence in India