Are we like this only?

Understanding (and shaping) India

Why is dowry prevalent in India?

I think we can all agree that dowry deaths are  a social stigma that India should get rid off. We cannot be seen as a progressive society if so many young women are killed because their husbands and in-laws are unhappy with the dowry they have received (some chilling statistics here and here on the number of reported dowry deaths).

Even if the  real numbers are significantly larger, they would still represent a tiny fraction of India’s population. But, it would be incorrect to conclude that this a practice that affects only a few. For the effect of dowry is not felt solely by the victims (and families of victims) of dowry deaths and harassment, but by the entire society.

Dowry is a manifestation of a greater social evil, one where women are thought of as a burden first on her parents and later on her husband and in-laws. Hence, the groom’s family is supposed to be compensated by the bride’s parents for taking this burden of their shoulders. Such a practice that stems from a belief that roughly half the population of the country is not equal to the other half is definitely detrimental for society, both from humanitarian and economic points of view. From an economic perspective, it is high sub-optimal when one half of the population is not allowed to contribute to the country’s economic growth.

Why then is dowry prevalent in India despite being illegal since 1961? This practice seems to ignore the borders of religion, caste, state, education and wealth. There might be an inverse correlation between education levels of the bride and likelihood of her family giving dowry (or like Levitt and Dubner suggested in Superfreakonomics, between spread of cable television and domestic abuse in India). But there are enough cases in each of our personal lives that show that television and education alone are not enough to do away with the practice of dowry.

Not convinced, then ask yourself how you react when you hear of someone in your family or friends circle, asking or giving dowry. Do you cajole, berate and threaten until we convince them or do you choose to look the other way and say, “We are like this only”? Most of us (if we are being honest with ourselves) will answer that we turn a blind eye to dowry when we see it happening in front of us.

The reasons that I can see for dowry being so prevalent are that:

1. Indian society continues to view women as a liability. People who take dowry believe that it is their right because they are taking on someone else’s liability, and people who give dowry feel they need to pay compensation for passing on their liability to someone else. At the heart of this is the feeling that women are not breadwinners.

2. People, who ask for dowry, are sure they can get away with it from the law and that there will be no societal sanctions imposed against them.

3. People, who give dowry, do so because they don’t want to be seen as rebelling against traditions or because they feel that it improves their social stature.

4. People who see it happening will look the other way even if they disagree with the practice. This is because they don’t realize that dowry is an externality for which they too are sharing the cost.

Getting rid of the scourge of dowry requires a multi-pronged approach. Here are some conventional approaches that many are trying:

i. More opportunities for women of all strata and education backgrounds to become financially independent.

ii. More awareness campaigns on how the entire society suffers if one family accepts dowry.

iii. Better enforcement of the law.

And here are some unconventional ideas that might be a little tougher to implement:

a. Increasing the minimum age of marriage for men and women to 24. This will do wonders for our population growth rate as well.

b. Encourage more youngsters to date and find their own spouses (preferably outside their own community) instead of relying on arranged marriages.  Marriage is a union of two people and not a contract between families. There could be some government subsidies given to people who marry outside their community.

c. Encourage young couples to move out of their joint family house after marriage. This way, they are not a burden on anyone but each other. This can be done by offering cheap housing to those starting out in life.

d. Neighbourhood watch programs (like in the US to keep crime and drugs out of the neighbourhood) could help law enforcement agencies by  educating their neighbourhood on the evils of dowry and reporting anyone who indulges in dowry.

Please share your own ideas.


January 21, 2010 - Posted by | dowry, gender equality, human rights, india


  1. I was scared to even post a comment.Pathetic huh?
    Nicely thought and written article.Being brought up in a village myself I do know that some parents still don’t accept if their daughter tries to marry without giving dowry.
    Beauty and physical perfection is emphasized so strictly in arranged marriages.I have seen grooms asking for more if the girl is physically handicapped.My own sister is completely handicapped.She is a doctor.Yet my parents married her off to an uneducated guy with lots of dowry.In their defense,he was the only guy willing to marry her.She was almost killed for more dowry before we got her back alive.My mom is still ashamed to accept that my sister is divorced.Years of Societal Stigma/fear?
    This situation can be changed if the parents love their children more than they love the society and relatives.That’s the answer.That’s the root cause of all of this.Love for society and status becomes more important than the love for children.:(.Also fear of the backlash from the relatives and impact on the rest of the kids.
    There is a fear of cops among the lower strata and I think its rightly so.We need more woman’s organizations pitching in and government funding for the same.The dowry cases should be dealt mostly by the women cops to instill a sense of security among the victims.How to bring all this about is the biggest question.

    Comment by Mrs.Anon | January 22, 2010 | Reply

    • @Mrs. Anon: Thank you for overcoming your fear to post your comment and congratulations on being the first to comment on my blog. I admire the candour in your post and I am sure that it must not have been easy for you to be so forthright.

      I don’t understand why parents feel this burning needs to get their children, especially daughters, married off. What’s wrong in being single until you meet someone you care for, or for that matter what’s wrong in not getting married at all? If the child is financially independent like your sister would have eventually become given that she is a doctor, then how can that child be thought of as a burden?

      We have to start thinking for ourselves and stop thinking of what other think about us. I know… easier said than done.

      Comment by Ranjit | January 23, 2010 | Reply

  2. I wonder about the thought process for providing incentives to those marrying someone outside one’s community. Certainly, there are marriages within one’s community that are arranged and have no dowry? And what of those who fall in love with people from their own community? If we incentivize marrying outside one’s community are we not effectively penalizing those who marry within their community?

    Both nuclear and joint families have benefits. But I don’t think the nuclear family will have that much of an impact with regard to dowry. On the contrary, the dowry would perhaps be considered more important since the new couple is starting out on their own.

    I enjoy reading the blog, well written and thoughtful.

    Comment by Arpita Verghese | March 24, 2010 | Reply

  3. i would love if my parents get the share of raising me ( meher as they have it in the muslim community ) but i would hate if i was asked to give dowry. it is always good if you are on the recieving end?

    Comment by anrosh | May 2, 2010 | Reply

  4. Not all suicides by married women can be considered due to dowry harresment which is what the womens organizations are trying to do. Suicides happen due to misunderstanding that arise is any relationship especially in marriage relationship. It is happening throughout the world not only in India. It happens in both men and women. Infact sucides amoung married men is more commen than married women in India. Most of the deaths (suicide) in married women are registered as dowry deaths rather than suicides as such, as all the police need is a compliant form the brides side as they would be obviously upset and would try to take revenge and further the Indian police never care to investigate the true reason. This is what exactly happend in my friends case where she commited suicide because of the misunderstandig she had with her husband. My friends parents complained the boys family and put their extended family in Jail and some of them have not even intracted with my friend. This is a total misuse of the system. I feel bad for my friend’s husband and his family.

    Comment by Pooja | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  5. It all starts with the girs parents, where in most instences the girls parents out of greed they spend all their savings and even they take loan to get the best guy for their daughter. They compete with others by offering more money. They take pride in giving dowry and spending huge money in marriage, getting the most expensive car in the market for their future son in law. Once the marriage breaks down due to misunderstanding or any other reason the whole dowry givers who once took pride in what thay have done, all of the sudden cry foul. They start throwing allegation that their daughter is been harresed for dowry. Try to slam the boys side with all possible false dowry cases to take revenge. This is what happens in most of the cases. Dowry harresment is painted as the resason in all marriage failures as it is easy to do and the Hypocritic socity will also belive this. Misunderstanding is common in any marriage and it happens in all over the world. Only in India dowry harresment can be used as a reason for the marriage failure and that is the reason for the exagerated number (Falsely) of dowry related violence in India. The right solution should be to cure the problem from where it starts. Implement the existing law to punish the dowri harresment. The law agency should watch for any dowry exchange happening in the marriages and the concerned parties should be punished. Let the brides parents report when some one demands dowry (How many case has so for registered at the time of marrige- none). It always happen when the thing go wrong with the couple. Further destroying the Jont family system is not a solution, rather it the pillar of our Indian culture which we are loosing day by day.

    Comment by Kavitha | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  6. it starts with girl parents . so we should make people aware by making posters and by doing advertisement . we should all make our country proud .

    Comment by resshma nair | December 1, 2010 | Reply

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