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.

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January 21, 2010 Posted by | dowry, gender equality, human rights, india | 7 Comments