Dowry System In India: Then And Now

Posted on December 28, 2010 in Specials

By Vineeta Chawla:

One of the biggest menaces of the Indian society is the dowry system. This fact that it is condemned by every modern citizen of this country and yet it still flourishes at a very large scale in our society is a testimony of how deeply rooted this system is in the Indian society.

Dowry (dahej) is one of the most ancient practices of India and Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘an amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage’. But the origins of dowry are far nobler than we imagine. Dowry was started by wealthy businessmen, kings and other influential people of the society as a means to give girls their due in the ancestral property as in those times, even till recent times, all the money and property went to the sons only. Later on it was used to provide “seed money” or property for the establishment of a new household. Till then the amount and contents of dowry were decided solely by the parents of the bride.

But now dowry is demanded by the groom’s parents and marriage takes place only if a certain amount of dowry is paid by the bride’s parents. Today dowry is given as compensation to the groom’s parents for the amount they have spent in educating and upbringing their son. It is also considered a status symbol, especially in the high class, and generally the items of dowry are flaunted and hyped by both parties.

The effects of dowry system are many and varied but in almost all cases it is the girl’s side which has to face the repercussions while the boy’s side walks away from the issue unharmed, with their heads held high. When demands for dowry are not met, the bride is subject to torture, and often even killed. Most of the dowry deaths occur when the young women, unable to bear the harassment and torture, commit suicide. Most of these suicides are by hanging oneself, poisoning or by fire. Sometimes the woman is killed by setting her on fire which is known as ‘bride burning’ and is disguised as accident to avoid criminal charges and punishment.

The Indian police say that they receive over 2,500 reports of bride-burning alone every year while the number of dowry deaths is about 9000. These numbers increase at a rate of 1-2% every year. It is also a reason why many parents don’t want to have daughters, because of the dowry they will have to shell out at her marriage, and the stress they go through due to never-ending demands from her in-laws. In fact dowry deaths of a newly married bride are regularly in the news.

Bride price, also known as bride wealth, is a reversal of the dowry system. Its an amount of money or property paid by the groom or his family to the parents of a woman upon the marriage. In ancient literature, bride price has often been explained as payment made in exchange for the bride’s family’s loss of her labour and fertility within her kin group. The agreed bride price is generally intended to reflect the perceived value of the girl or young woman. This practice though less prevalent than dowry is still practiced in some rural areas of the country. But it is even worse than dowry as this practice thinks of girls as items that can be sold or bought.

The government has taken many steps to stop the abominable practice of dowry. The Dowry Prohibition Act, passed in 1961, prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of dowry, where “dowry” is defined as a gift demanded or given as a precondition for a marriage. Asking or giving of dowry can be punished by an imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to Rs.5000. many anti-dowry legislations have also been made to tackle the dowry system. The media has also done its bit by showcasing the cases of dowry and its ill-effects.

Today dowry is not the innocent practice that it started out as but has turned into a social menace that cannot be reverted back to its original form; hence it must be eradicated from our society permanently.