By Nidhi Somani

Dowry: The money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband or his family in marriage. – Encyclopedia Britannica

The amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage. – Oxford Dictionary

Money or property that a wife or wife’s family gives to her husband when the wife and husband marry in some cultures – Webster

For a word that is so ambiguous that the world’s most used dictionaries find different meaning to the same is there not a lot of importance given in the world’s second largest populated country? Whether a wife or her family pays the husband or his family this whole monetary exchange for a relationship that is to be the support system of both the man and woman for their lives is a little preposterous.

Bride price on the other hand is an amount paid by a groom’s family to the bride’s as a promise that they will keep their daughter comfortable. Over the last few decades, there has been an evident turn from the brideprice system to the Dowry system.

For me, both the concepts are extreme but the incredulity lies in the fact that we have travelled from one end of the spectrum where the woman was all-important to where the wealth you get with her has taken precedence.

Historically, Brideprice occurred in 75% of the societies while dowry was in 4% of the societies (World Ethnographic Atlas). However, given that most of the world’s population resided in these societies more people were subject to dowry. Dowry dates back to ancient Greek and Roman cultures to more than 200 BC. This practice then spread to Europe and eventually to all European colonies. Traditionally all agriculture based societies would indulge in brideprice since the role of women in agriculture was huge. The groom’s family would pay “compensation” for loss of productivity to the bride’s family. Most of South Asia still practices only brideprice while China is an example of co-existence of both. While brideprice in China is almost compulsory, dowry is a choice.

One woman died in India every hour on what may be termed a DIRECT dowry death in 2007. Many more suffered physically and emotionally. This number has seen a steady rise. One argument is that there are many unreported cases in a country like India. More and more women are getting less tolerant and fighting for their rights and hence we have more reported cases. In absolute terms may be the total number as a sum of reported and unreported cases have actually decreased. However, even if we consider only the reported more than 1 woman an hour it still is a matter of concern.

The status of a newlywed bride in a typical household in India is directly proportional to the amount of dowry she gets. Physical violence also is a function of the dowry amount. Another interesting fact lies in the fact that higher a girls education higher the dowry amount.

On simple logic of supply and demand in today’s India given that we have a sex ratio where there are more boys brideprice seems like the more logical practice given the history of the same. However, the sex ratio in the marriageable age segment is difficult to determine for much older men marry women much younger. So any girl above puberty sometimes even earlier is eligible to marriage to men as old as in their mid 40s. This makes the women in the supply demand chain outnumber the men and hence, the practice of dowry. Also, most parents want their daughters to get married into a higher caste or social tier which demands dowry payments as BRIBE of sorts.

“Higher socio-economic strata are equally involved in such practices. Even the highly educated class of our society does not say no to dowry. It runs deep into our social system,” says Suman Nalwa, additional deputy commissioner of Delhi Police (Special Unit for Women and Children)

Dowry in earlier times was also looked at the bequest of the parents to the daughter as the law did not allow any right on the parental property to the girl child. Given this as the economy started booming post 1990 each daughter had right over more and hence the dowry amounts kept rising. This was flawed on two levels. One all the dowry was legally the ownership of the girl and not the groom’s family as it was perceived and often used. Two, the gender disparity in ancestral property and wealth required reform. Post 2005 the daughters have been given equal right in India and at least the second flaw has been addressed. However, in practice this still is yet to be implemented. Long legal trials make sure that the girl spends most of her life if not all of it in trying to get her right.

About 70% of the women in India are subject to some form of domestic violence, according to Renuka Chowdhury, junior minister for women and child development. UP and Bihar record the highest occurance of Dowry. During the period, 23,824 dowry deaths were reported in U.P and 13,548 cases in Bihar between 2001 – 2012. In fact Bihar has an informal rate card which dictates the dowry expected for a particular groom where engineers and doctors fetch the highest.

To my consternation, National Crime Records Bureau records (remember in India more
than half the data is not RECORDED)

 Crime against women – every 3 minutes
Cruelty by husband or family – every 9 minutes
Rape – every 29 minutes
Dowry Death – every 60 minutes

Despite the Dowry Protection Act of 1961 and its amendment in 1983 there is still a lot that needs to be done. Nagaland is the only State and Lakshadweep the only Union Territory which sets examples for the rest of the country with no reported dowry deaths in between 2001 – 2012.

If the institution of marriage was another barter then all were better off not marrying.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind