Dowry Deaths: Time to stand up and smell the stink!

Dowry Deaths: Time to stand up and smell the stink
Dowry Deaths: Time to stand up and smell the stink

Dowry System in India

Dowry Deaths: Time to stand up and smell the stink

This is one legacy evil that we neither need to inherit nor pass on to the next generation. It’s time for call to action. So can we make a difference? Oh yes we can. But to deal with the problem we need to understand the reasons of how and why it evolved and has been practiced for generations. This multi-part write-up will try and see if we can get a perspective on it and how we can possibly try and make a difference.

Origin of Dowry System in India – Who the hell started this anyways?

Dowry is an ancient custom with no records on when it started or where. There is evidence of dowry being practiced in ancient Babylon, ancient Greece, the Roman era and across almost all parts of the world through time. However, it has continued to be practiced widely in South Asia, Middle East and North Africa.

Dowry was meant to be the bride’s family’s payment to the groom / groom’s family as a financial security in case of the groom’s death or desertion. This wealth in cash and kind was to be subsequently passed on to their children. Over the years, this came to be accepted as the groom’s source of income and asset building through marriage and the focus shifted from being the bride’s wealth to becoming the groom’s.

So why is it still around?

Answer: Plain greed. India is changing fast and the sheer variety of material choices that we have makes the current generation aspire for more. The middle class is fighting to move up the social ladder and marriage is seen as the easy way to kick start the groom’s career. The problem lies in the expectation. From being a source of income expectation for only the groom, now the expectation has extended to the larger family to include brothers, sisters and of course the parents. Everyone is out for a slice of the pie. That’s the reason why cases of dowry related violence often involves active instigation and participation by the groom’s family.

Hamein toh beta hi chahiye! (We only want a son!)

Dowry is seen as both a cause and consequence of male child preference. India’s fascination for the male child is possibly one of the reasons why dowry is still practiced. Compare the desire for a male child versus the female child and you will see society leaning heavily towards the male.

So what’s the cause for this pronounced preference? For one, the girl’s father has to spend all his life’s savings to get her married which includes gifts to relatives on both sides, marriage ceremony costs and then the final nail in the coffin, dowry. It’s the sheer thought of this burden that most parents prefer not to have a girl at all. Where is the incentive for the father to educate and raise a girl only to lose it all one day in a must-do ceremony that society expects of him?

Beta se Vansh chalta hai! (the son carries the family name to the next generation!)

So here’s the argument. If the son is so badly wanted and needed to carry on the family name then shouldn’t the groom be compensating the girl’s family for giving him a daughter instead of demanding compensation in the name of dowry? Think !

But why should we be thinking of compensation at all from either side? Isn’t it a wonderful event to have a woman from another home joining the family… someone who will help the family grow! Isn’t that a reward in itself? Sounds too contrarian? It’s time we stood up and change how we think. If we can be man enough to want a woman in our life then we can also be man enough to stand up to support her and not look to her to bail us out!

Where do you draw the line?

Demanding dowry is bad enough but then to push it to the point of emotional and physical torture..? There is a thin line between greed and depravity. People are pushing the limits to get what they want from the bride’s family and the entire groom’s family is participating. Social evils have extended from just beatings and emotional blackmail to more direct physical abuse and torture and now extending to killing the bride! Isn’t this a wake-up call for society to go beyond the passive protest to an active one?

So how bad is it?

Look at the stats…According to the National Crime Records Bureau Report 2011 (Min of Home Affairs), there were 8,618 dowry related deaths with a conviction rate of 35.8! Cruelty by husband and relative cases were 99,135 with a conviction rate of 20.2!

The 2011 data showed that every five minutes there was one case reported involving cruelty by husband and relatives. Every 61 minutes there was one dowry related death reported. Every 79 minutes there was one case registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act (DPA). Smell it….it’s real!

Dowry Deaths: Time to stand up and smell the stink
Dowry Deaths: Time to stand up and smell the stink


What’s going wrong?

Plenty. Let’s take a look at some of the areas that need urgent attention:

The Law

The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, has undergone several revisions but its interpretation and implementation has a lot of grey areas and these need to be plugged immediately. Laws need to continually evolve keeping in mind the evolving social and moral values. The time lag to change in laws can be very expensive for society.

Role of the Police

Role of the police is a major issue. Those in uniform come from the very society where the problem exists. Old mind sets, lack of education, lack of social awareness, inability to change, lack of understanding of the law and subjective interpretation of it, gender bias and most of all lack of resources are some of the causes that prevents the police from discharging its duties in a free and fair manner.

Ask any father or mother of a dowry victim on how they had to struggle at the local police station just to file a case! Very often it is seen that the local police itself tries to influence the victim’s parent to avoid filing a case or come to a settlement with the groom’s family. This problem with the police cannot be addressed through procedures alone. The need to re-look and re-define our curriculum at school is extremely important. Unless the police comprises of personnel that have come through a sensitized system of education, this problem will not go away at the police level.

Extremely slow judicial process

From filing a case to fighting it to conclusion is a nightmare that no one wants to endure. Least of all an uneducated or semi-literate person from an economically weak background with no understanding of the judicial process and whose daughter has just been killed or harassed for dowry. Overall judicial reforms are imperative if this evil has to be addressed. The reforms are long due anyways. Hopefully, the incumbent government will have the political will to push for reforms in this very vital pillar of democracy.

Customs and rituals

In a civilization that has evolved over 5,000 years, the strength of our nation has been its social, religious and moral values that have held a diverse range of people together through time. The problem today is that the very customs, rituals and beliefs that have been our strengths have also been the root cause to many social evils.

Take a look at marriage: Marriage in India has always been about two families coming together and not just two individuals. While the concept of marriage is very welcome, the cost of going through the ceremonies and the social pressure to maintain rituals has only added to the problem.

Do we need to feed so many people to announce our marriage? What purpose does it serve except adding a huge financial burden on the bride’s family (as also the groom’s family for subsequent functions). Marriage is an event to celebrate and we must include our community in the celebration. But can it be done without the excess cost?

The problem is that we love to speak about issues but when it comes to our own marriage we start planning the same things all over again. What jewelry do we buy? How many people will attend? How can we make our marriage grander than the one conducted by the nearest relative, friend or colleague? Where do we host it? Where do we go for our honeymoon? Are we willing to take a stand and say No More? Think!

If funds are available, why not jointly (bride and groom) plan to invest the money that will help in future once the honeymoon period is over and the day-to-day fight for survival begins.

Hey! Let’s figure out a smarter way to celebrate so it’s a win-win event for all.

Education – the game changer

I have held back the most important tool for the last. Education is the only game changer. We need to revisit our educational system immediately and we need a national program and implementation if we have to address social issues in the long term. Every stakeholder mentioned above comes from the same society and unless there is a system of education that teaches a common minimum set of values that we can all share, we will not be able to build and retain a progressive society. A society that evolves in a healthy way in keeping with the changing times.

Education needs to be proactively provided at two levels. In our homes and at school. The child receives its first education from parents and therefore unless we ALL realize this responsibility and focus on moral education at home, we will not be able to build a society that does NOT carry legacy social evils like dowry. The school will have to take its share of responsibility in developing citizens and not just students.

Who do you blame for the practice of dowry in India? It starts in our very homes. The very set of parents that demand dowry become the victims when their own daughter’s marriage arrives. Behind every case of dowry there is also a mother-in-law or sister-in-law.

Mind set and beliefs don’t get changed easily and the only way to address them is education and awareness. Over time, these begin to take effect. It’s time we stood up and smell the stink. If we don’t take a stand today our daughter, yes, our daughter could well be the next victim. Think !


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