MUMBAI // It is supposedly illegal, but a spate of deaths linked to India’s dowry system shows the practice is not only widespread but shows little sign of abating.
Dowry is paid in the form of cash and goods such as jewellery, household appliances and cars to the bridegroom or his parents by the bride’s family. It has been illegal in India since 1961 but remains commonplace – with tragic consequences.
Women have committed suicide because they could not face harassment over dowry payment. Others have been murdered by their husband or in-laws for not meeting their dowry demands.
About 8,000 dowry deaths are recorded each year in India, according to the national crimes statistics bureau. Two women in their 20s committed suicide over dowry harassment on the same day last month in Gurgaon, a modern satellite city of Delhi, where the number of dowry deaths rose from 12 in 2015 to 20 last year, according to the Times of India, an increase of 66.7 per cent.
In another case reported last month in Hyderabad, a 21-year-old woman died after her husband and parents-in-law poured kerosene on her and set fire to her because of a dispute over dowry.
On Monday, a software engineer in Hyderabad was reported to have hanged herself after being harassed for dowry payments by her husband, even although her family had already given him land and substantial amounts of gold and cash at the time of marriage.
“Although it is illegal, the dowry system is still prevalent,” said Zeba Khair, a lawyer based in New Delhi who specialises in women’s issues. “I wouldn’t say dowry deaths have gone down in terms of numbers.”
A school textbook caused an uproar in the state of Maharashtra last week because it stated that it was more difficult for “ugly and handicapped” girls to get married and the bridegroom’s family would demand higher dowries in such cases.
Such an assertion not only enforces a deep-seated mindset but illustrates why it needs to be eradicated, say activists.
“It puts women in a very weak bargaining position,” says author Rochelle Potkar, who writes about social issues.
“Once you pay a man and his family for getting married to him, you may always be expected to pay more money. Since you don’t have money, you have to take it from your old and ageing parents, putting further pressure on them. It’s a never-ending cycle of unnecessary debt.”
Ms Khair said Indians who still adhere to the dowry system tended to be from very conservative backgrounds and were often less well educated, although the practice occurs in all segments of society despite the passing of more legislation in the past decade, including a law against domestic violence in 2005.
Subramanya Sirish Tamvada, the dean of IFIM Law College in Bangalore, likened the practice of dowry to “a plague” in Indian society.
“It affects each and every part of our society, whether you’re rich or poor,” he said. “The biggest problem is that neither of the parties speak about it.” Last April, 25-year-old Himanshi Kashyap, the wife of an MP’s son, was found dead in her bathroom. She had been shot. Her parents said she was a victim of dowry death. Her husband and parents-in-law were arrested on charges of dowry harassment and dowry death.
Under Indian law, those who give and those who receive dowries are liable to fines and imprisonment.
Dowries have traditionally been used in Indian marriages because the bride’s family is expected to compensate the bridegroom and his family for the financial support the groom will have to provide throughout his wife’s life.
Ms Khair said education was critical to ending the dowry system in India and the violence that emanates from it.
“The way out is only if people form more and more groups and we need to ensure that enough support is given to women complaining about this kind of violence” she said.
The police should receive more training in how to deal with such situations, she added. “It’s a social problem, so ultimately it’s up to us to reform.”
Another potential solution is to speed up the financial empowerment of women in India.
“As long as Indian women don’t take it into their hands to educate themselves and find jobs, they will have to compensate for being a burden on their husband’s home by paying for being liabilities,” said Ms Potkar. “It should be a compulsory matter of self-respect that they earn their own living, not a choice. Only then will we be able to overthrow this old and detrimental custom.”