What is a dowry?
A dowry is a transfer of parental property, gifts, or money at the marriage of the daughter. Dowry is an ancient tradition found across cultures, religions, and time periods. It is not certain where dowries originated, but the custom takes place in wedding ceremonies even today.
“The custom is that you never go anywhere empty-handed,” says Santhosh Bhau, a Hindu Brahmin Priest. “The dowry serves as a gift from the bride’s family to the groom’s family as a kind gesture for welcoming her into their home.”
During the Roman Empire, the bride’s family would provide a dowry to the groom or his family to offset the cost of her living expenses. While it is commonly thought that a dowry is always given by a woman to her future husband, it is the reverse in other cultures, where the groom offers a gift to the bride or her family upon marriage. The dowry can serve as a gift to in-laws or insurance for the bride should she choose to leave her husband. It is something she can take with her in the event of divorce to ensure her financial security. Other terms for this exchange may be “bride price” or “bride wealth.”
Over time, it became common practice for families to exploit the dowry system all over the world in some cases. What was meant to be a gift and promise of security from one partner to another soon became a financial demand that resulted in broken engagements or divorce, violence, and even death for unpaid dowries. It is for this reason that countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Greece, and Kenya passed laws making dowries illegal in any capacity.
Today, the dowry has evolved into a more informal and casual custom across most cultures, especially amongst members of the African and South Asian diasporas. It is a way to keep traditions alive and pay homage to a couple’s culture(s).
Simply defined, dowries seem benign. They’re wedding gifts, usually money from a bride’s family paid to a groom’s family to solidify a marriage.
But peer a little closer and you’ll find a system as ugly and corrosive to women’s rights as child marriage, female genital mutilation and systems of male guardianship. In more than a dozen countries around the world, dowries are common practice. In almost all cases, the practice directly or indirectly oppresses women.
Oftentimes it leads to abuse and violence.
India is the epicenter of dowry culture, even though the government banned the practice in 1961, and the effects of the system are everywhere corroding efforts toward greater gender and economic equality.
Why is Dowry bad?
🔷Women are killed as a result of India’s dowry system each year. Sometimes a woman is murdered by her husband and/or her in-laws when her family can’t raise the requested dowry gift. Other times, women commit suicide after facing harassment and abuse for failing to meet the dowry price.
🔷 Women who can’t pay an expected dowry price or who are unable to make additional payments in the future are often subject to harassment and abuse. Other times, husbands or in-laws throw acid on a woman or set her on fire. “The violence ranges from brutal beatings, emotional torture, withholding money, throwing them out of the house, keeping them away from their children, keeping mistresses openly,” or in extreme cases, “burning the wife alive,” Savra Subratikaan, a women’s rights worker in New Delhi, told the Pulitzer Center during an interview.
🔷 Dowries make child marriage more likely. To avoid larger dowries, families often marry their daughters off as children. Globally, more than 700 million women alive today were married off when they were under 18. By 2050, this number is expected to rise to 1.2 billion, according to the anti marriage non profit Girls Not Bribes. India has the most child brides in the world and this phenomenon is partly driven by the dowry system. The younger a girl is, the lower her dowry price will usually be, so to save money, families marry off their daughters at young ages.
🔷 Dowries keep girls from being in school. To keep dowry prices low, families also keep girls from going to school, because dowry prices increases with each additional year of formal education. Families also view school fees for a girl as a waste of money because that investment will not be recouped by the family later in life. Further, girls are often kept at home to do labor for training to be better housewives.
🔷 Dowries maintain Gender Inequality. The dowry system dehumanizes women by treating them as property — goods that can be exchanged. To make matters worse, the system also casts them as a burden, rather than an asset, to be passed along — a bride’s family pays the groom’s family for the cost of taking care of the bride. So each dowry that’s paid reinforces a system where women are viewed as second-class citizens.
🔷 Dowries Lead to Infanticide. Because women are viewed as a financial burden on a family, many parents abort girls or allow them to die after birth. This leads to both to the chronic undervaluing of women, and a huge gender disparity. There are 914 girls for every 100 boys in India in the 0-6 age group, according to the 2011 census data.
🔷 Dowries Keep Women From Economic Independence. Dowries were once meant to help women achieve a degree of independence in marriage. A bride’s family would give her some money and this cushion would help her have some control over her decisions. Over time, the practice morphed into a system that encourages the dominance of husbands and the dependence of wives. India, where dowries are most common, has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force of the world, This is partly because dowries encourage the idea that a woman will be a taken care of by her husband’s family and she shouldn’t earn an outside income. It's sometimes even seen as an affront if a woman, after paying a dowry, decides to pursue a career.
🔷 Dowries trap poor people in debt. Dowries often force poor families to take out loans with steep interest rates, sell off their land to raise money, promise to pay dowries in installments, and other scenarios that can lead to crippling debt. “Families from his income group often go begging in order to give marriageable daughters a dowry,” Haji Mumtaz Ali, who heads an anti-dowry campaign told the guardian. “Other parents sell their farmland to come up with a dowry. And some parents take out high-interest loans from money lenders and get trapped with huge debts. Dowries also deepen class hierarchies. Wealthy families who expect higher dowries essentially exclude poor families from asking for a marriage.
🔷 Dowries discriminate against the disabled. The dowry system disadvantages women who are disabled or who have health conditions because a prospective husband’s family will often demand higher payments for marriage. A school textbook in the state of Maharashtra was pulled after people became outraged over a section that said “ugly and handicapped” girls will face higher dowry prices.
Dowries are widespread and oppressive — but that doesn’t mean the practice is so entrenched that it can’t be dismantled. There are women’s rights and economic justice movements growing in India that seek to abolish dowries. One anti-dowry campaign that operates in three Muslim-majority villages has brought dowries down from 95% of marriages to just 5% of marriages. But more needs to be done. The law explicitly forbids dowries, but it suffers from lack of enforcement. Global Citizen’s Level the Law Campaign is working to end oppressive laws and ensure enforcement around the world.
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Editor and Communications Coordinator
Empower Beyond Boundaries