India’s dowry system originated thousands of years ago, at a time when women could not inherit property. Parents who wanted to provide financial security for their daughters, who would otherwise end up penniless, bestowed a dowry to them when they got married. This gift of property, jewellery or other assets would be registered in the woman’s name. This was a marriage wealth-exchange practice that was originally designed to safeguard women.
Unfortunately, however, the tradition backfired. It led to a multitude of cases of domestic abuse perpetuated by the groom or his family on the bride. The motivation for this abuse is to coerce the bride’s family to give an even bigger dowry.
In extreme cases, the brides are even killed or forced to kill themselves. These tragedies came to be called dowry deaths. After a bride is killed, her husband, newly widowed, would be able to re-marry, thus obtaining yet another dowry. It became clear that dowries were not providing protection for women, as originally intended. Instead they were endangering them and providing a motivation for violence and murder.
The Criminalization of Dowries
The problem escalated to such an extent that in 1961 dowries were criminalized. The Dowry Prohibition Act carried hefty fines and even prison sentences for those who persisted with the tradition. However it was an easy law to circumnavigate. All one had to do was call it a gift instead of a dowry.
So the dowry practice continued unabated, camouflaged as a straightforward gift, and so did the dowry deaths. Thousands of women continued to be maimed or killed by families determined to acquire more wealth. This led to the introduction of new laws in India in the 1980s. The authorities were empowered to charge men or their family members for a dowry death. If found guilty, the sentence was prison for a minimum term of seven years.
Vismaya Nair – a lift cut short by greed
Amy Sood wrote an important feature on CNN, about dowry deaths in India. She tells the story of Vismaya Nair, a young woman who was found dead in the bathroom of her husband’s family’s home in Kerala in June 2021. Vismaya married Kiran Kumar in May 2020, after their families reached an agreement about her dowry.
“She was a very active woman, not only was she studying medicine but also she used to be part of the National Cadet Corps and represented the state in national camps.
She loved to dance, she loved to travel and fly.
(After getting married) She was restricted from using social media, from calling her parents, from flying, all because of this one thing — this dowry.
We gave him a good car, but he didn’t stop demanding for a bigger and more expensive car. We gave this much for her — what I earned working, my father’s life savings from 20-plus years of working, we gave it all for her life security. And only one year passed (after her marriage), and we lost her.”Vijith Nair talking about his sister Vismaya after her death
Dowry Deaths – An ongoing tragedy
Cases such as Vismaya’s are chilling, but her story is not unique. In June three other women in Kerala lost their lives in suspected dowry deaths. 22-year-old Archana burned to death, while 19-year-old Suchitra Tial and a third unnamed woman were found dead in their husband’s home in much the same way as Vismaya.
It is clear that dowry deaths are a horrifying reality of the patriarchal system in India.
“Legally it is banned, but it is a socially accepted practice. Nobody feels that it is not OK to give or take dowry, irrespective of the law.
We need to continue talking about these topics seriously in society. That is the only way people will begin to confront them and not forget about the plight of our daughters.”Sandhya Pillai, a trustee of Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre in Kerala
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