Dowry Deaths – When Dowries lead to Violence and Murder

dowry deaths

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.

Vismaya Nair with her brother Vijith Nair
Vismaya Nair with her brother Vijith Nair.

“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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2 thoughts on “Dowry Deaths – When Dowries lead to Violence and Murder”

  1. 1. When did India’s dowry system originate? Any historical evidence?
    2. With what non-patriarchal authority was the dowry “registered under the woman’s name”?
    3. What evidence is there that dowry was “originally designed to safeguard women”?
    4. The “problem” didn’t “escalate” until 1961. It was already huge and probably grossly under-reported. The laws were passed in 1961 after decades of activism by women’s rights organizations. By the way, the Brit.s, when they were the “civilizing influence” colonial power, refused to make dowry illegal.
    5. The author (chit-chatter?) has picked up a couple of news articles, all from Kerala, without doing any deeper research. Kerala has one of the lowest reported per capita dowry death rates amongst Indian states and UTs (~27/36). It also has long had the highest women’s literacy rate, a democratically elected communist state government, a religiously heterogeneous population and pockets of matrilineal societies.
    6. Grade F+, for a sophomore paper.

    Reply
    • Dear Ranjeet,
      Thank you for reading the post and finding the time to write such detailed feedback.

      This is not a paper submitted for a Sophomore degree – it is a news item about a real case and a real woman who was killed. If you would like to read actual anthropology papers then I recommend you visit the Anthropology Explainers section.

      It is also not a political piece, and therefore comparisons to other states are irrelevant. Commentary regarding the ‘Brits’ is also totally unrelated.

      This is the story of Vismaya Nair, a victim of dowry violence, who so happened to live in Kerala. I would be grateful if you could focus on that tragedy, and not obfuscate it by coming up with useless statistics and pompous statements.

      Vismaya Nair is dead, and yes she was highly educated and had a professional career as a pilot – but notwithstanding that, she ended up dead because her husband’s family (who she lived with, so your comment about there being matrilocal ‘pockets’ in Kerala is also totally superfluous) wanted more money and a better car.

      These are facts, and no snide (and misogynistic) comments or sarcastic feedback can ever change the outcome of this tragedy. If anything, they prove the point regarding the aggression and misogyny that women have to deal with every day in India.

      Best regards,

      Ms Chit-Chatter

      Reply

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