Dowry System: Malady and Remedy
Indian culture is known for its traditions. Some of its traditions are very good, but not all of them. Dowry is one of them. It reduces the sacred institution of marriage to a business transaction. It degrades a young maiden to the level of a saleable commodity. It poses a threat not only to our society but also to our economy. In an era, where science, technology and industry have made rapid progress and mankind claims to be more civilized, dowry has become a part and parcel of marriage. Although it is one of the most hated systems, surprisingly it is growing day by day. If this evil is not removed, all our efforts and programmes for emancipation of women will be meaningless.
India’s social life has been vitiated by a large number of practices and traditions that are irrational and have seriously hindered the progress of the people. The dowry system is one of them. This absurd and illogical system is prevalent virtually in all parts of India. This is one of the chief causes of social tensions and has done incalculable damage to our social fabric. Marriage is one of the most sacred and holy ceremonies in our society. But the horror of the dowry system has made this ceremony one of the feared institutions. It mars the happiness of this occasion.
Dowry plays an important role in proposed marriages in India. Nowadays it is a major factor when someone gets married. The parents of the girl desperately move in search of a suitable groom for her. Based on the job position and status, dowry is demanded by the bridegroom’s parents. The bridegroom's family proposes the amount of dowry and if the bride's family agrees it, the marriage program is organized. The groom's father continues to place a series of demands before the bride's father. He strongly asserts that these demands must be fulfilled before marriage. The demands include refrigerator, colour television, motor cycle or car, ornaments of pure gold, money and plots of land. Bridegrooms are purchased, to some extent, like marketable commodity. In some marriages it is demanded as donations by the parents for the money spent on the education of their sons. The bridegroom can deny the marriage ceremony if he does not get the decided dowry. It is the worst aspect of this system. Its importance is not only in the wedding, but also in the couple’s life after the marriage. If there is any family quarrel the wife used to say ‘I didn't come with an empty hand, I came with so much of wealth to this family.’ If the girl didn't bring much dowry, then the husband or his family can say to her, that you came with empty hand and because of that our son is suffering.
The term dowry has various meaning. It is known as Dahej in Hindi. It is a gift made to cement bonds between two families. Money, goods or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage is called dowry. It is the payment in cash or some kind of gifts given to bridegroom's family along with the bride. Generally it includes cash, jewellery, electrical appliances, furniture, bedding, crockery, utensils and other household items. It is an investment to assist the newlyweds in setting up their homes. It is a stridhan. It is a symbolic expense used to celebrate the marriage in an appropriate manner. And it is a groom price.
The Dowry is an ancient custom. Many societies in the earlier days of civilization had such practices. It has a long history in Europe, South Asia and Africa. It is a common practice in many Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. An examination of the history of dowry system reveals that it is neither an exceptional nor a recent social phenomenon in India but it is an age old system and a peculiar phenomenon of the Indian society. It is deeply ingrained in the social texture of our country. Giving away a daughter in marriage is called 'Kanyadan'. In olden days no 'daan' was considered to be valid unless accompanied with 'dakshina'. The dowry was supposed to be the 'dakshina' to validate the 'Kanyadan'. Kings used to give even parts of their kingdom in dowry and common people gave a dowry consisting of articles of household utility and some cash. In the marriage-system in ancient India, dowry was not a demand. It was a voluntary gift of the bride's father. The bridegroom was voluntarily presented with some useful gifts which were not demanded at all. These gifts were given as tokens of love and affection.
How and why this system took birth at all? In the earlier times of Indian society, the daughter had no share in the father's property. So, by way of dowry the girl would get at least some portion of her share. Since a girl enjoyed no right to the parental property, the system carried some kind of a moral. Besides this, in those days, the girls were not educated so, this dowry could serve them as a back up support system in case of any emergency after their marriage. However, with the passage of time this same fine system has taken the ugly shape. Now the whole situation has altered.
While such practices in most western societies vanished with modernization, they became more widespread and inflationary in India. The supporters of the dowry system give numerous arguments to justify it. According to them, it is a fine method of setting up an establishment for the newly weds. But a bad thing can not be justified. The fact is that this system has become quite irrelevant. The serious form of so-called dowry system in India had developed into a full-fledged bargaining today. It has become a curse particularly for those parents who are either poor or have several daughters. It has been putting great financial burden on the daughter's family. For most Indian parents the cost of a daughter’s marriage is the single largest expense of their lives. Poor people have to incur heavy debts to provide their daughter with a handsome dowry. This wrecks them financially. It is very difficult to find a good boy for a girl without paying a high price for the same. Thus, whether a parent can pay or not, it has become a compulsory present at the time of marriage. It has ruined the lives of many a brilliant girls, because their parents could not afford to give sufficient dowry to satisfy their in-laws. Thus, we see that, a system that was at one time very wise and discreet, has taken an ugly shape just because of the greed of men and women in today's world.
Groom prices represent only one part of the burden at marriage. Wedding celebrations are getting increasingly lavish and are now almost as large as groom prices. Many authors believe that the giving and receiving of dowry reflects the status and even the effort to climb high in social hierarchy. Those who acquire a new and higher social status they celebrate more lavish weddings to communicate information to others about this new change. In brief, status signaling drives particularly lavish wedding celebrations.
The dowry system is like a cancer which can destroy the very fabric of our society. Instead of bringing solace, it only generates greed and crime. This has distorted the sex ratio and has given rise to sex-selective abortion. The rigors of this practice have caused a continuous and steady deterioration in the status of girls and women in our society. Nowadays the sons are being preferred and the daughters are considered as an economic liability and a cause of anxiety to their parents from birth. The devalued status accorded to daughters in the Indian society results in the growth of an attitude of indifference towards them in their parents. It is because of these factors that girls in our society are not given equal opportunities of education and training, etc. In certain families female children are regarded as unwelcome, unwanted and inferior. A family with many female children suffers from tensions and strains. This system is the root cause of discrimination against girl-children and violence against women. The dowry system is also an evil since it perpetuates the myth of male superiority. If a bride is harassed for more dowries, it may breed hatred in her mind for her husband and ruin the married life of the couple. Many accomplished girls are rotting unmarried only because their parents are unable to meet the heavy demand of the bridegrooms. The girls of marriageable age become mature enough to understand and appreciate the financial implication of the question and they also feel the pinch of their being regarded as an economic liability to their parents.The problem of dowry has become so acute that the parents are encouraging their daughters to woo the young men and to marry them by registration.
The last hundred years of women’s history in India has been painted black with dowry related incidence of murder, female infanticide and domestic violence. Cases of harassment of young brides and bride burning on account of inadequate dowry have multiplied during the recent years. Hardly is there a day when one does not read of dowry deaths in the national daily newspapers. Brides bringing less than expected dowry are ill treated by their in-laws and other relatives. Many of them cannot bear it any more and commit suicide. Those who do not have enough courage to do so are burnt alive by their husbands and the in-laws. At times even before the marriage, the girl is led to kill herself to save her parents from the trauma of collecting money for her marriage. Even after marriage, some brides are tortured and forced to bring more and more dowry from their parents' house. If they fail, they are tortured and finally killed. According to an article in Time magazine, deaths in India related to dowry demands have increase 15-fold since the mid-1980s from 400 a year to around 5,800 a year by the middle of the 1990s. In 1995, the National Crime Bureau of the Government of India reported about 6,000 dowry deaths every year. A more recent police report stated that dowry deaths had risen by 170 percent in the decade to 1997. All of these official figures are considered to be gross understatements of the real situation. Unofficial estimates put the number of deaths at 25,000 women a year. Many of the victims are burnt to death. They are doused in kerosene and set light to. Routinely the in-laws claim that what happened was simply an accident. It is said that the bride could not adjust to new family life and subsequently killed herself
It is not that our social reformers have not done any thing to eradicate this evil. Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chander Vidya Sagar, Tagore, Swami Dayanand and Mahatma Gandhi clearly perceived the pernicious effects of the dowry system and assiduously strove for its abolition. They tried their best to create a social consciousness against this practice, but their efforts met with little success. Gandhiji unequivocally expressed his views against dowry when he said ‘Any Youngman who makes dowry a condition of marriage discredits his education and his country and dishonours womanhood.’ The late Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi also tried to eradicate this evil. Nowadays several women's organizations have come into being in order to check this evil. Even our young boys and girls are taking oath not to follow this evil customs. State governments have also come forward with better legislation. Now taking and giving dowry is made a cognizable offence. Because of this evil practice, we have become an object of ridicule in the eyes of the other nations. Unfortunately, this practice is becoming more rampant today. Much has been done, but much more needs to be done.
From time to time the Government has enacted legislation to extricate the Indian Society from this great social evil. The payment of dowry is prohibited under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act. Despite anti-dowry laws in India, it is still illegally practiced. Instead of showing signs of subsiding, the system took deeper roots. Rich people are giving heavy dowry to their daughters. They do not feel unhappy at such crime. This system continues in spite of all steps to check it. Many Indian women still die or suffer serious injuries every year because of dowry-related abuse.
Dowry system finds its reflection even in the literature. Upanyas Samrat Premchand severely criticizes this system in his popular novel entitled Nirmala. Nirmala is a story of a little girl who is married at an age of 15 to a person who is 20 years elder to her after her first marriage being cancelled due to dowry reasons. Nirmala's husband tries all tactics to woo her but she has only respect and a sense of duty for him and not the love which he expects to develop in her.
William Shakespeare’s King Lear deals with this system. King Lear, after many years of rule, wishes to retire as a ruler. He is desirous to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Before the division he asks each daughter to spell out her love for him so that he may give her a part of his kingdom in keeping with the amount and intensity of her love. The flattering expressions of Goneril and Regan make him happy. Now he turns to his youngest and most loved daughter, Cordelia. He expects that her expression of love will far excel that of the two other sisters; but it appears that Cordelia has been greatly pained by the insincere utterances of her sisters. When the king asks her as to what she has to say in order to deserve a share richer than that of her sisters, her first answer is ‘Nothing, my Lord’. ‘Nothing will come of nothing’, Lear warns her. This surprises and irritates the king and he asks her to speak again. Cordelia then says that she loves her father, ‘according to my bond; no more no less’. That is to say, she loves her father as much as a daughter is bound by duty. She clarifies that she cannot, like her sisters, make a false claim that she will give all her love to her father. She continues reminding him that when she marries she will owe half of her affection to her husband. Lear is furious. He had expected to be flattered; indeed that was the purpose of the game. He answers, ‘So young and so untender?’ to Cordelia, who in turn says, ‘so young, my Lord, and true.’ ‘Thy truth then, be thy dower’, her father cries. One of Cordelia's suitors gives up his suit upon hearing that King Lear will give her no dowry. In Measure for Measure, Claudio and Juliet's premarital sex was brought about by their families' wrangling over dowry after the betrothal. Angelo's motive for forswearing his betrothal with Mariana was the loss of her dowry at sea.
Shobhan Bantwal is an Indian-American author. Dowry death in India is the central theme of her debut novel, The Dowry Bride. It tells the action-packed and emotional story of Megha; a young woman trapped in India’s arranged marriage and dowry system. In this novel she focuses the persecution of the bride Megha for not bringing enough dowries and her inability to conceive. When she was unable to get the dowry, her life was threatened. Her husband and mother in law planned to murder her. When she overhears her husband and mother-in-law plotting to kill her, Megha escapes and embarks on a rocky journey to save her. She escapes and takes the help of her friend. Despite the hurdles, she ultimately finds freedom, hope and a rare chance for happiness.
Now there is a great demand by the people that this evil of dowry should be eradicated completely. Total eradication of dowry system is possible only when the mentality of the people changes. A strong public opinion should be created against this evil. It can only be abolished with the active co-operation of the society. Social awakening is needed to achieve such goals. In reality a strong propaganda should be started against this evil by all responsible persons in the society. The Government should also pass stringent laws against this social evil.
The youth has a major responsibility in cleansing the society of this evil. They can definitely play a key role in eradicating this evil practice. They should take a pledge that they will neither demand a dowry nor accept it. The young men and women should stage demonstrations against those persons who give or take dowry. Girls should organize themselves to such an extent that no girl will marry a man who demands a rich dowry for her hand. They should become financially independent. They should not feel weak or helpless. Young boys and girls should not come under the pressure of parents. The parents of the girls should educate their daughters properly. If the girls are educated, they can find good husbands themselves. Moreover parents have to understand that their daughters are strong enough to earn their own livelihood and do not need to depend on their husbands. They should not consider their daughters as a burden and ‘paraya dhan’ for in today’s modern India daughters can support their parents just like their sons.
The educated people should think and realize how unholy it is to demand a rich dowry for taking the hand of a bride. They should know that it is immoral and sinful to demand dowry for the sake of holy marriage. While demanding dowry they should think of their unmarried sisters and future daughters. They should realize that dowry has never changed the fate or financial position of any one in this world. Educational institutions should canvass against the dowry system. Even children should be made to read stories dealing with ill-effects of dowry. People should be told how this system has weakened our nation. It should be installed in the minds of young men and women that to give and to take dowry is a sin. The Central Government should enact a law by which those young men and girls who enter into dowry-less marriages should get top priority in all government employment. The cases of dowry-free marriages should make the prominent news item in the news bulletin. The media should contribute to make people aware of the negative effects of dowry. This would encourage the youth to take the lead. A man demanding rich dowry should be debarred from holding a Government job, as in the case of a man having more than one wife. More love marriages and more inter-caste and inter-provincial marriages should also prove helpful.
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